Talk back: Why should we have more restrictions on "harmful" speech on social media?

Dear all,

This is a different sort of blog post.

Rather than me writing yet another essay to you, I want to open the floor to you. I want you to answer something for me. It's like the subreddit "Change My View."

This is aimed specifically at my liberal and progressive friends who are very upset at the social media giants for letting things get so out of hand. See how much of the following applies to you:

You have become increasingly aware of how awful the harassment of women and minorities by the far right has become. You are really, sincerely worried that they have elected Trump, who isn't just a crass clown (many people agree with that) but basically a proto-fascist. You are convinced that Trump must have gotten elected because of the growing popularity of right-wing extremists. They engage in hate speech. Not only is this why Trump was elected, it's why people are constantly at each other's throats today, and why there has been domestic terrorism and mass murder by the right. Therefore, all mature, intelligent observers seem to agree that we need to rein in online hate speech and harmful speech.

I've heard all of this a lot, because I've sought it out in an attempt to understand it—because it freaks me out. Here's the thing: I think it's mostly bullshit. Yes, people (of all political stripes) have gotten nastier, maybe. I didn't vote for Trump and I dislike him. But beyond that, I think the entire line above isn't just annoyingly wrong, it's downright scary. This is largely because I have always greatly valued free speech and this above-summarized mindset has put free speech (and hence other basic liberal democratic/small-r republican values) at risk.

But I'm not going to elaborate my view further now; I mention it only to explain why I want your view first. I'll save an elaboration of my view in a response to you. What I hope you'll do, if you agree with the bold bit above, is to explain your sincere, considered position. Do your best to persuade me. Then, sometime in the next week or two, I'll do my best to persuade you, incorporating all the main points in your replies (assuming I get enough replies).

So please answer: Why should we more aggressively prevent harmful or hate speech, or ban people who engage in such speech, on social media? The "why" is the thing I'm interested in. Don't answer the question, please, if you don't agree with the premise of the question.

Here are some sub-questions you might cover:

  1. Did you used to care more about free speech? What has changed your mind about the relative importance of it?
  2. Do you agree with the claim, "Hate speech is not free speech"? Why?
  3. Exactly where did my "Free Speech Credo" go wrong?
  4. If all you want to say is that "free speech" only restricts government action, and that you don't think corporate actions can constitute censorship, but please also explain any thoughts you have about why it is so important
  5. If you're American and you want Uncle Sam to restrict hate speech, why do you think the law can and should be changed now, after allowing it for so many years? (Surely you don't think Americans are more racist than they were 50 years ago.)
  6. Does it bother you that "hate speech" is very vague and that its application seems to have grown over the years?
  7. If hate speech on the big social media sites bothers you enough to want to get rid of it, what's your stance toward blogs and forums where racists (or people who want to call racists) congregate?
  8. Where should it end, generally speaking? Would you want the National Review banned? Don't just say, "Don't be ridiculous." If that's ridiculous, then where do you draw the line between, for example, banning Paul Joseph Watson from Facebook and using government power to take down a conservative opinion journal?
  9. By the way, do you think it's possible for conservatives and libertarians to be decent people? Honest? Intelligent? Do you think they are all racists? Do you think that articulating all or many conservative or libertarian positions is essentially racist or harmful speech?

Basically, if enough people answer these questions (one or all), I think that'll give me an idea of how your mind actually works as you think this stuff through. This will enable me to craft the most interesting response to you. I want to understand your actual views fully—i.e., not (necessarily) some academic theory, but your real, on-the-ground, down-to-earth views that results in your political stance.

The Antivitist Trend in the West

Recent events have suggested that there is a trend afoot in the West: that life is overrated and that death is not so bad. Call it, for lack of a better term, antivitism (from Latin vita, life).

I'm not saying there's a "death cult." But there is evidence of a rather odd trend that seems to celebrates death or at least that greatly undervalues life. By the end of this post I'll have a fuller account of the attitude in hand. This attitude may be seen most often among certain young but world-weary activists. I don't mean just the young and activist, but one less often sees this view among older people, with healthy children, and the politically apathetic.

"All right, what are you on about, Sanger?" you ask.

Well, I'll tell you.

First let's consider euthanasia. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that euthanasia advocates are a "death cult." Insofar as euthanasia is strictly an end-of-life "palliative care" decision and it is passive euthanasia (i.e., the doctor doesn't actually flip the switch), this doesn't seem to valorize death or devalue life. It is euthanasia for depression—especially active euthanasia, and even more especially for the young—that would essentially encourage the most fragile among us to give up, to stop living, and to entertain the strange fantasy that dying is OK. Death is preferable, such people say, pretending that they are being sensitive (because all their views are driven by a desire to be sensitive) because it is merciful. Never mind that we're talking about killing; it's sensitive killing, and if you aren't on board, you just don't understand. The suggestion is that life couldn't improve, so killing yourself (even if you're quite young) can be preferable—if that's what you decide.

The appalling recent case of Noa Pothoven is illustrative. Noa, a 17-year-old victim of repeated sexual assault, killed herself slowly, by not eating or drinking, while her parents and doctors stood by idly. That this was allowed to happen might be written off as a weird Dutch excess. But while people around the world were wringing their hands about the horror, another surprisingly large or at least loud group of people, also quite international, complained bitterly that people were calling this "euthanasia," as if this label particularly mattered. This semantic dispute went proxy for the real issue: should minors be allowed to kill themselves just because they're depressed? The answer should be obvious, but for that strange coterie of "antivitists," death was a sad, tragic, but very welcome blessing for Noa. Her parents and doctors did, the antivitists affirm, just what they should have done: stand by idly while she killed herself.

