Journalists Cheering On Censorship Is A Form Of Hate Speech
from the if-you-have-to-ban-hate-speech dept
We already wrote a little about a French politician’s support for the idea that Twitter should help the French government censor speech it doesn’t like. I learned about it because of a post by Glenn Greenwald, which is absolutely worth reading. Greenwald’s piece, though, focuses much of his anger not towards the French politician, but his colleague at The Guardian, Jason Farago, who wrote a column praising Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and her idea that free speech has somehow gone too far. Farago pulls out the typical arguments against free speech — slapping the US for “fetishizing” free speech, and then arguing that in this digital age where the riff raff can speak, it shows that the First Amendment goes too far. I’m not joking:
If only this were still the 18th century! We can’t delude ourselves any longer that free speech is the privilege of pure citizens in some perfect Enlightenment salon, where all sides of an argument are heard and the most noble view will naturally rise to the top. Speech now takes place in a digital mixing chamber, in which the most outrageous messages are instantly amplified, with sometimes violent effects.
This is, to put it mildly, both wrong and ridiculous in one shot. First off, it’s arguing against a total strawman. No one has ever claimed that free speech leads to a “perfect Enlightenment salon.” Quite the opposite. Defenders of free speech argue that you do get a lot of bad speech mixed in with the good — and that said speech has consequences, sometimes significant. Yet, we recognize that cutting back on that right to free speech is so fraught with problems that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes, in which speech that actually is reasonable gets stifled. Greenwald’s response to Farago is an absolute must read, but a few of my favorite quotes:
Nowhere in Farago’s pro-censorship argument does he address, or even fleetingly consider, the possibility that the ideas that the state will forcibly suppress will be ideas that he likes, rather than ideas that he dislikes. People who want the state to punish the expression of certain ideas are so convinced of their core goodness, the unchallengeable rightness of their views, that they cannot even conceive that the ideas they like will, at some point, end up on the Prohibited List.
That’s what always astounds and bothers me most about censorship advocates: their unbelievable hubris. There are all sorts of views I hold that I am absolutely convinced I am right about, and even many that I believe cannot be reasonably challenged.
Greenwald points out that supporting pro-censorship rules is more of a support for “mob rule” than Farago’s conception of the rabble speaking out and lowest common denominator speech having too much power:
Ultimately, the only way to determine what is and is not “hate speech” is majority belief – in other words, mob rule. Right now, minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago are happy to criminalize “hate speech” because majorities – at least European ones – happen to agree with their views on gay people and women’s equality. But just a couple decades ago, majorities believed exactly the opposite: that it was “hateful” and destructive to say positive things about homosexuality or women’s equality. And it’s certainly possible that, tomorrow, majorities will again believe this, or believe something equally bad or worse.
In other words, it’s very possible that at some point in the future, majorities will come to hate rather than like the personal beliefs of minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago. And when that happens, when those majorities go to criminalize the views which minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago hold rather than condemn, they’ll have no basis whatsoever for objecting, other than to say: “oh no, it’s only fair to criminalize the ideas I hate, not the ones I like.”
Greenwald then makes the claim that if we’re defining “hate speech” we might want to start with “pro-censorship” arguments as being the ultimate in hate speech:
Personally, I regard the pro-censorship case – the call for the state to put people in cages for expressing prohibited ideas – as quite hateful. I genuinely consider pro-censorship arguments to be its own form of hate speech. In fact, if I were forced to vote on which ideas should go on the Prohibited List of Hateful Thoughts, I would put the desire for state censorship – the desire to imprison one’s fellow citizens for expressing ideas one dislikes – at the top of that list.
Nothing has been more destructive or dangerous throughout history – nothing – than the power of the state to suppress and criminalize opinions it dislikes. I regard calls for suppression of ideas as far more menacing than – and at least just as hateful as – bigoted Twitter hashtags and online homophobic jokes.
There’s a lot more in Greenwald’s piece, which is absolutely worth reading. Farago makes a weak response in which he tries to argue that certain forms of speech are not about “ideas” but “violence” (as if violence isn’t an idea) and therefore should be banned. For what it’s worth, this both over- and under-estimates the power of speech. First it assumes that hateful speech automatically leads to negative actions — as if hateful speech, by itself, automatically is so convincing that people are moved to action.
Yet, at the same time, it assumes, that contrary speech — speech that rejects hateful notions and incitement to violence — is somehow powerless to compete with the hate speech.
This doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to put too much weight on hate speech. Yes, you can understand how speech that results in an emotional reaction — in that you don’t like it — makes you think that everyone reacts emotionally to the comments, and those who agree with it might be galvanized into action — but that’s reading way too much into one’s own emotions concerning the power of speech. If the power of simple speech can galvanize people into action, why can’t it also calm the storm, educate the ignorant, and convince the world of the wrongness of bad ideas? How can someone believe that only hate speech has power, but speech pushing back against it is powerless?