SMG: The Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas

In 1644, John Milton wrote what would become one of the most important defenses of freedom of speech and the basis for what we now call the marketplace of ideas:

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

This is an important concept in media law and one of the key foundational blocks for the First Amendment. The idea that all speech is good and that we should have a free, robust marketplace of ideas because in the end, truth will win.

This idea came up in the news over the weekend, when the New Yorker first invited than disinvited Steve Bannon to take part in its October festival. You can see echoes of Milton’s words in the response of Malcom Gladwell:

This is a fairly common philosophy – that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that we shouldn’t be afraid to listen to people we disagree with. And the engine driving this philosophy is the notion that, as Milton said, truth will eventually win.

Two thoughts: The first is that this is an inherently privileged point of view. It’s easy for the Malcolm Gladwell’s of the world to see Bannon’s ideas as nothing more than ideas. They are an intellectual exercise, a debate topic. But that’s not the case to people of color, the LGBTQ community, or other disenfranchised communities. They suffer real world harm from the words that Bannon, Mllo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones and their ilk say and write. Truth will win in the long run, but what about the lives that are harmed while we wait for truth to win?

Second: The philosophy of the marketplace of ideas is predicated on the idea that truth matters. But what if one of the speakers is not interested in truth? What if they’re interested not in the truth but in mere attention? What if they’re not interested in what really happened at Sandy Hook, or the future of our republic, but instead just hucksters looking to for oxygen to stoke the fires of hatred that fill their bank accounts?

If they don’t care about truth, then the fact that truth will win is irrelevant. Which means the idea of the open marketplace of ideas falls apart.