Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all. ~ Lois Lowry
The last few weeks have seen some interesting drama within a number of web communities with respect to their content policies. Reddit continues to quarantine and ban subreddits it considers offensive. Github is refining its ‘Open Code of Conduct’, which empowers the site to take down repositories with offensive content, including things like using the word ‘retard’. Facebook has also long since banned hate speech, opting for a system that lets users flag offensive pages.
In almost every case, these policies are imbued with left-wing social justice politics. This is because there has been a sea change in Western culture on the issue of free speech, particularly among young people. The same teenagers that once lionized South Park and Howard Stern for constantly pushing the envelope have come to embrace thought policing.
Politically this generation has embraced the progressive campaign to reform social values. What we are seeing is a strategic shift where now this campaign is being waged coercively via laws, policies, and organized ideological bullying.
The Left Plants Its Flag
The interesting thing about this paradigm shift is what it implies about the progressive left’s sense of just how strong their hold on the culture is. Fifty years ago no progressive would even think of supporting things like speech codes or “offensive” content restrictions. From the Beatniks of the 50’s to the radicals of the 60’s, the young progressives of those eras stridently defended free speech at all levels.
Back then it would have been progressives that were targeted by Christians, conservative whites, and traditionalists for supporting things like school integration, gay rights, and women’s lib. They needed society to be tolerant of minority viewpoints in order to get traction. Now they believe no such tolerance is necessary. Minority, “extreme” points of view are not only to be condemned, they are not to be heard at all.
This shift in progressive ideology constitutes a major milestone – a declaration of victory even. They have won the argument on gay marriage, white privilege, feminism, and transgenderism. They have a powerful stranglehold on the public schools, universities, news media, and Hollywood.
No one can honestly think of the cultural left as being anti-establishment now; they have become the establishment. Tolerating open debate and dissent can only hurt them.
Reddit and Github practice censorship. To argue that it is not censorship because it is not the government doing it is to concoct a straw man. Free speech is not just about the 1st Amendment. The same people who link to the above XKCD comic would not have this attitude about women’s rights activists being attacked in India, or gay marriage supporters having their blogs deleted in Russia.
They would not say, “Tough! Free speech doesn’t shield you from consequences. It’s YOUR fault for being an asshole!”
They would instead condemn the censorious practices of Russia and India regardless of whether they were carried out by private individuals or the government. This hypocrisy is what disgusts me about the social justice left. They are the most passionate defenders of free speech when it is something they happen to support. Everyone else: Too bad, shitlord!
There Are Too Many Examples
Take the recent case of Mozilla promising to fire an employee for disliking feminists. The comments on the article are instructive. There are people defending Mozilla on the grounds that an anonymous comment “does harm” to Mozilla’s business, and it is therefore appropriate for Mozilla to undo the harm by firing the employee.
Other comments talk about how the anonymous employee must be “privileged,” and will find a new job soon enough anyway. How would these leftists react to a gay teacher being fired by a Catholic school?
Well we don’t have to wonder since it has happened recently. Surprise surprise, they are all critical of the school. None of them defend the school’s “right” to protect its brand from the damage an openly gay teacher would cause. I would argue that the school is far more justified because in that case there is an explicit contract that requires staff to endorse Catholic dogma. But alas, this is what the left has deteriorated to—identity politics and doublethink.
In the 1950’s, if the New York Times refused to publish an editorial because it argued in favor of school integration, we would not hesitate to call it censorship. In the 1960’s, if a woman arguing in favor of birth control was denied a right to speak at a town hall, we would not hesitate to call it censorship.
In the 1970’s, if a company fired a man because they discovered he wrote an essay in favor of multiculturalism, we would not hesitate to call it censorship. In the 1980’s, if a man were forced to close his bakery because he received constant death threats and crowds picketing his shop because he hung a rainbow flag outside his door, we would not hesitate to call it censorship.
Public Vs. Private Censorship
Government censorship is vastly preferable to the examples above because it is so much simpler to identify and rally against; neocons, feminists, Muslims, and libertarians alike all condemn China’s internet restrictions on its own people. When we normalize a voluntary, privately administered culture of punishing people for their opinions, we are up against a far more insidious form of censorship.