Only a failure to properly value life and its possibilities, and by comparison to positively value death, could lead one to such a position.

So now perhaps you have an idea of what I mean. Some might immediately want to add abortion to the list of antivitist positions. I'm not so sure. Perhaps it isn't fair to call all abortion advocates "antivitists." The pro-life (or anti-abortion) argument here is that a newly-gestating life in the womb is a human life, though not a sentient one, and all human life has a right to live, and snuffing that life out is murder. The killing of a fetus for the convenience of the mother strikes some with great horror.

My view on this, which I don't hold to very strongly, is that abortion in the first few months is easier to dismiss because the fetus cannot even feel pain. However that might be, abortion after viability is very problematic for me, and for most people. After that point, you must twist yourself in logical knots if you wish the deny the obvious fact that there is a baby that with as much ease could be born into the world as killed (though at much greater expense afterward, if allowed to live). Such "late-term" or "third trimester" abortions shows considerable contempt for that little life, particularly when the mother's life is not at risk. Late-term abortions make up a very small percentage, just 1.3%, of all abortions in the U.S.; but if they should be considered murder, that would still be 35 murders per day in the U.S.

However that might be, I certainly think favoring genuine infanticide can qualify you as an antivitist. Even in this case there are exceptions: there are certain cases of babies born brain dead, who will never be sentient or who will never know anything but pain. Killing them is more uncontroversially a mercy when—though it is horribly tragic—there is nothing worth calling a human life that could have been preserved. Peter Singer highlights these sorts of cases. But on my view, obviously, not all birth defects qualify, and certainly the convenience of the mother does not qualify.

But has anyone maintained that outright infanticide of healthy infants, just because the mother doesn't want a baby, is acceptable? Well, it's 2019, so I suspect you won't be surprised when I tell you the answer is yes. It's not just campus dudebros who apparently think so. If you want to do a more serious search for answers to this question that don't take the form of Republicans trash-talking Democrats for favoring late-term abortion, don't call it "infanticide." Call it "neonaticide"; the Chicago Tribune reported that "a conservative estimate puts the incidence of neonaticide in the U.S. at 150 to 300 annually." It so happens that this crime was defended by two freshly-minted Ph.D. ethicists back in 2012; their term for it was the chillingly clinical-sounding "after-birth abortion," maintaining that newborns should be permitted to be killed if their mothers don't want them.

Fortunately, the view never really caught on—unless you wanted to count the aforementioned people who support the killing of viable babies who were extracted from the uterus in order to be killed (i.e., they would survive if they weren't killed). There would seem to be quite a few of such people, though such people disagree with the "infanticide" epithet.

Clearly, it seems to matter what you call the killing of babies.

Now, I am aware that I keep using a formulation that must sound uncharitable and paradoxical, if not absurd: that some positively prefer, celebrate, or valorize...death. Is that just rhetorical excess on my part? Maybe. But it certainly isn't excess in the case of the very best example of antivitists: antinatalists. As the Collins Dictionary has it, antinatalism is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." They really do dislike life, or at least new life. They think that to be born is to be harmed. Look at how philosopher David Benatar's book title has it: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

As interesting as this might be, I'm not going to discuss it in great depth, partly because it isn't really a massive movement and partly because I don't feel like debunking easily-debunked philosophical nonsense. The point is that there really is a small minority of people—mostly young and sad people (on Reddit, 80% are under 26 and 59% depressed or suicidal)—who take the position that life is simply a bad thing, and that death would be better, or as Benatar puts it, it would be better never to have been born. These people must really dislike It's a Wonderful Life (one of my very favorite movies). In it, the angel Clarence disabuses the hapless George of his belief that it would be better if he had never been born.

Along these lines, I would be remiss not to mention those who do not want to procreate; I refer to the childfree movement. Their Reddit group is much larger than the antinatalist one, though they are philosophically largely in alignment. In fairness, most of these people simply want society (especially their own parents) to stop bothering them with expectations to procreate. Of course they're not necessarily antivitists, let alone part of a "death cult."

But a sizeable number of people in the movement do believe it is positively wrong to procreate; and they take this seriously, going so far as to declare quite unashamedly that they hate children. This is the populist side of antinatalism. I imagine most people already know that this isn't some wild-eyed scare-mongering; The New Yorker saw fit to give a platform to the view (quoting Benatar, again, among others). These more passionate childfree antinatalists have dismissive epithets for those who do choose to have children: "breeders." These people value their own lives, presumably, if they aren't among the many miserable antinatalists, but not so much the lives of children, i.e., of new people on the face of the earth. Obviously, people who are angered by the addition of new human beings need not valorize death; but it seems fair to say that they do not place a premium on life per se, beyond their own lives and perhaps those of people who are already here (as long as they aren't children, I guess; one can only wonder at what age they stop being abhorrent).

So there are some views that strike me as being, prima facie, "antivitist" views.

Here's a problem for my view. People who favor extreme abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle tend to be on the left or libertarian—and the left and libertarians alike are generally opposed to capital punishment. So a challenge to me would go, "Hey Sanger, you said these people favor death. [Well, maybe in the case of some post-viability abortion advocates and antinatalists.] If they were some kind of 'death cult,' wouldn't they be in favor of capital punishment? But they hate capital punishment! So there! These people care about quality of life, of course!"

I can't disagree. This suggests, then, that there is something more subtle at work than that they simply "celebrate death or greatly undervalue life." Clearly, we need to draw a distinction. It isn't a desire for death per se, I think, that characterizes antivitism; it is one's own death, or that of those one is responsible for, or would be responsible if one did not oppose creating new life. That seems more reasonable, if still rather deranged.

