Yesterday morning I came across an article on a site called "ThoughtCatalog" (which I'll admit I'd never heard of) after I saw some people I know discussing it on Twitter. The title is Here Is Why It's Time To Get Tough On Hate Speech In America
by someone named "Tanya Cohen." It was ridiculous from the very start -- a poorly thought out attack on free speech, and inside our internal "writer's room" chat, I asked around to see if anyone wanted to write about it, including a few key quotes. But the more I read, the more I realized that it's satire. It has to be satire
. Not only that, but it's damn good satire
, because it's just stupid enough at the beginning to drag you in and make you believe it, and then, slowly but surely, over the course of a very long writeup, it starts tossing out ever more ridiculous ideas -- drip... drip... drip -- that just, gently, turn up the outrage-o-meter, such that many people don't even realize that it's satire. In fact, we ended up having a long internal debate on it (and others are doing the same on Twitter), with Tim Cushing writing up a Techdirt post ripping it apart as if it were serious. However, I've spiked that version and am inserting my own (because I'm the boss and can do that sort of thing) -- because this absolutely is satire, and it does a brilliant job absolutely mocking those who are attacking free speech at every turn.
Again, it starts out subtly, with garden-variety stupidity around free speech:
The recent controversy at the University of Iowa – in which an “artist” (supposedly an “anti-racist” one) put up an “art exhibit” which resembles a KKK member covered in newspaper clippings about racial violence – is a perfect example of why we need to implement real legislation against hate speech in the United States. The year is 2015 and all other countries have laws against hate speech along with laws against other forms of speech which violate basic human rights. As a matter of fact, international human rights law MANDATES laws against hate speech. Protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech is one of the most basic and fundamental of human rights obligations, and all human rights organizations worldwide have emphasized this. But the United States refuses to protect even the most basic of human rights, firmly establishing itself as a pariah state that falls far behind the rest of the world in terms of protecting fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms.
Hate speech laws are almost always a slippery slope to censorship, but I can see why some people find them emotionally appealing. But the idea that the US is a pariah state that falls behind the world on this issue seems a bit nutty and ill-informed. There's the usual quoting and misunderstanding of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. That's to be expected.
Then we get the expected (again, misguided) attack on the First Amendment. All pretty standard stuff for the playbook of those looking to chip away at the First Amendment:
Even in countries with weak hate speech laws – countries where people freely spread lies and defamation about minorities – you still cannot legally advocate or justify violence against minority groups, and absolutely nobody believes that you should ever be allowed to. But, in the US, you can. The US allows people to advocate violence, murder, terrorism, and genocide – even against minorities – all in the name of “freedom”. How is genocide “freedom”? Where in the First Amendment does it say that genocide is acceptable? How can a supposedly civilized and democratic society possibly justify allowing people to freely incite violence and murder against vulnerable minorities? As an example, there have been several cases of US preachers saying that LGBT people should receive the death penalty. In a civilized country with democracy and human rights, anyone who said something like this would receive at least ten years in prison for inciting hatred, violence, murder, and genocide against a protected minority group. But, in the US, this is allowed in the name of “freedom”. Well, guess what? Homophobes inciting the genocide of LGBT people is most definitely not “freedom” for the highly vulnerable LGBT people who already live their lives in constant fear of homophobic violence. How can the US possibly justify – from any kind of logical standpoint – allowing this sort of thing in the name of “freedom”?
Of course, "true threats" are not, in fact, protected under the First Amendment, so this is already misleading. Notice how the piece shifts easily from people saying absolutely loathsome stuff, to automatically assuming that this is incitement. That's a neat trick, and one that's used frequently. But in this paragraph is the first real hint that this is clearly satire: In a civilized country with democracy and human rights, anyone who said something like this would receive at least ten years in prison for inciting hatred, violence, murder, and genocide against a protected minority group.
That brings in the idea of criminally charging and putting people in jail for 10 years for saying bad stuff. That's nutty, but not so entirely crazy that it must be satire. But the piece is, as I mentioned, subtle. Whoever wrote it is playing the long game. You need to keep reading.
Next up is another popular trope of folks who like to smash the First Amendment: the "I"m a big supporter of free speech, but..." clause. Here's how "Cohen" does it:
Like any sensible person, I am a strong believer in the unalienable right to freedom of speech and I understand that defending freedom of speech is the most important when it’s speech that many people do not want to hear (like, for example, pro-LGBT speech in Russia). Freedom of speech is the core of any democratic society, and it’s important that freedom of speech be strongly respected and upheld. Censorship in all of its forms is something that must always be fiercely opposed. But we must never confuse hate speech with freedom of speech. Speech that offends, insults, demeans, threatens, disrespects, incites hatred or violence, and/or violates basic human rights and freedoms has absolutely no place in even the freest society. In fact, it has no place in any free society, as bigotry is fundamentally anti-freedom by its very nature. The human right to freedom of speech must always be balanced against the human rights to dignity, respect, honor, non-discrimination, and freedom from hatred.
Speech that "offends" has no place? Well, yes, there are attempts to create and pass laws that say just that, but people who understand the First Amendment and recognize the true meaning of free speech don't support that.