The goal is always the same – intimidation. Scare people into not questioning something too publicly. We should not embrace this sort of mob mentality. We should strive to be a society that tolerates all points of view without necessarily agreeing with them. We must stand for the maxim, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
We need not always be exposed to viewpoints we find abhorrent. There is nothing wrong with communities tailored to a specific culture or viewpoint. Echo-chambers are not immoral. It is fine if feminists, white supremacists, or Doctor Who fans want a space where they can commiserate free from critics and trolls. New ideologies and counter-cultures need such spaces (Return of Kings included), and there are plenty of forums, subreddits, blogs, and image boards that serve this purpose well.
However sites need to be upfront about this. Users cannot be expected to entrust their content to a site with a “case-by-case” TOS (That’s the head of Gitlab embracing ideological censorship. For the coders out there, I recommend self-hosting your code – don’t give guys like this a penny).
If you are going to rely on user-submitted content, you need to let users know whether you endorse free speech or not. If not, be clear about your agenda so that users do not waste their time building up communities that practice censorship. Unfortunately what tends to happen is that as websites become more popular and start worrying about monetization, they begin to embrace censorship as a “necessary evil.”
Large, successful web communities like Reddit and Github all started out being content agnostic. Tacitly they supported free speech, implicitly sending the message that people ought to just avoid content they find offensive on their own while only blocking illegal content (child pornography, spam, harassment, etc.).
Then both sites went through growing pains. Reddit had its row with /r/jailbait and Github had its feminist drama with its CEO and meritocracy motto. Both situations were an opportunity for each company to hold to its standards and fight for a principle. Both failed, mostly out of fear of bad PR.
The truly sad thing is that their fear was not unfounded. Github and Reddit (as well as Facebook, Google, and others at different times) all got beat up in the press for the issues mentioned above. We cannot be shocked by private corporations prioritizing their brand and bottom line above principle.
In the same way, we cannot be shocked when an employee keeps his opinions to himself when the rest of the company celebrates Obama’s re-election or the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
Looking In The Mirror
The fundamental question is: When is it appropriate to punish others for their opinions? Is it right to organize a boycott of a local bar because the owner is a neo-Nazi? I would argue no, but I understand that mine is the extreme position. I would have no problem drinking at a bar run by a Nazi so long as the drinks and environment were enjoyable, and I say that as a black guy. I think boycotting should be reserved for cases where companies cause real harm, not for speech.
I will eat at Chick-Fil-A regardless of the CEO’s opinion on gay marriage. I will continue to use Firefox no matter how leftist Mozilla becomes. If Mozilla does actually fire someone for holding an opinion they don’t like, I will go out of my way to avoid giving them money.
It’s also fine to vote with your wallet with respect to entertainment. You’re not obligated to pay Hollywood to lecture you about the evils of American culture and how great feminism is. Refusing to give your money to producers of trashy media is not censorship—it’s capitalism, in the same way that you aren’t “punishing” a lousy restaurant by not eating there.
Most people unfortunately feel that it is perfectly fine to make people suffer for speaking their minds. In the right setting, you can get away with expressing opinion X. In the wrong setting, expressing opinion X can cause you to lose everything. People must accordingly choose wear they live, where they work, who they associate with, and what websites they frequent.
Right now the progressive social justice mob happens to be the loudest and most deeply supported by society’s institutions. They are succeeding by blurring the line between speech and actions, asserting that politically incorrect speech is somehow “coercive” and harmful. “Trigger warnings” are derived from this idea and are popular in colleges that seek to protect students from scary ideas and disagreement.
Make no mistake: If we do not fight back, we will see a shift from privately enforced to government enforced censorship. Already we see some of it in England and Canada, where people can be prosecuted for arguing on Twitter. The social justice left most assuredly intends to make it a crime to disagree with their narrative on social and political issues.
Once that day comes, there will be no peaceful way to get back the values we have lost.