I’ve been seeing more and more calls for twitter to ban hate speech. Hate speech is an ill-defined term, but I think in this case it includes racial slurs, sexual slurs, and in general remarks intended to silence someone, or make someone afraid, and to inspire those backward elements that thrive on the sort of ignorance expressed by racist, sexist, transphobic, or homophobic comments.
Asking twitter to ban users who say such things is a result, in my opinion, of a failure to think things through. It is the result of observing the harm these kinds of comments can do, and stopping there. I do not believe it is that simple.
I saw someone make the analogy that this was like being at Mark’s house and using language that offends Mark. Mark certainly has the right (moral right; I’m not discussing legal rights) to ask you not to use that language, and ask you to leave if you persist. The analogy, however, falls apart if Mark has bought up half the houses in town and wants to lay down the law in each of them.
We’re talking about twitter. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar corporation (15.7 billion according to Forbes) that has tremendous power over information. Facebook and Google—the other two giants in terms of controlling a lot of the information most of us receive—have already demonstrated a willingness to censor left-wing and anti-war sites. And now you are attempting to put pressure on Twitter to assert more control over what we can and cannot say, over what we can and cannot hear. You do not see this as a problem? It is not, in my opinion, a possibility that, were this to happen, many left wing groups and people would be accused of “hate speech” and shut down—it is a virtual certainty.
“You are not obligated to provide a platform to anyone who feels like talking,” I hear. That is a very seductive argument, but it fails to hold up. We’re not talking about my blog, or your Facebook page, or that person’s twitter feed. Quantity, as it does, has transformed into quality. Twitter is a fundamentally different thing than my blog. It has hundreds of millions of users and incalculable influence. We’re talking about what is, in effect, a public utility (and one that, in my opinion, should be in fact a public utility, but that’s a subject for another time).
Here’s the thing: every defense, every analogy I’ve seen to justify asking twitter to shut down hate speech, has come down, in the last analysis, to a defense of property rights. And yet, the most casual observation ought to tell you that we are now locked in a battle between property rights and human rights. If you must resort to a defense of property rights to bolster your argument, I beg to submit that you should either take another look at what you’re defending, or stop calling yourself a progressive.
The answer to hate speech is to strike at its roots: inequality and its bastard offspring, ignorance. This fight requires organizing—organizing in mass ways. In Boston, they did not have the city—ie, the police, the repressive arm of the capitalist state—shut down the Nazis, the people there, to their everlasting credit, did it themselves. Much of the organizing work in the moment happened on twitter. By demanding twitter act against hate speech, you are asking twitter to take a greater role in deciding what content is permitted; can you really believe that will not be turned against us? Against the next effort to organize against Nazis? Can you doubt that the state, and, yes, the Nazis, will ultimately benefit from that?
Free Speech (by which I mean the moral right, of which the First Amendment is a limited reflection) is neither some supra-historical principle that must be worshiped as sacred and placed above any other aspect of struggle, nor is it that set of nice silverware that we take out when certain guests are over and leave in a drawer the rest of the time. It is the product of long struggle by the oppressed to create a tool that will permit a platform for organizing.
Are there occasions for the suppression of speech? In my opinion, yes. But the question is less, “what speech is being suppressed” than “who is doing the suppression?” If it is the masses of the people, shutting down efforts by white supremacists, Nazis, and other filth to organize, then yes. Drown them out, shut them down! If they want to try the same thing with us, let them; we do not fear a test of strength, because the masses of the oppressed are on our side—or will be, if we do our job, and are able to communicate with them.
But if you are asking a multi-billion dollar corporation that already has immense control over communication to assert more control over content, you are, in my opinion, working against the interests of those you are hoping to protect.