Also, let me concede something before I'm accused of a really gross error. Of course, you wouldn't have to accept a general principle that human life is not terribly valuable in itself, or that death or never having been born is preferable to life, in order to accept most of the above views. I mean, logic may be chopped in various ways, and I don't wish to imply that people are part of anything remotely resembling a "death cult" simply because they embrace one of the views described above. Of course that would be wrong.

So what am I saying?

In frank discussions of these topics, one does frequently comes across deeply pessimistic remarks: life is hell; the terminally depressed can't change; death would be a blessing; it would be better never to have been; new lives are little more than bloodsucking parasites; people who create new life are mere contemptible "breeders." All of these are, I maintain, undercurrents of ultra-sophisticated, world-weary nihilism that pop up in discussions of late-term abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle. It seems that some wish to impose their own hatred of their own lives on the rest of the world, and that this manifests in support for the positions mentioned. That strikes me as coming from a profoundly misanthropic place.

Another pessimistic modern sentiment, not discussed above, falls under the same umbrella: our lives are meaningless and absurd; there's no escape from the nausea that our radical freedom in a postmodern world. This isn't so much misanthropy as more straightforward pessimism that is part and parcel of the rejection (as "false consciousness") of any religion-based or naturalistic values that might give life meaning.

If there is an antivitist trend, whether rooted in nasty misanthropy or nihilistic pessimism, and if it continues to grow as it has in recent decades, then I suppose the next things to expect would be:

Maybe I'm onto something. I'm not saying this post clinches the matter. But if I'm right, this would tend to explain why various kinds of morbid and deeply depressing entertainment have become so popular in recent decades.

Is letting a 17-year-old die morally equivalent to killing her?

A spate of news articles appeared yesterday, reporting that Dutch 17-year-old mental patient Noa Pothoven was euthanized. This formulation—she was euthanized—caused outrage in certain circles. This is factually incorrect, they say. She was not euthanized. She took her own life.

What are the facts of the case? She was sexually attacked and assaulted three times, beginning at age 11, which led to severe depression and anorexia. She wrote an autobiographical account of her troubles. At age 17, she decided she had had enough. With her parents' acquiescence, she refused food and drink, and last Sunday, she died.

So why do people like Politico correspondent Naomi O'Leary and Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown insist that she was not euthanized? Because Noa's problems, as the latter writer puts it, "did not come to an end with the state permitting a doctor to kill her." She chose to commit suicide, while her parents and doctors stood by and did nothing, respecting her wish to die. That's not euthanasia, O'Leary and Brown say. O'Leary found this to be infuriating "misinformation."

To this, many others respond: of course it's euthanasia. What else do you call it when a doctor stands by and allows a patient to starve herself to death—all the more tragic in this case because the patient is just 17 years old?

The question looks like an unresolvable semantic one. But logic-chopping ethicists come to the rescue with a distinction: Noa was subjected to passive, not active euthanasia. The difference, as the BBC explains, lies in the difference between killing and letting die. Nobody killed Noa (in fact, she asked for help, and was rightly refused); but they did let her die.

If you leave it at that, no one is the wiser, because the real questions, clearly, are: (1) Is there a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia in this case? And: (2) Did Noa's parents and doctors do right or wrong?

Given a case that sounds so outrageous to some, it is easy to glibly declare that there is no difference. But there are plenty of cases in which there certainly seems to be a difference between killing and letting die. Changing the case makes this rather clearer. Suppose a 50-year-old man like me is severely depressed and wants to die. Is there a difference between you shooting him through the head, and his doing the same thing while you stand by idly? (Let's assume it's you could easily take the gun away.) Clearly there is. But wherein lies the difference?

There are a couple, actually. First, in the case of active euthanasia, you are taking action. We can ask the question, "Why did you pull the trigger?" We can ask a similar question in the second case, "Why didn't you stop him?" but the questions are actually quite different.

Second, more to the point and more importantly, to permit active euthanasia requires that we adopt policies, moral and legal, that distinguish between murder and euthanasia. But there is no such requirement if we permit only passive euthanasia: here we need only adopt policies to distinguish between suicide and passive euthanasia. (For one thing, it's not passive euthanasia if nobody knows you're committing suicide.)

Active euthanasia is more morally fraught because it resembles murder, and murder is rightly regarded as one of the very worst crimes it is possible to commit. But allowing someone to commit suicide looks very different indeed from murder, because the motives are deeply different. If you stand by while your 50-year-old friend commits suicide, you might very well feel guilty later, and people might well blame you for doing something wrong (or rather, for not doing what you should have done); but nobody can sensibly accuse you of murder.

Ultimately—as is the case with most ethical questions—it is ultimately about the policies, the rules, the principles. Do we want to be a society that approves of people committing suicide? Should that be regarded as a real possibility for people? Should it figure into their calculations as an option, sometimes? And then, if so—do we want to take the morally fraught step of helping people to carry out this dreadful choice?

Let's briefly consider both sides here.

The more conservative approach points to the impact that the choice has on others, that the policy has on society at large, and whether we even have the right to throw away a gift given to us by the divine. No man is an island, and the official approval of suicide causes trauma far beyond that experienced by a person suffering in bodily pain or depression. The trauma is compounded when others participate in carrying out the decision. In the case of Noa, consider the lifelong trauma her dramatic act will have on her parents, family, friends—and now also the broader society in which other 17-year-olds might be tempted to solve their problems this way.

The reason that liberals and libertarians are typically in favor of euthanasia (passive at least, and often active as well) is that this respects the choice of the individual. Whether to go on living is a deeply personal decision, they say. Hence society's rules should permit a negative outcome if that is our choice. If this encourages others (or rather, alerts them to the possibility) to do the same, perhaps that's for the best. Why should people be forced to live if they don't want to? Even if there are some awful consequences, this is the price we pay for freedom.

