Where We're going, We Don't Need Platforms....

When does free speech absolutism become moral cowardice?

Imagine you're throwing a party and somebody kicks off. It was going so well. You spent ages deciding on drinks and making a playlist, and now some blowhard is off on a homophobic rant. He's not holding back, either. He's getting loud and mouthing off with the vilest bigotry you can imagine, and people are getting uncomfortable. It's your party. What do you do?

What you do depends on lots of things. What sort of party is this? Is it your birthday, or a rave, or Christmas dinner, or a fundraiser for sick kids? Who is this guy? Did you invite him? Is he an old friend who’s going through something and is very drunk and likely to be very embarrassed in the morning? Is he the father of a gay son? Is he your father-in-law? Your most important client? Your boss? Your husband's boss? Your husband? What are the consequences of calling him out? Who gets hurt if you don’t? Are there any gay people in the room?

Are you sure? 

There’s no good choice here. The mood is already ruined. Doing nothing would be a statement in itself. It’s up to you, and you’ve got minutes to decide, and your decision matters.

So does context.  Are you throwing this party in a fascist, homophobic dictatorship where gay people are persecuted every day? Is this guy surrounded by people who are secretly waiting for permission for a bit of rhetorical queer-bashing? If you confront him, will other people be in danger? Character matters, including your own. How brave are you? How much are you prepared to sacrifice, or ask others to sacrifice, for a quiet life and the pretence of civility? How important is it that this party goes well, and is that still even an option? Lastly - this one’s important, so be honest, if only with yourself -

Do you agree with him?

All of these things are going to determine not just if you confront this fucker, but when, and how. There are plenty of reasons why you might choose to keep the peace. Some of them are more noble than others. And precisely none of them have anything to do with free speech. 

The rest of this piece does. 

This is my first post on Substack, and it's partly about why I'm on this platform, given that Substack continues to host and profit from the propaganda of, among others, transphobic hatemonger Graham Linehan. The best and most comprehensive breakdown of Linehan's behavior and why it's so abhorrent comes from Grace Lavery, also on this platform. I share her conviction that Substack ought to throw this deranged bigot out of their party right now, before anyone else gets hurt.

I said so, in fact, in my initial conversations with Substack. I also spoke with some queer creators and allies who have decided to leave or boycott the platform. I respect that choice. I made a different one, for lots of reasons, but mostly because I think I can do a lot of good work here, with the tools and structure Substack offers, and that that work outweighs what I’d achieve with a public boycott. Before I made that choice, I told my contacts at Substack that they ought to ban Linehan, along with anyone else doing deliberate, wilful, hateful harm to any oppressed minority.

I didn’t actually expect them to change their policy based on my objection. They’re libertarians. They really are libertarians, and I believe that because they know I’m writing this post and told me I had every right to do so, and I’m holding back on details purely out of respect for privacy.

I also told them that at some point soon, whether they like the idea or not, they’ll find themselves having to make an active moral choice about whose ideas are worthy. I said that the time is coming when all platforms and publishers will need to take a stand somewhere, and I advised them to start thinking now about how to do so with dignity. 

What does it mean, then, when a company like Substack chooses to host this sort of malicious hate speech- and to do so in the name of free speech?

This is a post about platforming, and censorship, and moral choices, and why they matter. The question of who does and does not deserve a ‘platform’ is a massive, active issue. So much of our political speech and action is now effectively also publishing- and publishing using platforms that function as public space but are owned by private companies. Every platform is now having to make decisions about what it will and will not tolerate, and those decisions set the political agenda and shape our social world.

It’s significant that most of those platforms are run by precisely the sort of people most likely, for all sorts of reasons, to be free speech fundamentalists. That includes white, straight, cisgender men who are far less likely to be personally harmed by targeted hate speech than they are to be disadvantaged by speech restriction; tech libertarians soaked in a specific vintage of California ideology which considers the freedom of the individual utterly sacrosanct; and Americans. Who are weird about their First Amendment. Sorry, but they really are.

