Free Speech Can’t ‘Cancel’ Truth

 


Photo by Yasin Yusuf | Unsplash

Photo by Yasin Yusuf | Unsplash

In many respects, my life is yet another example of the American Dream. As a bi-racial American, my life started in poverty and it could have ended there. But with a timely change of scenery, a bit of luck, and the assistance of many amazing people, my life prospects and trajectory would forever change. At an early age, my brother and I learned how to capitalize on opportunity. We would ultimately earn Division 1 football scholarships, play over a decade each in the NFL, earn Super Bowl rings, go to graduate school, and become entrepreneurs. Today, I work as a founder and CEO of HealthReel Inc., a health technology company that provides people personalized health insights and combats health misinformation.

 

I have always believed in two things: my resilience and our Democracy. As someone who lives at the intersection of health and technology, I am deeply concerned with how technology and social media have exceeded our biological and psychological ability to cope and make sense of the constant stream of information bombarding our conscious. In many respects, we are technologically moving faster than evolution. The Netflix created show The Social Dilemma has outlined many of the diabolical components of social media. It has magnified social unrest and the unfettered proliferation of misinformation has animated resentment, grievance and weaponized our gullibility in some instances.

Some in the media, some in politics, and our fellow citizens are using the ugly part of our human psyche against us. It’s a dangerous combination of confirmation bias, racism, classism, and a desire to be handed information while shirking our responsibility to seek out the truth. When we try to hold those aforementioned individuals accountable they immediately reference the First Amendment, and tar any form of accountability as ‘cancel culture’. 

The right to free speech does not ‘cancel’ our societal right to truth. We have all lost family members and or friends due to what I would call mostly non-violent radicalization from social media misinformation. The truth is their beliefs and actions are a form of self-cancelation and only they can undo this form of self-harm. 

The calculated pedaling of misinformation and conspiracy theory has begun to keep me up at night. These issues have always existed but the perfect storm of a pandemic, a contentious election, the Jan. 6th Insurrection, and widespread political ineptness has me more concerned than usual. No longer are truth, accountability, responsibility, and inclusion part of the equation. If these concepts mattered you would not have politicians pushing the ‘Big Lie’ about voter fraud to restrict future voter participation. By early February, 28 states have preemptively curated over 106 bills to limit voter access. That’s three times the number of bills introduced at the same time last year. These actions reek of the old Jim Crow South.

If we do not establish a higher bar and better standards from our leaders, I fear we will continue on this downward social spiral where alternate realities are accepted and peddled as fact with the sole purpose of sewing division and a “win at all costs” mentality. 

We saw where that got us. January 6th, 2021 was the culmination of conspiracy and anger leading to an insurrection. Many different sects of conspiracy thinking were present that day – disgruntled Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen from them, QAnon fanatics, and extremist militias like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies are spending time to track the most egregious criminals, but it speaks to a wider problem. History will not look kindly on those choosing to use misinformation as a matchstick and our democracy as kindling.

We must get back to our core principles if we are going to navigate the numerous issues that confront us as a nation. Demand truth, accountability, responsibility, and inclusion from everyone with a digital microphone. A false equivalence between factual news, opinion, grievance, and conspiracy has also taken root. It all got lumped under the umbrella of unbiased news journalism. It is not all news; misinformation does not carry factual weight. 

 

Giving misinformation cover under the guise of repudiation of censorship is the wrong argument. There is a reason you cannot yell “fire” in a movie theater if it is not true. People can get hurt. There is nuance missing between saying whatever you want regardless of factual basis and censorship. Words matter. How we use them matters and the outcomes associated with irresponsible word choices have consequences. Keeping a lid on censorship is highly vital but the scope creep of misinformation must have consequences for those that call all matters of word use freedom of speech and feel they are being censored when we call out their lies. This is just another form of repurposed misuse of ‘cancel culture’. Say whatever you want but be ready to suffer the consequences. 

I am not calling for nor do I condone censorship. People can “feel” however they choose, but that does not make a thing true or factual. The accountability and responsibility part of all this means there must be consequences for spreading lies and misinformation. The debt due could be social capital, occupational repercussions, and prosecution when people get hurt.

Our nation has its shortcomings for sure, but I still believe we live in the greatest country in the world. I support open debate, disagreements, and conflict. We do not need to accept all ideas and beliefs, of course, but I will fight for open discussion, recognition of our differences, and agreeing to disagree in the presence of truth. Often, many solutions exist for single issues, and it is only by having frank – sometimes difficult – conversations that we can truly come to the best solution. We need a whole lot more “and” in our lives and less “or.” If we can start here, we will begin to reassert some of the norms that have been replaced by the lowest bar in our republic since slavery and the Civil War. 

Do not let the invocation of “cancel culture” by those drunk-on power or tribalism misguide you. Those screaming about cancel culture are the biggest offenders when it comes to the pedaling of misinformation. Their victimhood is a smokescreen to stop us from holding them accountable. It doesn’t matter if you are a Senator, Congressperson, Governor, or actor. If your actions, words, or behavior are founded on misinformation or poor decision making do not blame “cancel culture.” Blame yourself. Figure out how you are going to make amends or apologize. 

Owning your mistakes, showing that you have learned and evolved will almost always get you a second chance. Apologizing is a key step in the healing process. However, it must be sincere. 

We have a lot of political operatives out there that say one thing in the morning and something different in the evening as if we are not paying attention. We must demand truth, accountability, responsibility, and inclusion from our leaders, the media, and ourselves. This is the way. 

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