The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Sticks and Stones

Social media giants like Facebook and YouTube have decided that they can be the arbiters of what speech is free and what speech can be banned. As private entities they have that right, of course. But that doesn't mean they're equipped—ideologically, intellectually, or emotionally—to make decisions that control what voices can be heard and what voices must be banned. Censorship is almost always a bad idea, and current attempts to censor speech are no exception.

The case of Alex Jones is representative. Jones is a right-wing extremist, a conspiracy monger, and a bad guy generally, who often espouses hateful ideas. David Harsanyi comments on Jones and efforts to ban him from Facebook:
Jones, who has made numerous hateful and reckless remarks, should make any reasonable person uncomfortable. In this regard, though, he’s certainly not alone. And if Facebook is now guaranteeing a platform free of unpleasant voices who break their vague terms of service, they have lots of work ahead.

To some extent, I can understand how frustrating it is watching a bigoted conspiracy theorist who has destroyed lives be provided a voice on a large media platform. After all, I’ve been trying to ignore Al Sharpton’s cable show for years. Yet if I were running a social media platform, I’d like to think I would allow nearly anyone— minus those who threaten violence or otherwise break the law—to speak. It’s not as if users wouldn’t possess a block button. I can’t recall a single time in my decade using social media ever opening an [Alex Jones'] Infowars link. I doubt most of you have either. Even if you did, you wouldn’t melt. They’re just words.

And while the ejection of Jones isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t necessarily portend a mass expulsion of less extreme voices, let’s stop acting like conservatives are foolish for harboring some concerns about the incrementalist goals of would-be liberal censors.
And therein lies the problem. There are an equal number of left-wing extremists, conspiracy mongers (think: 9/11 was an inside job), and a bad guys generally who populate social media. They propose ideas that are truly extreme, they denigrate those who disagree with their world view using hateful labels like "racist" as if it was a description of eye color, they propose totalitarian/authoritarian solutions for everything from property rights to wealth transfer, they are objectionable by any reasonable standard. But that doesn't mean their speech should be banned.

The interesting thing is that the speech of left-wing extremists is generally not banned. It appears that only those whose speech runs counter to the progressive narrative (championed by many of the founders and executives along with a majority of the employees of social media companies) become the targets of censorship.

The danger is that voices that oppose the progressive narrative but are neither hateful or extreme (by any rational definition) will slowly fall under the "Alex Jones" label. And once that happens, censorship is the next step. Harsanyi continues:
Every day, contemporary liberals run around accusing Trump supporters of being in league with white supremacists and social conservatives of being unrepentant bigots. Republicans are regularly charged with propagating fascist views or attempting to literally murder Americans.

It’s implausible to imagine a future where liberal activists don’t demand Republican groups be deplatformed. We already see liberal groups targeting advertisers of popular conservative radio hosts and trying to have National Rifle Association, an organization regularly compared to terrorists, thrown off platforms on moral grounds. The slippery slope already exists ...

People struggle—or, more likely, pretend to struggle—to make a distinction between defending the value of free expression and defending those who use it. Arguing that it’s preferable to err on the side of more speech on a giant user-generated website doesn’t make you an ally of Jones any more than defending the right of The New York Times editorial board to hire Sarah Jeong makes you a small-minded racist. What it might mean, though, is that you’re more troubled by the prospects of authoritarian ideologues who believe speech is tantamount to “terrorism” attempting to dictate what our discourse looks like than you are about some media-generated panic about Jones.
Unless the speaker/writer directly advocates violence and murder against specific groups (think: ISIS), censorship is generally a bad idea. It turns bad guys into martyrs and forces their ideas underground, where robust debate and denunciation are more difficult to accomplish.

It seems that the old aphorism, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me, has been rejected by the social media power elite. They think that by banning "words" they'll eliminate those who might ultimately use "sticks and stones" to permanently silence ideas they don't like. They're wrong.