This is not an easy question, and you're frankly an idiot if you pretend that it is. But there's a complicating factor in Noa's case. She was young, just a few years older than my son. I can't imagine "permitting" him to commit suicide as I stood by. The idea fills me with horror.

The admitted fact is that she lacked a mature mental capacity. Moreover, while I don't really approve of the clinical language, one might say she was ill in addition to being young. Now, typically, as in the case of the 50-year-old, we might credit the person's choice as being mature and considered, and therefore free and worthy of the respect of a person with dignity. Do we owe a mentally ill young person the duty to dignify her choice as also one that is free? I'm not so sure. She was unformed, and she was not thinking straight. Had she been my daughter, I would have had her committed to an asylum that would help her get better. I would not have respected her choice, being one made by an immature and ill person.

I pity Noa's parents and doctors. But I also accuse them of doing something very wrong indeed—by not taking action when they clearly should have.

By the way, it's not lost on me that one might argue that anybody, regardless of age, with severe depression might be thought to be sufficiently impaired that we should not credit his decision to end his life as being free, and hence we should always work against it and instead institutionalize the person. But I'm not making that argument, as it raises further, hard questions. Noa's case strikes me as being rather clearer. The combination of her youth and her mental incapacity mean that her caregivers had absolutely no obligation to credit her choice.

A Free Speech Credo

I. Free speech is nothing if not offensive.

  1. Free speech just is the right to say offensive things.
  2. You have the right to offend me, and I have the right to offend you.
  3. I find attacks on free speech deeply offensive.
  4. Popular, safe speech needs no protection.
  5. Free speech needs protection precisely because and to the extent that it bothers, annoys, dismays, infuriates, emotionally wounds—and, yes, offends—other people.
  6. To oppose free speech is to favor censorship.

II. What free speech is not.

  1. Free speech extends well beyond the First Amendment.
  2. Free speech is a moral right that should be protected by legal rights in all countries on earth.
  3. You do not gain more free speech if you are given a louder megaphone, a larger podium, a bigger audience; but you lose free speech if such things are seized from you by an authority.
  4. It is incoherent to suggest that you win "more" free speech for yourself by silencing your ideological foes.
  5. Free speech never was equivalent to some fair quantity of speech; it was always about whether or not you were being silenced by some authorities.
  6. The appalling fallacy and misinformation spewed about free speech in the last few decades demonstrates how important it is that we teach philosophy, logic, and especially American civics (or the civics of liberal, open societies) in schools.
  7. Those who do know the issues behind free speech—professors, lawyers, philosophers, historians, journalists—must step up to teach and correct about free speech, or this principle will be lost.
  8. Defending important principles of democracy, like free speech, demands courage.
  9. Citizens of a free republic, perhaps especially intellectual and well-spoken citizens, have a positive obligation to exercise that courage.

III. The politics of free speech.

  1. A generation ago, free speech was not just another liberal cause—it was one of the most essential and defining of liberal causes.
  2. A person who is not a free speech absolutist does not deserve to be called a "liberal."
  3. The Old Censorship that liberals railed against in the 1960s—conservative demands for censorship of both obscenity and far left propaganda—is moribund.
  4. For several decades, until very recently, free speech was a cause that united American liberals and conservatives.
  5. There is a New Censorship on the left as well as, to an extent, the right.
  6. The New Censors are governments eager to rein in hate speech; some Silicon Valley corporate executives and their employees; some university administrators, professors, and student agitators; and those journalists and activists who agitate for more.
  7. The New Censors are dominant in most of the centers of power—they are leaders in today's Establishment.
  8. The New Censorship is, especially in its rapid rise, quite new and genuinely alarming.
  9. The attack on free speech has become so striking and dismaying to some liberals that some have gotten into the business of denying that an attack exists; but this is wishful thinking.
  10. Former defenders of free speech are contemptibly hypocritical or cowardly not to stand against the new censorship.
  11. That goes double for academics.
  12. Academics not willing to give a full-throated defense of free speech on campus betray academic freedom—freedom of inquiry.
  13. Campus speakers who take views offensive to the left now need police protection; some campuses require the speakers to pay protection fees.
  14. Political speeches safely delivered on campus in the past were more shocking and "offensive" than speeches shouted down today—the standards have changed.
  15. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Patreon, and a few others have more real-world power and influence than many U.N. members.
  16. Moral panic about trumped-up charges of bigotry is being used to justify not just censorship, but political censorship.
  17. It is now a well-established fact that the Internet giants are intolerant of certain political speech.
  18. Much of the speech controversially censored by Silicon Valley, campus authorities, and governments has an important political aspect.

