Hiding the Youtube Comments: What free-speech means and why we must protect it

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment to the United States Constitution

There is no question about the generalized nature of internet discourse. In particular, YouTube’s rickety comment system is broken, inconsistent, unrepresentative and usually stagnant. Certain channels (though the minority) actually break the mold and encourage community building, education, and compassion. For example, the annual charity fundraiser hosted by the Vlogbrothers called “Project for Awesome” would not exist without YouTube’s platform. This year alone, the P4A raised over $1.2 Million U.S. dollars to donate amongst various democracy-chosen charities. They accomplished this in seven days, a feat which could not have been achieved without the conversations which took place in the comments.

It is my view that YouTubers who disable feedback on their videos do exponentially more harm than the (tendentiously) blunt, hyperbolic, unfiltered stream of comments that exist by default on the website. Speaking broadly, YouTube videos resist classification in the way that books do; no two are the same, whether copied or not. Each must be produced, distributed, absorbed, shared, reflected upon, and discussed to be considered “culturally relevant.” These elements of both books and YouTube videos allow for a flourishing, evolving culture that continually flowers and dies back in a perpetual cycle of rebirth. With all art and forms of expression, there will be positive and negative criticism. Without YouTube and its (severely flawed) comments platform, these environments of positive social change would not be able to exist. Without ideological debates, good ideas would be indiscernible from awful ones–at least in terms of a one-way path; we need a two way path of conversation; talking past each other is ineffective and potentially harmful.

Let it be made clear that I am not anathematizing any Youtuber in particular, as it is each channel’s right to do as they please within the YouTube terms and conditions. I simply implore all to ask themselves what the internet would look like without a method of feedback from others. It would be a ghost town, in my opinion. Social media is so effective because it allows us to be, more or less, checks and balances on the ideas and behaviors of those around us. Without comments, you might not have ever heard of that hilarious cat video or book to read next. Without a system of feedback, we all are talking into the void.

A message to be taken away from this is that, though no website has any obligation to provide a comment section, we have an obligation to ourselves to see what others have to say about an idea being presented to us. When Constitutional free-speech is thrown around in political conversation, many miss the implication of the First Amendment; the protection of free-speech not only allows you to speak, it allows you to listen. In fact, I’d argue, it calls you to listen first, and to speak later. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, “No special circumstances, no emergency, no unforeseen contingency can dilute the plain and straightforward meaning of those words or that phrasing.” The reason free-speech is so important as to be the First Amendment is because ideas shape the world we create. Listening to what people have to say, as opposed to living in delusion of omniscience and authority, is perhaps the best way to discern the veracity of ideas. Reasoning and argument, as I’ve written before, are perhaps the best tools humanity has crafted to construct a beautiful society.

The Internet is one of the first avenues we humans have had in avoiding reticence in our beliefs, to share our deepest convictions without filter, and relate to others half a planet away. To silence those who are engaging with the content–people–is to silence intellectual growth. If someone is posting controversial ideas, I tend to believe it is their obligation to leave the comments section open. Its that or they will be in a think tank comprised of one member: Them. To my mind, treating one’s initial ideas and beliefs as Godlike and unquestionable is intellectual dishonesty, parsimony, and despotism.

So a call to any YouTuber afraid of criticism or hateful dialogue: I am not minimizing the psychological effects bullying & hate speech can have. I’ve experienced both in real life and online; it is not fun. But we are mentally stronger than that! There is a reason someone has an opposing belief to your own. Teasing that reason out isn’t terribly arduous; it may have claws but, like cats, it’s likely soft and innocent like your own reasons. To resist criticizing those you disagree with is, equivocally, to not care critically about what they have to say. You don’t have to care about everyone’s beliefs, but you do have to care about your own. That, at least, seems uncontroversial.

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