Substack has set out its position on platforming. I think that position is nuanced, considered, and wrong. I am admittedly impressed by the company’s acknowledgement of how engagement-model metrics tear the throat out of public discourse. That's a significant structural difference between Substack and a platform like Twitter or Facebook which directly rewards hateful ideas because they drive clicks. Every community calls for a different model of self-management. The way you deal with a drunk swinging his fists depends entirely on whether you’re at a fundraiser or at Fight Club. But even fight club has rules. I know I just broke the first one, but this is my party, and besides, I hate that movie. Tyler Durden is not a fucking folk hero. I said what I said.

The first test for a company like Substack is whether it sticks to its own rules and honors its own values. Substack set out its own rules in a post in December:

From the start, we have set out to encourage a broad range of expression on Substack. In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity. …

We are aware of the history here, of how initial hopes about the internet’s ability to promote healthy and productive discourse have been disappointed. Look around you: the internet is broken. But we are not convinced that the solution lies in more censorship; nor do we think the problem is that almost anyone can publish on the internet. disagree with those who would seek to tightly constrain the bounds of acceptable discourse. We think the principles of free speech can not only survive the internet, but that they can help us survive as a society that now must live with all the good and bad that the internet brings.

The arguments about that particular vision of free speech have been rehearsed many times. Right now, I’m not interested in rehashing all the reasons why it's a mistake to believe that the best and only way to resolve conflict is to treat all opinions as if they have equal merit and encourage untrammeled free exchange in the marketplace of ideas. I could quote Karl Popper, who warned of the dangers of tolerating intolerance.  I could explain that the marketplace of ideas is heaving with short-sellers and stolen goods.

I could explain that fascists don't come to the marketplace of ideas to shop.

But right now, I’m more interested in asking why people think this way. What’s this framework actually doing for them? What makes someone clench down with white-knuckled desperation on the notional redemptive power of liberal debate? Why do so many companies and individuals and institutions hold on so doggedly to that organising belief, even when armed white supremacists storm the centers of government?

People believe what they believe on the basis of faith, not just facts. You can’t use pure logic to dismantle a defensive impulse, and you can’t argue down a trauma response with reason. It’s far easier to understand why someone is clinging on to an idea that obviously isn’t working if you consider what will happen if they let go.

With that in mind, it isn’t hard to see why absolute freedom of expression above all else might be a convenient thing to believe in. Convenient, and comforting -for all sorts of reasons.

For some people, the principle that all ideas have equal value, and that measured debate will always lead to reasonable compromise, is a shield against the realization that the world is worse than you imagined. Insisting that the liberal exchange of ideas still works protects you from having to face a world where the liberal exchange of ideas doesn't work.

And that’s not all. For people who are, for example, running a large company with responsibility for deciding who does and does not get to air their opinions on the world wide web, Free Speech absolutism is doubly convenient. It’s the path of least resistance. The great thing about a laissez-faire approach is that it doesn't require you to intervene, or make hard decisions, or actively confront difficult people who are likely to kick up a fuss when they're shown the door.

There comes a point when an appeal to Free Speech is just an excuse to dodge consequences and avoid conflict. I get that. I empathise. I love avoiding conflict. I’m a Libra. I hate it when people shout at each other. My trauma response is flight, I’m an airbender for gods’ sake, and I would do almost anything to keep the peace except betray my principles, and I long for a world where I never have to choose. 

But there comes a time when conflict avoidance amounts to moral cowardice. 

There are lots of reasonable arguments for maximal tolerance of political difference. There are also lots of arguments that only feel reasonable from the inside. I have a close friend who I’ve clashed with many times on the limits of tolerating abhorrent speech. My friend is a highly intelligent, empathetic person of integrity who has sacrificed a great deal in the service of anti-fascism. She’s also American. Which means she’s weird about the First Amendment. She proudly defends her country’s record on defending free expression, and the example that she uses is the same example I’ve heard a lot of liberals use, which is that America is so very good and free and tolerant that it even lets the KKK march. 

To which the only proper response is: and?