IV. Hate speech must be protected despite its offensiveness.

  1. Most people who want to protect hate speech also happen to abhor hate speech.
  2. People want to protect hate speech not because they approve of it, but because they have a much greater horror of censorship.
  3. The New Censors often pretend not to understand the difference between defending free speech and approving hate speech. They deserve to be excoriated on this essential point.
  4. There are no widely-agreed standards of "hate speech"; there is little agreement on what constitutes "hate speech."
  5. There is no First Amendment exception for "hate speech."
  6. The essential problem about a "hate speech" exception to free speech is that the phrase is irreparably vague.
  7. A great deal of what now passes for "hate speech" is, in fact, merely political speech that somebody else hates.
  8. It is morally wrongit is outrageous—to censor political speech.
  9. The best short definition of "hate speech" is: speech that enfuriates the Establishment, i.e., our would-be censors.
  10. "Hate speech" used to be restricted to speech clearly motivated by bigotry against race, religion, or sexual orientation.
  11. Sometimes, the "hate" in "hate speech" is most accurately understood as a feeling not of the speaker, but of the person damning the speech.
  12. You must defend, without hesitation, the freedom to utter hate speech—even speech that is outrageously bigoted—or you have abandoned free speech as a civil right.
  13. Until very recently, this was the position of the ACLU and of liberals generally.
  14. We could still return to more enlightened standards of free speech, having realized the enormity of error in this abandonment of principle.
  15. Many well-intentioned, once-"progressive" social movements die out; the New Censorship, like Prohibition and Eugenics, should be one of them.
  16. It is absurd to suggest that anyone who defends free speech is ipso facto bigoted, racist, or—ironically—fascist.
  17. The actual fascists of history did a great deal of censorship.
  18. The irony is that censorship, rejection of free speech, and indeed thought control are essential to the totalitarian mindset—an irony lost on certain uneducated and miseducated youth.

V. To abandon free speech is to confer arbitrary power.

  1. As people have different values and emotional make-ups, people are capable of hating and being offended by many things.
  2. Historically, people have found different religions, philosophy, cultures, races, research, and even language—even art and music—to be deeply offensive and, yes, hateful.
  3. Permitting censorship based on disagreements of fact and aesthetic empowers the authorities to determine facts and aesthetics.
  4. Similarly, permitting censorship of political discourse empowers the authorities to determine who wields political power.
  5. The values of the power elite, of the Establishment, are guaranteed to change; they always have; and how often have they been 100% correct?
  6. If you are worried about right-wing censorship, you should also be worried about left-wing censorship.
  7. Once the authorities gain the power to mold our thoughts, they will not easily give up that power.
  8. Once they gain sufficient power to censor, authorities always grimly impose their values and their vision of reality by force.

VI. Censorship violates our right to autonomy.

  1. Those who are most eager to take away your right to free speech want to impose their own beliefs on you. Censors are would-be thought controllers.
  2. Censors are worthy of the deep contempt of free citizens of an open, truly diverse republic.
  3. If you want to be in control of your own thoughts—your own values, religion, philosophy, aesthetic, etc.—you must support free speech.
  4. No one—absolutely no one—can be trusted to wield the power to determine what millions or billions of people shall believe.
  5. The bloody Inquisition and the fatwa-wielding mullahs, the secret police and propaganda ministries, the holy warriors and the Bible-thumping do-gooders, they all had deep contempt, indeed deep hostility, to those who would dare to think their own thoughts about important truths.
  6. I value the right to think my own thoughts.
  7. The thought controllers are utterly convinced that they know best and that others are wrong.
  8. "Why is there a need to think your own thoughts?" the heretics are told. "The truth is known. If you deny it, you are anathema, a heretic, an enemy of the people, a traitor to the state."
  9. The New Censors insist that their concerns are merely pragmatic, obvious, and eminently reasonable; but that is what most censors have said.
  10. All censorious regimes have in common a furious hatred of the free-thinker, rejection of the individual, hatred of the outsider—the stern demand that we subject our minds to that of a controlling group.
  11. You cannot support censorship without ultimately wanting to impose an entire thought-world.
  12. Indeed, the most passionate new censors today are entirely convinced of their own thoughtworld, indeed they want to impose it on the rest of us, and indeed they have the deepest contempt for those who differ from them, even slightly.
  13. It might be hard for some citizens of an established, old democracy to understand, but thought controllers throughout history have had contempt for the dignity of most people.
  14. Respect for the diversity of individual minds absolutely requires free speech.
  15. This standardizing, collectivizing, controlling impulse is inherently dehumanizing.
  16. We will inevitably lose the habit of thinking and speaking for ourselves, of fearing being ourselves.
  17. Our very dignity rests in our being responsible for our own thoughts.

I hereby license this document under the Creative Commons nc-by-sa 2.0 license. Please feel free to circulate copies, as long as you don't profit from them and you use my name (and note any changes you happen to make, such as additions and deletions).

An opinionated FAQ about Facebook's censorship of the alleged "far right"

A lot of people understand neither free speech nor what the far right is. Here's a beginner's guide.

Yesterday, Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by the same company, announced a purge—a fair description—of accounts by a roster of famous right-wing figures as well as Louis Farrakhan. What are we to make of this?

Who was banned?

The names include

  • Alex Jones: both popular and much-reviled right-wing conspiracy theorist, previously banned from various other platforms
  • Infowars: Alex Jones' news/info company; in addition, reportedly, 22 Infowars groups or pages were removed from Facebook, as of last month
  • Reportedly, any account that shares Infowars links will be summarily banned from Facebook
  • Paul Joseph Watson: British YouTube video star specializing in ironic take-downs of the far left; has been employed by Infowars
  • Milo Yiannopoulos: another Briton, flamboyant gay conservative/libertarian who specializes in provoking the left
  • Laura Loomer: a right-wing commentator and activist maybe best known for disrupting a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar is portrayed by a Donald Trump lookalike
  • Paul Nehlen: an "America first" right-wing political candidate who has tweeted many anti-Semitic remarks
  • Louis Farrakhan: leader of the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim leader famous for anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic remarks

One thing all of these except Farrakhan have in common is that they've made anti-Muslim (or at least anti-Muslim extremist) comments, but more about that below.

Why were these people/groups banned?

The specific reasons are not clear and have not been made (fully) public. The Verge reported rather cryptically, and uncritically, that Facebook said the banned accounts "violated its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations." I wasn't able to locate the Facebook press release.

