Once again, amid the climate crisis and potential genocide in Ukraine, it’s Elon Musk’s plans - in this case, to buy Twitter - that fill the headlines. He wants us to believe that his messaging behind the move is political. Twitter has booted several voices, including former President Trump. Musk will intervene to restore all voices, Trump’s included, and with them, free speech and democracy.
His bid provides a window to see and understand three things about human rights and democracy that are widely overlooked today, three things that - if we act on them - might reverse how those institutions are currently degrading around the world.
First, the argument that free speech protects all forms of speech is something even students in basic political or legal coursework come to question and reject. If free speech is meant to enable self-determination, is allowing demonstrably false claims about election outcomes, or other undemocratic propaganda, equally protected? Do we have the right to yell fire in a theater, to defame people at will, or to freely distribute child pornography? No - human rights are nuanced to fulfill their purpose and allowing Trump or Musk to use Twitter to subvert democracy - or collective self-determination - is not consistent with the right. Musk represents the antithesis of free speech - one voice dominating so much media while others have no say - and the antithesis of the limitation and decentralization of power, and hence empowering of others, which is democracy.
Second, both Musk and Trump exist because of a universal failure to grasp and implement the nuances inherent in another human right - the right to have children. Properly interpreted as interpersonal, the right would have shifted wealth from men at the top and prioritized investing in equitable and sustainable family planning to build smaller democracies comprised of highly educated and developed people. Instead, historically, the right was treated as personal, which ensured continued population growth and the massing of wealth to a few men at the top. Our family policies created many people for shopping malls, rather than developing each person for a meaningful role in their town hall.
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Third, our historic failure to develop thoughtful citizens means many will not be able to understand the nuances of human rights. The average American reads at the level of an eighth-grade student. The second problem described above is exacerbating the first, pushing more and more people through failing systems of education and development. And Musk knows it - that is why he is pushing the idea of underpopulation, and policies that would worsen the problem. He wants more of the pyramidic power relations that created those like him, a birth-privileged white man who left South Africa during apartheid to expand on his privilege. He wants more people who believe that human rights and democracy mean doing whatever one wishes, rather than a collective system of obligations, like the obligation to have children in a way that protects future generations. That is also why he supports abortion bans.
What is the solution to these problems? It’s not too late to properly interpret the right to have children and family policies in a way that builds democracy, by giving intending parents family planning incentives and entitlements that override the property rights of the most wealthy, the concentrations of power that threaten our democracy. While the reassignment of rights is complex, we can certainly start the process through things as simple as reforming our child tax credit system.
The fight over Twitter involves a larger fight for democracy, one we cannot afford to lose.