Okay, now we get the next "drip" of "this has to be satire" -- claiming that offensive speech is on par with murder, and just to push it over the top, a claim that, when it comes to such speech, we should suspend due process and switch the burden of proof to guilty unless proven innocent:
Civilized countries consider hate speech to be among the most serious crimes around, with many countries even placing it on par with murder. In some countries, people are automatically declared guilty of hate speech and other hate crimes unless they can absolutely prove their innocence beyond any reasonable doubt. The principle of guilty until proven innocent may seem a bit harsh to some, but it makes sense when you consider how severe the crime of hate speech is – it is a crime that simply cannot be tolerated in a democracy. Hate speech is not merely speech, but is, in fact, a form of violence and the international community has established hate speech to be a form of violence many times. Hate speech doesn’t merely CAUSE violence. Hate speech IS violence.
No serious person could claim this with a straight face and be in support of free speech. The drips here become too much. The satire has taken over.
Oh, then just for fun, the article goes political, by declaring a bunch of things fascist -- and claiming that political parties that she disagrees with are undemocratic.
But, in the US, fascist political parties like the Republican Party, the Constitution Party, and the Libertarian Party are allowed to freely exist and to spread their hateful ideology, even though these parties oppose fundamental human rights and thus have absolutely no place in a democratic society. What kind of democracy allows the free existence of un-democratic parties? No society that genuinely values democracy and human rights would allow people to oppose democracy and human rights. That simply isn’t how these things work.
At this point, if you haven't been keeping track, the drip-drip-dripping of satire is just so thick that I find it impossible to ignore, but others still aren't convinced. Still, I can't see how anyone could directly claim that a bunch of political parties, including mainstream ones, shouldn't be allowed to exist and that allowing such political parties is somehow an affront to democracy. There's no way a person could think that legitimately.
There's a lot more of this, including falsely pretending that the Innocence of Muslims
video was responsible for middle east violence, which somehow transitions into support for banning Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses
, which she calls "Islamophobic." I mean, now it's just into laughable satire territory. Figuring out a way to come out in support of Islamic fundamentalism book banning in a piece that supposedly celebrates free speech and democracy is a real trick. Only some brilliant satire can pull it off as capably as this one does.
The article then lists out "a way forward," asking for human rights legislation, with a list of types of speech that should be banned. Again, like the great satire that it is, it mixes in a bunch of ideas that some people might have sympathy for along with some absolutely batshit crazy ideas. Okay, inciting violence against people is one thing, but the proposed law here would outlaw anything that "disrespects" someone's "hair color" or "height." Also, "spreading misinformation, including climate change denial" is a punishable offense. Against immigration? Get thrown in jail. Jokes that "disrespect" the "dignity of people" are out as well. Any speech promoting "unacceptable ideas." I mean, that's straight out of authoritarian censorship handbooks.
And my favorite: "anyone saying that hate speech shouldn’t be against the law would be prosecuted, since hate speech is universally recognized as an injustice and a human rights violation."
Prosecuted how? With very long jail terms -- and the final kicker -- re-education camps:
Anyone guilty of hate speech – which should carry criminal penalties of 25 years to life – should be sent to special prisons designed to re-educate them and to instill values of tolerance, freedom, democracy, and human rights in them.
I mean, at this point, if you had any shred of belief that the article was still real, the use of re-education camps and the history they conjure
should finally and totally tip the scales. But just in case you weren't convinced, one more "drip" along the way:
This new human rights law will set up state surveillance of intolerant citizens, including those who voice anti-feminist views and those who voice overt approval of a totalitarian ideology.
I love it. The sentence eats itself. Proposing a totalitarian state surveillance system, claiming to track those who approve of totalitarianism.
There are a bunch of other bits and pieces that just add some icing on the satire cake. Here are a few:
The truthfulness or factual nature of statements should not matter.
These laws would not apply to members of vulnerable minority groups.
... anger against police is something that can certainly be justified, while inciting hatred or violence against LGBT people is something that can never be justified in any way and has absolutely no place in a free and civilized democracy.
Every single man, woman, and child outside of the US strongly supports laws against hate speech.
America’s Orwellian notion of “freedom of speech"....
And, of course, it ends in a full Godwin
Otherwise, we are truly no better than Nazi Germany was.
There are many other clues. The "author" of the piece, "Tanya Cohen," didn't exist online until the new year. Her Twitter feed
is more of the same. And she also has a single post, from January 1st on Daily Kos, attacking Reddit
for being "a home for numerous racists, misogynists, homophobes, transphobes, and other bigots." Thought Catalog, meanwhile, is a site that claims, proudly, that it enjoys publishing offensive content.
Which would make it an odd place to go to publish a piece saying that publishing offensive content should net you 25 years in jail and re-education camps.
I recognize that some people -- including plenty I know and respect -- still aren't convinced that it's satire. But reading through the whole thing, looking for clues has to leave you convinced that it is, without a doubt, a satirical take, from a free speech supporter trying to mock all of the tropes of the "I'm all for free speech, but..." camp, while slowly dropping more and more hints that it's satire, by making it more and more ridiculous and extreme, and including increasingly insane ideas. In the classic tradition of satire, this one sucks you in. It starts with a stupid premise, but one that is plausible because we've seen it being argued. But then it keeps twisting deeper and deeper into the crazy, such that if you're not paying attention, you might actually believe it. If you don't take a second to step back, you might miss just how brilliant a satire it is.
Or, maybe it's all real and someone really is that screwed up. But you'll have to send me to prison and a re-education camp to convince me that anyone could really think such thoughts seriously.