The Verge also reported this, without naming a specific source other than "the company":

But the company did point to some of the actions leading up to the accounts’ removal:

* First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.
* Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.
* Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.

This is bizarre; rather than cite specific things the banned figures said or did that are obviously bigoted, or couching their explanation in terms of specific terms of service, Facebook apparently thought it was relevant to point out that the banned people associated with or praised people like Gavin McInnes, designated as "a hate figure," and "far-right activists" Tommy Robinson and Faith Goldy. It looks like guilt by association.

Wait. Before you go on, explain: Why is that bizarre?

Because it specifically eschews any attempt to pin a particular case to a particular objective standard. It's fundamentally vague and thus fundamentally unfair. If you have an association with or even merely express approval of a verboten figure, you yourself can, apparently, be banned. What if I say I've liked some of Paul Joseph Watson's videos? (I do.) Does that mean I should be banned? (Too late, I quit Facebook, but still.) Maybe more to the point, does it mean that I agree with everything that Watson has ever said? Of course not.

Facebook apparently called these people "right-wing." What really does "right-wing" mean, anyway?

Prepare yourself for a brief lecture about political terms.

"Right-wing" has two very different meanings in American political discourse. On the one hand, it means "conservative": being supportive of traditional views on social issues, especially Christian values interpreted fundamentally, of devotion to country and national interests, and of relatively unregulated free markets. In general it means traditional (formerly bipartisan) American political values of small government and individual liberty, but within some religious constraints.

By the way, libertarians are sometimes called "right-wing" presumably because they favor unregulated free markets, but sometimes they're called "left-wing" because they also support social liberalism. Go figure.

On the other hand, "right-wing" also is taken to mean "tending toward fascism of the Nazi sort." Thus, some progressives want you to believe that the National Socialist Party of Germany is supposed to represent the values of American conservatives, just taken to an extreme. There are a few problems with that:

  • The Nazis believed in giant, ever-present government, regulating everything, i.e., totalitarianism, as well as a massive social welfare state. It wasn't the National Socialist party for nothing. Mussolini and Hitler both began their political careers as, and thought of themselves as, socialists. They both became strongly anti-Communist, but the conflict was an internecine left-wing one.
  • Nazis hated the idea of a free market, and many Nazi leaders were hostile to or deeply skeptical of Christianity (some were devout, to be sure).
  • Racism is not a uniquely conservative value; extreme racism of the fascist stripe is not a particularly conservative value. In the U.S., some of the most open of our racists also express conservative values, and progressives have made hay of this fact. But in the past, some of the most racist and eugenicist people in the history of the U.S. were in favor of welfare state and even socialist policies. Remember Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat late of West Virginia and a former KKK member who recruited Klansmen? He wasn't the only one. And today, anti-semitic (and anti-white, and arguably anti-Asian) racism can still be found on the left.
  • In short, fascism was a racist and nationalist perversion of an already perverted doctrine: imperialist internationalist socialism.

By the way, I'm not meaning to apologize for those American conservatives who (openly or not) are racists, who do want to wield the awesome power of the state to repress their enemies, who hate foreigners on principle, etc. Indeed such people really are like Nazis. They’re not nice and I don’t support them at all.

The problem is that most mainstream conservatives are not particularly racist—even if they support systems that happen to favor their own "white privilege," which is another issue—they are not imperialistic nationalists, and they sure as hell could not entertain anything so horrific as a genocide. And, of course, they don't support socialism, but then the left probably doesn't mean to imply that they do.

So much for "right-wing."

What does this term "far-right extremist," that I hear bandied about so much, really mean?

Those bandying it are making a spurious accusation of guilt by association. When leftists calls a conservative "far right," or a "far-right extremist," they blur the distinction and commit the fallacy of ambiguity, i.e., they use word "right" in two different senses in order to tar merely strong conservatives with the brush of fascism. Their dirty little implied argument is this:

  1. Paul Joseph Watson (just for example) isn't just conservative, he's extremely conservative.
  2. That means he's both far right, and extreme. So he's a far-right extremist.
  3. The Nazis and the KKK were far-right extremists.
  4. Therefore, Paul Joseph Watson is like a Nazi or KKK, or ideologically aligned with them. (Probably punchable!)

This sort of thing is not just fallacious, it’s libelous.

When you want to refer to an American or British conservative as being unremittingly so, but not a fascist and still within the broadly classical liberal Anglo-American tradition as it has been handed down to us in the early 21st century, you can call the person an "arch conservative" or in Britain maybe a "staunch Tory."

You would call such a person "far right" only if you wanted to falsely, libellously imply that the person is fascistic. “Far-right extremist” merely compounds the libel.

But today’s American conservatives are fascistic, right?

As my Irish friends say, go feck off. Re-read the previous two answers.

No, they aren't. Some good friends and family members of mine, whom I love, are conservative. They hate the elements of fascism listed above as much as anyone. I personally have a lot in common with them, although being an agnostic and rather more principled on issues of liberty, I think I'm closer to the libertarian outlook. If you say conservatives are fascistic, you're insulting my friends.

But libertarians are crypto-fascists, too. They use talk of liberty and free speech as a cover for their insidious racist views. Right?

You need to feck off even harder, you ignorant twit.

No, you can't get any farther from a fascist than a libertarian. Libertarians favor individual rights rooted in respect for our inherent value and autonomy, love minimal government, and hate racism. Fascists favored huge, powerful governments, didn't give a fig for individual rights, and were totalitarians and racists. Libertarians hate war generally, but they especially hate wars of aggression and even of intervention (such as in Iraq and Syria). Fascists are extremely jingoistic nationalists and imperialists. Libertarians tend to be very tolerant of foreigners and many of them support open borders, and the idea of empire-building strikes them as abhorrent.

