Just Keep It Off My Timeline!
This really gives the game away, if you think for five minutes.
Nowadays “left” opposition to free speech in principle is more or less explicit, though not coherent. As I’ve documented before, a core dynamic in left-of-center American politics is the transition from “lol that’s not happening” to “lol of course that’s happening and it’s good.” Extreme social justice ideals from cultural studies departments were never going to spread outside of campus, you dumb idiot, and then they did, and suddenly they always knew that would happen and were in favor of it. Free speech is in the awkward zone in between, where lots of liberals will dutifully argue that they’re the ones fighting for free speech while many of their fellow travelers are insisting that free speech is an inherently reactionary concept. The cool thing now is to put free speech in sneer quotes, which ensures that other left-of-center people know you’re one of the good ones. It does not, I’m afraid, represent clarity about what they actually believe the correct perspective on speech should be.
Anyway, it’s important to remember that the original justification for left censorship was that they were only interested in getting rid of the really noxious stuff - literal fascism, literal white supremacy. You don’t want literal fascism on the internet, do you?? You know how that movie goes: what they consider literal fascism just grew over time, so that things that were perfectly common conservative positions 10 years ago now fall under that umbrella, and whatever simplicity and limitation that rule contained is gone. It’s led us to a place where discussing factually correct reporting on Hunter Biden was banned on social networks, as was criticizing Anthony Fauci, whose leadership is certainly questionable and who by admission has worked on horrific experiments on lab animals. Meanwhile, as Collins’s tweet here points out explicitly, the most noxious stuff still flourishes online.
So here’s the question, Ben: if you acknowledge that far-right sentiment flourishes on the internet in many places, what does keeping it off of Twitter accomplish? If the ideas and arguments and symbolism of fascism and white supremacy can be traded on the internet elsewhere, what are you preventing from getting more and more censorious on major social networks? Do you think people are going to go to Twitter to treat it like Stormfront, find themselves censored, and just give up? People like Collins believe that far-right sentiment is very prevalent and dangerous, that’s his job description. So in what world does a Twitter ban function as any sort of check on that? What’s the idea here?
Last year I wrote a piece making the simple point that heavyhanded attempts to censor extremism are bound to fail because the flow of information cannot be stopped in the digital era - that we can’t ban ideas, as a matter of fact, so there’s no matter of principle to discuss. Should we stop the free flow of ideas is a meaningless question because we can’t. France and Germany’s decades-old laws against far-right arguments and organizations have failed entirely to prevent extremism in those countries. Drug cartels communicate around the world effortlessly. When ISIS was being pursued by the entirety of the Western military and intelligence establishment, they still actively recruited. In English! They got white middle-class teenagers to fly to goddamn Syria to sign up! And you’re telling me that tweaking Twitter’s terms of service is going to eliminate the ideology that wasn’t ended by a war that killed 4% of the world’s population? What the fuck are we talking about here?
No, liberals and leftists are afraid of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter not because they think it will contribute to right-wing extremism, which exists and always has and always will but which is also far more marginal than they like to pretend. They’re afraid because Twitter is where they perform the personalities they lack in real life, where they act like the confident and clever people they patently aren’t, and where they pretend to do politics by telling the same terrible jokes, over and over, while the political “movement” they represent remains totally powerless and reviled. Twitter, in other words, is where they wage busy little PMC lives. And they’d prefer that space be pleasant for them. They have eliminated the existence of any contrary opinion in their personal lives and private lives, and now they want to do the same in Twitter, which as sad as it is to say is the center of their emotional lives. Which is why it’ll never stop at “the really bad stuff.” The things that liberals believe should be eliminated from social media have grown and grown as time has gone on, and will continue to grow. Eventually people will say that those who disagree with them about the correct size of the Earned Income Tax Deduction are literal fascists.
I find Collins’s beat of covering extremism amusing. He’s not the only one who’s on it. The basic shtick is that you pull out the worst, most offensive things they can find from these cesspools, in order to… I’m not sure, exactly. I would hope that any literate adult would already know that the far-right believes horrible things. Collins can tell himself that by reporting on it he’s helping to arrest it, but according to his own vision of the world in the time he’s been covering that world its influence has only grown, so I guess that’s not going so well. The only function this kind of reporting fulfills is to remind Democrats of their own moral superiority. But Democrats rarely need to be reminded of that.
I’m always curious as to what these people think, theoretically, the right level of openness of speech should be. They usually laugh off the idea that they want to cleanse the world of ideas from conservatism, but they also have an expansive and ever-growing list of things conservatives can’t say. But it’s impossible to say what they think the rules should be, as irony and jokes and sneering so dominate left discourse that there’s no space to just come out and say what they think sincerely and directly. In the unlikely event that Collins was to see this post, his response would inevitably be “lol lol lol lmao lol lol.”
I both pity and envy people like Collins. People like him are absolutely certain about everything. They don’t believe there are any hard political questions. They don’t think there are any tensions or contradictions in their ideology. They never, ever think there’s any criticisms to be made of their side. They blow through life unconcerned that they might ever get anything wrong. The writer David Klion, who’s one of those guys who acts as a perfect thermometer for where the safest and most conventional spot to stand is for a liberal, once said “It’s incredible how many years I wasted associating complexity and ambiguity with intelligence. Turns out the right answer is usually pretty simple, and complexity and ambiguity are how terrible people live with themselves.” This is convenient for me because it’s a really efficient expression of the exact opposite of my core beliefs. We live in a world of infinite complication. The insistence that the universe is obligated to provide us with morally simplistic answers is the kind of thinking that brings us religious fundamentalism, driven by a child’s anger that the world won’t capitulate and be simple for us. Effective politics reflect the world’s complexity. Bad writers simplify; good writers complicate.
I need free speech because I don’t have the faith this army of sneering white dudes has that I know everything, that every debate has already been settled and we just need to let the goodies rule over the baddies. I don’t think everything is obvious. I don’t think all political questions are easy. So I need free speech in order to be exposed to all kinds of ideas, including ones I find deeply offensive, because it’s through the friction of philosophical conflict that new and better ideas arise. And I need free speech because the socialist politics that are core to my identity are at present vastly unpopular in this country, despite what you might hear in Brooklyn or on the NBC News Slack, and the only way that changes is through the long, slow, uncool work of gradual persuasion. Collins and his coterie are content to lol and giggle and sneer and pose because for them politics is only a means through which they position themselves socially, a way to be somebody. Well, I want to be somebody too - I want to be somebody whose politics can win. The preening, loling default of leftist politics Collins represents is a cul de sac. People like that want to hide on Twitter and laugh at it all while their enemies run up the score. And what they care about most is keeping it a fun place to hang out.
Update: THE PROPHECY IS FULFILLED.
No engagement with the point, obviously. He can't articulate how moderation policies could actually reduce the amount of extremism in the world because they can't. But he's mocked this post with zero substance to get likes and retweets and so he has. And that's all that care about. Politics is a vehicle for self- aggrandizement, and that's all.