Is that actually an uncomplicatedly good thing? Okay, right, so you let the KKK march. Great. Hooray for you. You also let them do a heck of a lot of lynchings, for a given value of ‘you’ that includes the broad, brash sweep of American self-mythology, and a given value of ‘let’ that includes an awful lot of looking away. You let the KKK march, and you also let police officers beat and murder Black men and boys and walk free, and when their friends and families and allies come out to protest, your government comes out with guns. You let the KKK march, and you decided that anti-fascists were a terrorist group. Every community makes decisions, moral decisions, about whose safety matters. Too often, the people making those decisions aren’t the ones whose lives are on the line.

I’m not saying it’s hypocrisy all the way down. There are plenty of people for whom free speech absolutism is a sincerely held principle.That’s not in doubt. It just happens to be a principle that conveniently allows you to duck out of taking a stand, or drawing a line. If all ideas have equal moral value, you never have to make a moral judgement - or interrogate the ones you’ve already made. Sometimes an appeal to free speech is an appeal to innocence you have no right to claim. 

So where is the line between making space for everyone to be heard and enabling abuse? When does tolerance become complicity?

There’s no easy answer, and if there was, it wouldn’t be ‘just kick out everyone who causes a problem the moment they mess up, no further questions.’ That’s not a great party, either. No-platforming, boycotts and public call-outs are blunt weapons to be used in situations of extreme danger or last resort. Some people use them when they shouldn’t, and sometimes they do it because their threat model is misfiring, or because there are no other weapons to hand.

And sometimes they do it for less savory reasons. There are plenty of cliques who use call-outs as a quick and dirty way to shut down their enemies out of spite, or as an excuse for bullying. Being part of a pile-on has a bad way of making people feel good. It even makes you feel good about feeling good.

All of that happens, too, and it’s just another excuse for not doing the work. Refusing to distinguish between conflict and abuse is free speech absolutism turned inside out: another lazy framework which lets you off having to care about who gets hurt, or take responsibility. The first response to someone who makes a mistake or causes harm should be to call in, find out what happened, and see what repair is possible. That’s a lot harder than glomming onto a shamey hashtag. And that’s what differentiates a callout from the sadistic rush of what used called cancelling, before that term became a boogeyman for bad liberals everywhere about what happens if you stay up too late on Twitter. 

The only similarity between conflict and abuse is that neither of them can be rubbed out with one weird trick, or solved without effort, or empathy, or a bit of actual adult responsibility. I wish they could. I wish there was a simple rule that worked in every situation, because that would save us all the difficult, grown-up chore of identifying our values and acting on them. I resent that chore, just like I resent having to scrub my teeth twice a day, but if I don’t, the rot will set in.

It matters where you draw the line, but in the end, everyone does - even if they claim not to. If Grace Lavery, for example, was the active danger to children Linehan keeps telling everyone she is, I seriously doubt substack would continue to host her. That would be a moral choice, just as it’s a moral choice when a social media site decides to ban nipples but not Nazis.

Back to that dinner party, with the homophobe who is, by now, getting up in your other guests' faces and making himself everyone's problem and yours in particular. It's not just about free speech. It's about social context, and harm done. If you ignore him, if you brush him off by saying it's his right to express himself, you’ve made a statement about whose comfort and safety matters in your space. This wingnut is still shouting about how gay men are perverts who can't be trusted around children, and your best friend’s kid who just came out is sitting right there. You’re going to have to do something.

There’s defending free speech, and then there’s  dodging consequences. If you have a moral excuse for letting the KKK March, you can exempt yourself from or confronting the problem, or doing the difficult work of calling people out. Unfortunately, the same excuse also works if you want to let the KKK March because you’re one of them.

It’s so much easier to defend the right to express bigoted ideas than it is to defend bigotry.

In a world without white supremacy or transphobia or misogyny, we wouldn’t have to put a price on absolute free speech, or consider who might end up paying it. But we don’t live in that world, and if we don’t have the courage to make moral judgements when it matters, we never will.


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