In fact, historically straight-up socialists have had a hell of a lot more in common with socialists of the National Socialist variety. Yes, really.

Fine, but aren't the above-listed people actually far-right in the bona fide fascist sense?

I don't know all of them, so I can't tell you. Here are a few comments.

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist type. I have met his ilk before; possibly you have as well. He lacks judgment. He does seem to be quite conservative in the American sense. He's said some things that are extremely insensitive on almost anybody's view. All that said, I haven't seen much evidence that he's a fascist per se. He's a nut. There's a difference. All fascists are nuts, but not all nuts are fascists.

I like Paul Joseph Watson's videos about architecture and his pessimistic takes on demise of Western (not to say white) civilization. He's also quite fun to watch when he takes down left-wing inanities. He pulls no punches, and he's probably said some things that I wouldn't approve of; but then, we all have said things I wouldn't approve of. I see zero evidence that he's a fascist or on the "far right" in that sense. He strikes me as being libertarian, but I'm not sure. Maybe conservative.

Milo Yiannopoulos is "provocative" and comes across as an insensitive asshole, especially to the left; he makes shocking personal attacks sometimes, which is probably the main reason he is now persona non grata. The whole incident in which he seemed to apologize for the priest who molested him was quite creepy. But beyond that, Milo is an incisive libertarian type; I don't think it's quite right to call him conservative. I'm quite a bit nicer than he is, but I have agreed with a lot of stuff he's said. So have plenty of conservatives and libertarians who have come to watch him. Neither he nor they are fascists. (He's a flamboyant British gay man with a black boyfriend, for god's sake.)

Laura Loomer: I don't really know who she is. Never watched or read anything by her.

Paul Nehlen: Ditto. I didn't know of him before his ban. I read a few things like this that give what looks like rather good evidence that he's a vicious anti-semite. He might very well be a bona fide fascist, for all I know. I’m not a fan.

Louis Farrakhan: America's crazy black uncle. Keep America weird. Let Louis be Louis.

So maybe there's one "far right" figure, in the sense of fascist, among them, unless you also count Farrakhan, most of whose political views are pretty close to historical fascism as far as I can tell. The rest are very loud activist types with large to enormous followings that the Establishment wants to squelch. That's really why they were banned. Not because they really are fascist types.

Besides, I don't think we should ban fascists from our largest platforms. Maybe from smaller ones, sure. I reserve the right to ban fascists from this blog. But when it comes to larger platforms, to “the public square,” I'm a free speech absolutist.

But wait. At least they’re Islamophobic, i.e., anti-Muslim bigots, right?

I don’t know any of their views on Islam well enough to say. Disliking mass immigration by certain people who avowedly have an “extreme” politico-religious view, i.e., those who (like maybe 44% of European Muslims) declare they want to turn European nations into religious (Sharia) states, isn’t necessarily bigoted. You can be open to friendship and cultural exchange with radically different cultures without wanting your culture to be transformed into those other cultures. Religion matters a lot. Opposing immigration by moderate Muslims (like Westernized Turks) does strike me as bigoted, though.

I think some resentful and stupid conservatives really might be personally bigoted against Muslims generally, so I can’t really say in any one case. I’ve had moderate Muslim friends and family members; I don’t support any ethnic or religious bigotry.

Official U.S. immigration policy (last time I checked) also officially excludes Communists from immigrating. Did you know that? I’m all in favor of excluding them. Communists are an influence we don’t need. But I’ve had Communist friends.

OK, then, with that background about the political labels: Did Facebook and Instagram violate the above-listed people's free speech, or did they not? Were theycensored?

No, not in the sense in which the term is understood in American jurisprudence. As silly-clever progressives will never tire of reminding you, the First Amendment does say that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, and therefore, no company can violate your free speech rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.

But yes, in a broader moral sense. Americans seem to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the topic of free speech, forgetting that the right was discussed long before the United States existed, and that it was applied to the church as well as the state. American constitutional jurisprudence does not exhaust all there is to say about free speech. OK? So get off your high horse there.

What's the case that Facebook did violate free speech rights in a broader sense? Well, it's this: Facebook and Instagram have become massively powerful and influential networks, in some ways more powerful than many governments. They serve all of humanity. They are among the main fora whereby civil discourse—including political discourse—takes place. They are the public square of the 21st century.

We all ought to have the right—the moral right, if not the political right—to participate in this public square. If you're excluded from it, how do you exercise your necessary, essential democratic rights of participating in public deliberation?

Of course, this isn't to say that others must be forced to listen to you. I should be able to block you quickly and easily if I personally don’t want to listen to you. I have absolutely no problem about blocking people who treat me disrespectfully. I have an absolute right to block myself from hearing you, but not to block others from hearing you.

And yes, those blocked people were also censored. Not all censorship is done by government. Churches, schools, corporations, publications, libraries, and other organizations with authority over what people can say and hear can practice censorship of various kinds. Of course, the most dangerous and objectionable kind of censorship is done by the government. Never forget that. I am much more worried about censorship by governments in Europe and Canada, and future censorship by the American federal and state government, than I am by any corporate censorship.

Should we be surprised by Facebook's action?

Hell no. Silicon Valley and Facebook in particular have been preparing us for this for a few years now, having banned many conservative accounts and repeatedly justified their stances, albeit in a dishonest, mealy-mouthed and wrong-headed way. I suppose it is surprising to a degree, however, whenever standards are shifted, as they have been. How far are these people capable of going? Pretty far. The ultimate answer might surprise even me.

Does anyone actually support these people being banned?

