As much as the words "freedom of speech" and "first amendment" get thrown around on the Internet, the concept itself never gets talked about. In fact, I can't remember the last time anyone brought up free speech because they actually wanted to talk about free speech -- seems like people bring it up only when they want to scream some shitty thing as loud as they can and don't want anyone to get mad. I'm going to talk mainly about the Confederate Flag debate here, but I'm increasingly worried that this applies to every discussion involving free speech for as long as I've been alive.
On Thursday, TouchArcade broke the story that Apple was banning some (all?) games in their iTunes library that depict the Confederate Flag. Though the story completely forgot to mention the nine deaths that inspired Apple to make this call, it got picked up by Forbes, Ars Technica, TechCrunch, TechForbesnica, Forbes ArsniCrunch, Kotaku, and the general Internet hype machine, and the reaction many people had is that this is censorship and Apple is rewriting history, and also comments like this:
Except that's not what happened at all. TouchArcade and everyone who took their side don't actually care about free speech. And it's surprisingly clear why, if you go through the arguments one by one.
"They're Rewriting History"
Well, let's be clear that Civil War video games aren't history textbooks; they're entertainment, and entertainment rewrites history constantly. Movies about specific historical periods insert characters with contemporary values constantly, which is why Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot is an 18th Century southerner who is just all about racial equality, and Kingdom Of Heaven wrote their historical figures with modern, secular values, even though they lived during the crusades.
20th Century Fox
Not to mention that her face was probably covered in, like, gross lesions or whatever.
For a clearer parallel, the World War II-themed board game Axis & Allies doesn't put a swastika on the Nazi pieces, because winning the game as Germany shouldn't be upsetting. They're not rewriting history; they're just making a strategy game fun by ensuring nobody has to play as the avatar of human cruelty. And I'm pretty sure we've all managed to remember WWII pretty well. I mean, I learned about it in middle school. Leave a comment if I'm dating myself.
On a broader scale, many U.S. states have laws against displaying a noose in public, because it's a symbol of lynching and makes black residents feel unsafe, because holy shit it's a symbol of lynching, and in small towns with tiny black populations, it's basically the same as hanging a sign that says "Kevin L. Thomas, I am going to run you and your family down with my jeep (this is a legitimate threat and not a joke)" in your front yard. Are they rewriting history with that law, or are they being smart about these symbols in the same way a responsible gun owner knows when to say, "Hey, maybe I don't need to own an automatic rifle"?
"Perhaps I have overdone it."
It's the latter. That's the one they're doing.
"This Is Censorship; We Have To Protect Freedom Of Speech"
I wanna point out that Apple isn't the government. It's just a company, so it can't technically "censor" you -- it can only refuse to provide you a platform. But that's splitting hairs, because Apple is such a monster in the mobile-gaming industry that they can effectively censor people. But if that's really your concern, then let me just ask, where the fuck have you been?
Apple censors sexual content in apps all the time. They even ban apps that have anti-sweatshop messages because they want to avoid controversial political opinions. So why are people now using the Confederate Flag -- a symbol of slavery, oppression, and treason -- as the rally point for their Free Speech Army? Why not sex or political freedom or something not horrible? Theoretically, that censorship should've pissed off the same people for the same reasons, right?
And yet ...
There's a loose rule in comedy that says you shouldn't "punch down." The simplest explanation of this rule is that it's less funny to mock someone who's beneath you than it is to mock someone above you -- mocking a powerful, wealthy politician is going to get more laughs than mocking a child who was just diagnosed with leukemia (unless you're going for shock humor, in which case the joke is actually how horrible you, the comedian, are). I bring this up because I only ever hear the "free speech" argument trotted out when someone wants to defend punching down. Which leads to the last point ...