Writing in the Guardian today, Jason Farago praises France’s women’s rights minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, for demanding that Twitter help the French government criminalize ideas it dislikes. Decreeing that “hateful tweets are illegal”, Farago excitingly explains how the French minister is going beyond mere prosecution for those who post such tweets and now “wants Twitter to take steps to help prosecute hate speech” by “reform[ing] the whole system by which Twitter operates”, including her demand that the company “put in place alerts and security measures” to prevent tweets which French officials deem hateful. This, Farago argues, is fantastic, because—using the same argument employed by censors and tyrants of every age and every culture—new technology makes free speech far too dangerous to permit:
If only this were still the 18th century! We can’t delude ourselves any longer that free speech is the privilege of pure citizens in some perfect Enlightenment salon, where all sides of an argument are heard and the most noble view will naturally rise to the top. Speech now takes place in a digital mixing chamber, in which the most outrageous messages are instantly amplified, with sometimes violent effects . . .
We keep thinking that the solution to bad speech is more speech. But even in the widest and most robust network, common sense and liberal-democratic moderation are not going to win the day, and it’s foolhardy to imagine that, say, homophobic tweets are best mitigated with gay-friendly ones.
Digital speech is new territory, and it calls for fresh thinking, not the mindless reapplication of centuries-out-of-date principles that equate a smartphone to a Gutenberg press. As Vallaud-Belkacem notes, homophobic violence—‘verbal and otherwise’—is the No 1 cause of suicide among French teenagers. In the face of an epidemic like that, free speech absolutism rings a little hollow, and keeping a hateful hashtag from popping up is not exactly the same as book-burning.
Before getting to the merits of all this, I must say: I simply do not understand how someone who decides to become a journalist then devotes his energy to urging that the government be empowered to ban and criminalize certain ideas and imprison those who express them. Of all people who would want the state empowered to criminalize ideas, wouldn’t you think people who enter journalism would be the last ones advocating that?
I’ve written many, many times about the odiousness and dangers of empowering the state to criminalize ideas—including the progressive version of that quest, especially in Europe and Canada but also (less so)in the US—and won’t rehash all those arguments here. But there is a glaring omission in Farago’s column that I do want to highlight because it underscores one key point: as always, it is overwhelming hubris and self-love that drives this desire for state suppression of ideas.
Nowhere in Farago’s pro-censorship argument does he address, or even fleetingly consider, the possibility that the ideas that the state will forcibly suppress will be ideas that he likes, rather than ideas that he dislikes. People who want the state to punish the expression of certain ideas are so convinced of their core goodness, the unchallengeable rightness of their views, that they cannot even conceive that the ideas they like will, at some point, end up on the Prohibited List.
That’s what always astounds and bothers me most about censorship advocates: their unbelievable hubris. There are all sorts of views I hold that I am absolutely convinced I am right about, and even many that I believe cannot be reasonably challenged.
But there are no views that I hold which I think are so sacred, so objectively superior, that I would want the state to bar any challenge to them and put in prison those who express dissent. How do people get so convinced of their own infallibility that they want to arrogate to themselves the power not merely to decree which views are wrong, but to use the force of the state to suppress those views and punish people for expressing them?
The history of human knowledge is nothing more than the realization that yesterday’s pieties are actually shameful errors. It is constantly the case that human beings of the prior generation enshrined a belief as objectively, unchallengably true which the current generation came to see as wildly irrational or worse. All of the most cherished human dogmas—deemed so true and undeniable that dissent should be barred by the force of law—have been subsequently debunked, or at least discredited.
How do you get yourself to believe that you’re exempt from this evolutionary process, that you reside so far above it that your ideas are entitled to be shielded from contradiction upon pain of imprisonment? The amount of self-regard required for that is staggering to me.
There’s no scientific formula for determining what is “hate speech”. It’s inherently subjective. Every comment section on the internet—involving endless debates about which ideas should and should not be banned—proves that, including the comment section that quickly sprung up in response to Farago’s pro-censorship column, where numerous conservative or “New Labour”-type Guardian readers opined that the real “hate speech” are the Guardian columns that criticize Israel, the US, and other western institutions they like.
If “hate speech” is to be banned, those commenters predictably argued, we should start with left-wing Guardian columns. That’s the same mindset that took this concept of “hate speech” and used it to criminally prosecute a British Muslim teenager for the “crime” of posting a Facebook message that said that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”—a message he posted out of anger over the killing of civilians as part of the war in Afghanistan. When you sow censorship theories, that’s what you reap, because nobody has a lock on what ends up on the list of “hateful” and thus criminalized ideas.
Personally, I regard the pro-censorship case—the call for the state to put people in cages for expressing prohibited ideas—as quite hateful. I genuinely consider pro-censorship arguments to be its own form of hate speech. In fact, if I were forced to vote on which ideas should go on the Prohibited List of Hateful Thoughts, I would put the desire for state censorship—the desire to imprison one’s fellow citizens for expressing ideas one dislikes—at the top of that list.
