In a shocking turn of events, Elon has posted something on X that caused controversy. I’m not going to comment on what Elon posted, mainly because I didn’t see it or the aftermath. Due to many of Elon’s erratic decisions recently regarding X, I have been spending less time there and more time on LinkedIn.
But I did read what Elon said, and his response to the backlash. From what I can gather, Elon’s stance is that he made a short comment and didn’t completely explain his thinking behind that comment. Doing so led many people to form an opinion about him that he claims is untrue.
One of the recurring themes around social media since it started seeping into mainstream consciousness about 15 years ago was the value in being authentic. We were told that brands (personal or company) who are authentic, who are ‘real’ are the ones that will win. That people crave honesty, we crave authentic communications.
But is that accurate? Do we really want people to be ‘real’? Love him or hate him, but Elon is about as ‘real’ as it gets. He says whatever he is thinking, whenever he is thinking it. He is so ‘real’ and open with his communications that he often makes people very uncomfortable with what he says.
And I think that’s the problem. The problem with authenticity is that it leads to people like Elon saying whatever pops into their heads at any moment.
Now, as you read that bolded part, you likely had one of two reactions to that statement:
1 – You thought “Yes, this is it absolutely!’
2 – You thought “Wait, how is that a ‘problem’, and who is it a ‘problem’ for?’
I’ve seen people in media and online say some variation of that same point. That Elon thinks he can say whatever he wants, whenever he wants. A lot of people don’t like that. Watch this interview that Elon gave yesterday with Andrew Sorkin. I will warn you ahead of time, there is some NSFW language at the start. It’s a long video, the salty comments that Elon made that everyone is talking about came in the first few mins:
Elon Musk full interview at NYT Dealbook yesterday pic.twitter.com/DMPcTQhOsD
— Marcelo P. Lima (@MarceloPLima) November 30, 2023
What struck me about this video wasn’t Elon’s comments. Elon makes very blunt comments in most interviews like this. Elon is an introvert, and you can tell that he is socially awkward to a degree, and I think a byproduct of that is he doesn’t seem to filter his comments as much as most people would. Especially in the business world.
What struck me about this interview was actually Sorkin’s comments. I noticed he kept going back to this idea of regret. He kept trying to get Elon to admit that he regretted his comments. That he needed to be more careful with his language. That he needed to think more carefully about what he says. Sorkin repeatedly asked Elon if he has ever said anything he wished he had not.
I’ve seen other interviews with Elon where the host has chosen a similar stance. It’s clear that the interviewer is desperate to get Elon to admit that he doesn’t think about what he’s saying. The interviewer is clearly trying to discredit what Elon says.
To what end? I believe the media wants to discredit what Elon says, because Elon often says things they don’t want to hear. Elon often criticizes the media. And Elon is argubly the most influential person on the planet. People listen to him.
So do we want authenticity, or not? Do we want free speech, or not? I’ll be the first to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with Elon. He can say or do something that I think is absolutely brilliant, and 5 mins later say or do something that makes me want to delete my X account that I opened in 2007.
But at the end of the day, I think we as a society need to think about what we want free speech to mean. Do we want people to have the ability to speak freely, or do we want someone’s speech to be restricted? And when we discuss guardrails to speech, how do we determine where those limitations are placed, and who they affect? Do they affect everyone equally, or only the people who say things that we don’t want to hear?
I believe people like Elon Musk are gathering so much attention because we are hungry for honest conversation. We have gotten so far away from the idea of having honest and open conversations with each other, that when someone comes along that says whatever they want whenever they want, we listen. In a perfect world, Elon’s behavior would cost him a lot more than it does. Society as a group would push back and say “Hey Elon, do you have to use that language to get your point across? Do you have to be so brash, so controversial? It detracts from your message, which has some value. But by framing your message in crude and incomplete terms, the focus is put on you, rather than your ideas. Is that what you want?’
If we were truly in a place where we as a society encouraged the free-flow of ideas, even ones we disagree with, that would be the response to Elon. Instead, the response is either ‘You need to shut up’ or ‘Keep going!’
Our response is either to tell Elon to stop sharing at all, or to share even more. And the breakpoint for which response we choose falls on whether or not we agree with what Elon is saying at the moment.
That’s not authenticity. That is censored speech. And we need to decide which one is more important.