The Room to Speak Up 💬

Lost in our recent debates on free speech is the context around what created the circumstances for you to speak up. As long as that context is missing, the discussion will always remain hollow.

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A decade ago this July, then-President Barack Obama said something that was quickly taken out of context and was warped into a political attack that seemed to undercut the exact point he was trying to make.

During a presentation where he highlighted the power of American infrastructure, Obama suggested that everyone benefited from the roads and the maintenance that went into those roads with a simple phrase: “You didn’t build that.”

The full context of what he said is here, but the passage in which the “you didn’t build that” line appears is telling:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

At a time when lots of debates about digital freedom are running rampant, where extremely rich multibillionaire people are mocking the very things they once funded with their venture capital firms, I think a lot of people need to be reminded of the full context of the original quote from Obama.

Was it perfect? No. It was extremely easy for his political opponents to undercut by simply boiling the speech down to its snappiest term. But it is ultimately a correct point, and one we should apply to our discussions about freedom of speech online.

(Side note about the link I just dropped: The idea of Marc Andreessen, of all people, critiquing the “laptop class”—a class his venture capital money arguably helped to create and he most assuredly profits from—is so absurd as to elicit mockery of the kind unfairly given to Obama a decade ago. Unlike the former president, he actually tore down entire classes of people with a single comment.)

Last week, when I wrote about the discussion of open vs. closed networks over at Tedium, one thing I tried to make clear is that in both cases of both types of networks, people were involved in making the decisions that created the final result, that allowed others to communicate on these platforms.

The problem is that, there isn’t quite enough appreciation for the weight that needed to be carried to build those networks. (Though some do.) And on top of all that, a lot of people simply don’t appreciate enough those that build the space to give them room to express their views.

If someone expresses a point of view that is edgy or controversial, someone else had to carry the freight that allowed you to make that point of view heard. That space—and the room to make it yours—wasn’t just handed to you. You needed the freedom, the context, the room in life to feel comfortable to make that space. And too often, not everyone feels that room in the way they should.

To paraphrase the former president in a way that contextually captures what he was actually trying to say: You didn’t create that by yourself.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: alarm goes off; damn, twice in a row, gotta work on that …

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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