Oh yeah. Lots and lots. It's rather scary just how popular the ban is among the left and much of the Establishment commentariat. Who knew just how repressive the left would be if given the power? (Answer: many of us.)

Should Facebook and other Big Tech be regulated?

No. The government dictating to them how they should run the public square entails that the government will ultimately run the public square. We should eschew that idea, as attractive as it might be as long as "our people" are in power, for the same reason we should eschew the idea of government-run news media: Anything potentially so powerful is much too easily corrupted and becomes a honeypot for would-be criminal masterminds and dictators.

At least with the free market, we have the opportunity to seek out better ways to organize ourselves if we find ourselves excluded from biased forums. How long do you think the likes of Facebook will enjoy their hegemony if they continue to behave this way? As long as the rest of us have the means and freedom to organize independently, then not too bloody long. People like freedom and fairness, it turns out.

Should the banned people sue Facebook for defamation?

Maybe. I'm not sure. It's an interesting idea.

So what the hell should we do?

Decentralize social media and get behind a coming Declaration of Digital Independence. Don't worry too much. It's OK. It'll happen. I have very good reason to think it will. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming. This is one reason why both Facebook and Twitter have made rumblings in the direction of decentralizing social media. They know they have to get out front of the movement. They know it's coming.

So Larry, does this mean you're going to delete your Facebook account?

Been there, done that.

Go and do the same. Facebook must be put out of business.

I'm serious. Please delete your Facebook account. First, urge your FB friends to do the same. If you support free speech (and privacy!) and want to send a message to our would-be corporate overlords, you must know by now that it's the right thing to do.

I'm not sure my career illustrates the value of a humanities degree, but the BBC thought so anyway

I was quoted by the BBC explaining the purpose of the liberal arts:

BBC graphic

The BBC article quotes this 5-year-old post from the very blog you are now reading.

A few days earlier, I was on the BBC's list of "star performers" with humanities degrees, a sidebar of their article explaining "Why 'worthless' humanities degrees may set you up for life":

"Star performer" is not exactly the description I would have given myself, but who am I to disagree with the BBC?

Also, of course, humanities degrees are not all created equal, and your mileage may vary.

There are no NPCs

International travel drives home that insight that, contrary to a put-down used by immature people, and consistent with Jordan Peterson's frequent observation that our biographies are all fascinating, there are no NPCs in the world: the variety of human experience is stunning.

Yesterday I was delayed (here in Tokyo) by a long, long queue of pretty young Japanese women, all dressed exactly alike (black skirt, white blouse). I was told they had been interviewing for jobs. When I asked why they dressed all alike, I was told simply "Japanese culture." I instantly imagined someone watching the parade of future businesswomen and thinking of them as interchangeable drones, or movie extras, or "NPCs." But I am incapable of viewing them that way.

These ladies were not "NPCs." Each had her own story; the perspective of each would, upon sufficient examination, be fascinating. The fact that they were dressed alike, while perhaps odd to Westerners like myself, is meaningless when it comes to their real individuality.

If the error of racism is dehumanization, its opposite is to look past apparent, reductive commonalities to what is unique, contextualized, and valuable in each of us. And that ultimately comes down to our minds—to how we think things through. I don't mean just our thought processes, but also the many products thereof, including our culture: philosophy, religion, musical tastes, how we conduct ourselves, our fundamental values. These things you must be capable of considering and tolerating, not necessarily supporting. I mean conversation of the sort that friends have, in which, while there might be some give and take and even occasional harshness, there is both sympathy, if not for position, then for common humanity, and a sincere desire to comprehend a point of view.

No one can claim to be enlightened (or "woke") on issues of race, gender, etc., if they are capable of dismissing whole classes of other people. The problem of prejudice has as its root an inability to consider others as individuals. And you can't claim to be tolerant if you are incapable of enjoying, without disgust, a conversation with a very different person, even a person with features you dislike or disagree with. (Of course you can't expect to like everything about everyone.)

So let me ask some hard questions.

  • Democrats: are you capable of having such a conversation with Republicans? Republicans, can you talk seriously with Democrats without giving up in disgust?
  • Committed feminists and men's rights activists, could you talk to each other without quitting in horror? I don't mean you have to tolerate abuse (I don't); but if they're just saying stuff you dislike, but politely, can you handle it?
  • Socialists, could you have a beer with a libertarian? Libertarians, will the thought that the person you're boozing with would love for you to be taxed at 70% (or whatever) permanently turn you off?

Etc., etc.

Even better, can you look past your disagreements and see lovely things about the other person?

You are intolerant, you are bigoted, if you are incapable of these sorts of conversations. Sorry to be harsh, but it's an important truth a lot of people seem not to realize, and they need to start doing so.

I doubt anybody really disagrees with me, too. I'd be fascinated to hear if anybody did. Many of us just need to grow a little more, and get off our high horses, and our social and political discourse could be radically improved.

How about it?

Ad Astra Per Aspera

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

The Meaning of Life

...just in case you haven't figured it out yet.

In this old answer, which I still believe and endorse wholeheartedly, I integrate many of popular answers—happiness or flourishing, meaningful work, benefiting mankind, love and family, and integrity—into a single narrative. Three parts below:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, "Is Western civilization collapsing?"

1. The conservative position. "Yes. And it's a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They're inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they're reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we're in the death throes of this civilization."

2. The postmodern position. "Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is 'collapsing'? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you're just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is 'collapsing.' It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural."

3. The optimistic position. "Oh, not this again. Haven't you read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they've ever been. People always think we're on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it's ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year."

Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren't being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates "civilization" not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.

These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don't necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that's true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn't it also conflict with Islam?

I don't suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.