If there are two points worth hammering home on matters of free speech, they are that defenders of free speech must be willing to defend speech they don’t like and that the solution to bad speech is more good speech. I would argue that Western democracy as a whole can be defined as a political version of the Socratic Method, by which the electorate engages in public debate, constantly questioning the other side, in order to produce the most optimal thoughts. For those that value this method of discourse, it’s instantly recognized that it only works if you have opposing views. To that end, it’s imperative that we not only allow, but feverishly welcome, different points of view.
But this kind of thinking is currently under assault in America, and from both sides. The latest example of this is Twitter’s recent decision to carpet-ban an entire slew of accounts linked to the so-called “alt-right” movement.
The social media platform has suspended accounts of several high-profile users associated with the alt-right movement, CBSNews.com reported Wednesday. These include Richard Spencer, Paul Town, Pax Dickinson, Ricky Vaughn and John Rivers.
Spencer, among those suspended this week, has been a leader in the alt-right movement since creating a website for it in 2010. He’s president of the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States,” and has been described as a white supremacist.
Let’s get some caveats out of the way. First, Twitter is a private entity and can refuse participants in this manner if it likes. Nothing about this violates any kind of law. Second, many of the accounts in question did give voice to speech and ideas that are the most putrid form of racism and identity politics. This is not optimal thinking or speech. And, where accounts were used to actually harrass and abuse others, we can leave our outrage at the door.
But that isn’t the case with all of these accounts. Even Spencer, a leader of this racially-charged speech, has not been found to do any sort of harrassing. Yet his account and that of his website were banned as well. In other words, many of these bans appear to be motivated primarily, if not solely, by idealogy as opposed to any actionable abuse. And that’s a bad idea for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, it legitimizes one of the main claims of the alt-right movement: that it suffers censorship within the marketplace of ideas.
It’s precisely the perception of arbitrary and one-sided speech policing that drives so many young men toward radical, illiberal politics. On campus especially, but also in the corporate world—and now on social media—they perceive that wild and wacky things can be said by some people, but not by others. By useful comparison: On the very same day that Twitter suspended the accounts of some alt-right users, DePaul University forbade a scheduled appearance by the broadcaster and writer Ben Shapiro. Shapiro is not an alt-rightist; in fact, the Anti-Defamation League reported last month that Shapiro is Twitter’s single most frequently targeted victim of anti-Semitic abuse by alt-rightists. But Shapiro is a scathing polemicist and provocateur—an alumnus of the same Bannon-Breitbart empire that incubated Milo Yiannopoulos—and DePaul expressed worry that his appearance on campus might provoke violence.
The culture of offense-taking, platform-denying, and heckler-vetoing—now spreading ever outward from the campuses—lets loudmouths and thugs present themselves as heroes of free thought. They do not deserve this opportunity.
Bad ideas, if they are indeed bad, are susceptible to attack from good ideas. Unless we now think that American culture as a majority would line up with alt-right thinking, the only weapon needed against such thinking is a better alternative line of thinking. If we instead take Twitter’s lead and simply try to put a lid on speech we don’t like, it will only serve to solidify the feeling of victimization amongst those speakers, while leading others to seek them out to find out what all the fuss is about. Strangely, it might be Americans’ natural tendency to want to stick up for victims of injustice that lead some to join the ranks of those that would spread injustice to others. And this would be supercharged by companies like Twitter leaning on censorship, achieving the opposite result of its intention. That’s not a good strategy.
The other problem is that it’s difficult to cease going down this censorship road once you’ve begun. And if the arguments of small-“l” liberalism are so weak that they cannot combat ideas we think are bad, then our arguments are bad and we should think up new ones. But trying to silence others isn’t the answer. Look at every major step forward on matters of social justice, be it the end of slavery, economic progress, secularism or LBGT rights, and you will find they all have something in common: an opposition. It’s already been proven that good speech can defeat bad speech, and that good ideas can defeat bad ideas. That’s all we need. We don’t need to be coddled by our social media networks and we cannot win a fight we never are able to have.