Nothing has been more destructive or dangerous throughout history—nothing—than the power of the state to suppress and criminalize opinions it dislikes. I regard calls for suppression of ideas as far more menacing than—and at least just as hateful as—bigoted Twitter hashtags and online homophobic jokes.
Ultimately, the only way to determine what is and is not “hate speech” is majority belief—in other words, mob rule. Right now, minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago are happy to criminalize “hate speech” because majorities—at least European ones—happen to agree with their views on gay people and women’s equality. But just a couple decades ago, majorities believed exactly the opposite: that it was “hateful” and destructive to say positive things about homosexuality or women’s equality. And it’s certainly possible that, tomorrow, majorities will again believe this, or believe something equally bad or worse.
In other words, it’s very possible that at some point in the future, majorities will come to hate rather than like the personal beliefs of minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago. And when that happens, when those majorities go to criminalize the views which minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago hold rather than condemn, they’ll have no basis whatsoever for objecting, other than to say: “oh no, it’s only fair to criminalize the ideas I hate, not the ones I like.”
That’s because at the root of this pro-censorship case is self-flattery: the idea that one is so intrinsically Good and Noble and Elevated that one is incapable of hatred: only those warped people over there, those benighted souls, are plagued with such poison. But once you empower the state to criminalize ideas which majorities deem “hateful”, you should not be heard from when that is turned against you and majorities decide that your ideas should result in a prison sentence when expressed.
And this—the inherent subjectivity of “hate speech”—is all independent of the virtual certainty that the power which Farago wants to vest in state officials will be deliberately abused. How anyone can even casually review history and feel comfortable vesting censorship power in the state is endlessly baffling to me.
At any given point, any speech that subverts state authority can be deemed—legitimately so—to be hateful and even tending to incite violence. The theory advanced by western censorship advocates like minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago is exactly the one invoked by Arab tyrants to punish and imprison regime opponents: that such speech is designed to stoke hatred and incite violence:
A Qatari poet was sentenced to life imprisonment on Thursday for a verse that drew inspiration from the Arab Spring. Qatari officials claimed that the poem, ‘Tunisian Jasmine’, by Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, insulted their nation’s emir and encouraged the overthrow of its ruling system. . . .
“The government’s initial reaction came in November 2011, when Qatari officials jailed the poet a few months after a video was posted of him reading ‘Tunisian Jasmine’, which celebrated the uprising in Tunisia that lit the fuse for the widespread revolt of the Arab Spring. In one of its particularly contentious passages, the poem claims ‘We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elite’.
That sounds exactly like minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Farago, just applied to different opinions. The first instinct of the British government in the face of the London protests of 2011 was to ban certain ideas from being expressed on the internet. New technologies can always be used to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, and are thus always the targets of censors.
It is not possible, nor probable, but certain—100% inevitable—that empowering the state to imprison people for the expression of “hateful” ideas will be radically abused, will be exploited to shield power factions from meaningful challenge. Demanding that Google or Twitter suppress ideas specified by the state is the hallmark of tyrants.
All tyrants believe they are driven by a core Goodness, but that doesn’t make them any less tyrannical. If anything, people who are so intoxicated by a belief in their own superior Goodness pose a greater danger to core rights because they so easily justify power abuses when done by them: “of course I’m against censorship—in the hands of others—but not when done to suppress the ideas I’ve deemed hateful”.
This is exactly what drove the bizarre controversy this weekend over a truly warped Op-Ed in the New York Times by law professor Louis Michael Seidman that advocated that the Constitution be ignored—not amended, but just ignored, discarded. Even those rights that he likes—such as a free press or the right of due process—should be followed only “out of respect, not obligation”, he argued.
But as I repeatedly asked those progressives who praised the Op-Ed: what would ever stop the state from imprisoning people for expressing views it dislikes or doing so without a fair trial—or what would stop a majority from oppressing those who hold minority political beliefs or religions—if there were no constitutional obligations to refrain? They are willing to endorse the abolition of such constraints because they believe they (due to their core Goodness) don’t need them, and because they are somehow convinced it will not be abused against them. That’s the same hubris, the same self-regard, as what drives the pro-censorship case.
Ultimately, nobody needs Jason Farago, French minister Vallaud-Belkacem, or Twitter algorithms deciding which ideas they’re permitted to express on the internet and which ones should be criminalized. Gay youth and women—especially in the west—have seen their situations significantly improve with the emergence of the internet (I’d argue that it’s due in part to its emergence as a democratizing force, but at the very least, even if there’s no causal connection, these trends obviously co-exist). Although Farago mocks the marketplace of ideas as some sort of obsolete relic of the past, it is undeniably true that arguments in favor of equality for women and gay people have triumphed over bigotry, not because bigots have been imprisoned, but because those ideas have proven more powerful, more persuasive.
Criminalizing ideas doesn’t make them go away any more than sticking your head in the sand makes unpleasant things disappear. If anything, refusing to confront them makes them stronger. But what is certain is that few people have done as much harm in history as those who deem themselves worthy of criminalizing ideas they dislike.