You Can't Censor Away Extremism (or Any Other Problem)

Should we stop hate speech? What makes you think we can?

When I was in grad school at Purdue these anti-abortion protesters would show up about once a semester. They had these giant signs (and I must admit the graphic design skills were on point) that showed mutilated fetuses, analogized abortion to the Holocaust, and said “Black Lives Matter?” with dubious statistics about the number of Black women who had abortions in a given year. As a pro-choice guy myself I found them offensive. I also recognized them as a part of life, like telemarketers or dandruff.

Some of my peers did not. Grad students from various departments circulated emails calling for a response. Not much ever came of it. (Shocking, I know.) But I remember talking to someone I didn’t know about it, someone from another department. At one point he said “we’re going to no-platform them,” as casually as he might have informed me that he was stopping at Jimmy John’s on the way home. I thought, but did not say, what seemed like the obvious response: that we attended a university run by a pro-life president in a pro-life state with a pro-life governor and a pro-life legislature and a pro-life citizenry and that we were a bunch of powerless disorganized outsider academics who the local population didn’t much like and that if anyone was going to be “no-platformed” it was going to be us. But the thought had apparently not occurred to him, marinated in academia and I’m guessing very online. He was a progressive living in 21st century America and he assumed that those he chose to censor were those he could. This confidence is shared by many left-leaning people today, and it is typical of contemporary liberalism in its combination of arrogance and folly.

One of the themes I’ve come back to many times in my writing is the idea that people mistake empirical claims (this is true about the world) with normative claims (this should be true about the world). Nowhere is this more clear than with “hate speech”1 and censorship. I think hate speech laws are politically and morally wrong, a normative claim, but more importantly they don’t work, an empirical claim - one which if true renders normative claims that hate speech laws are good irrelevant.

The debate about whether we should censor unpopular views such as hate speech is an important one, but also a strange one. In my experience, it operates wholly independent from any consideration of the restraints of reality. People debate only on the level of the highest principle; everything is a referendum on the mores of democracy. They are all should questions - should we erode the right to free expression in the name of protecting minority groups from psychic harms? Should we prohibit the use of certain offensive terms? Should we declare some political positions out of bounds in public society? But all of these normative questions depend on the answers to empirical questions that preempt them, “cans” that come before “shoulds.” Can we actually protect minority groups from psychic harms through laws intended to limit speech? Can we actually prevent people from using offensive terms in any practical and meaningful sense? Can we actually limit political positions, given that they have a tendency to be reworded or rebranded and that trying to restrict them tends to feed them as they bubble under the surface?

Luckily we have international precedent to help us answer those questions. Do they support the idea that hate speech law stops hate, far-right extremism, fascism? No.

Germany has arguably the most aggressive anti-hate speech etc. laws in the world, or at least outside of those authoritarian countries that already significantly restrict speech in general. The concept is called Volksverhetzung, or incitement to hatred, and it has been broadly interpreted for decades, resulting in aggressive government action against perceived bigotry. The country is home to the expansive and frequently-evolving Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, which is the legal framework that outlaws overt Nazi symbols and literature in the country and which renders Holocaust denial illegal. Federal prosecutors and the Ministry of the Interior regularly move against organizations deemed far-right or hate groups. Does all of that aggressive government posture actually prevent those groups from flourishing?

No! No it does not! Germany has a vast, varied, and influential far-right movement. All those hate speech laws have not prevented extremist parties from operating out in the open, or their leaders from occupying positions of power, or the parties themselves from earning significant victories. As in, 12.5% of the vote and third place overall kind of victories. Germany bans groups it declares far-right extremists all the time. They respond in the way any child would be able to predict: they just rebrand. All of Germany’s many protections against far-right extremism have not prevented fascists from infesting the country’s security services. Racism? Not shrinking, growing. Anti-Semitism? You got it, baby! The Holocaust denial I mentioned is illegal? Well, they’re stepping up efforts to shut it down, which might seem encouraging until you realize that people only step up efforts to shut something down when it’s been on the rise. Of course, Germans didn’t need more evidence of the futility of censoring far-right views, given that the Weimar Republic had laws forbidding what we would now call hate speech. How did that go?

The utter failure of German hate speech laws to actually slow the growth of right-wing extremism doesn’t make them harmless. On the contrary, their bad ideas have been exported to countries with repressive governments and the onus placed on private internet companies makes them de facto arbiters of what can and cannot be expressed.

Not bound by all the checks and balances of Western democracies and by using broad and undefined terms such as "anti-government propaganda" or "fake news", authoritarian regimes have used the NetzDG as a blueprint for restricting free speech online. Even in Germany, where the bill has not produced these effects, the idea of forcing Internet companies to report hate-speech to the police, is raising eyebrows.

What’s troubling is the fact that the new law would give social network the responsibility (and the power) to decide what might be punishable and what not, a choice which should not be made by a private company - Federico Guerrini

See it’s perfectly possible for censorship efforts to restrict the ability of regular people to legitimately express themselves (and the ability of other regular people to hear them) while failing to prevent any of the social problems you actually intended to prevent in the first place. Like canceling, censorship has that quality of simultaneously being both destructive and impotent at the same time. The capacity of progressive people to engineer outcomes that fail to address the problems they were meant to but which create new problems is almost endearing.

How about France? French law bans hate speech and permits the government to disband groups that promote racism. France, too, bans Nazi symbols and neo-Nazi groups. France too has recently pushed a capacious new online hate speech bill (which was recently been rebuffed in the courts) and has sent apparatchiks to monitor social networks. The Gayssot Act has for decades given people legal standing to pursue someone for Holocaust denial. How’s it going in France? Do I even need to say?

The National Front/Rally party, the gold standard of genteel European proto-fascism, got 3 million votes in the first round of the National Assembly elections in 2017, good for 13% of the vote. In the presidential election they got more than 7.5 million, good for second place! The party has recently enjoyed a resurgence among the youth. The opposition party has noted the popularity of National Front rhetoric and has moved to coopt some of it; the current, sitting French Interior Minister called Marine Le Pen, Marine Le Pen, too soft on Islam. Perhaps because Le Pen has been “moderating” her ultra-right views lately - and in so doing has become a legitimate threat to win power. (Recent polls suggest she is as close as trailing 48%-52% to incumbent Macron.) I put moderating in scare quotes because Le Pen is still, for example, calling for a total ban on Muslim headscarves in public spaces, a frighteningly popular idea in France. The government continues to play ultra-right-wing Whack-a-Mole. France is stuffed with anti-Black and anti-Arab racism. Is there anti-Semitism? You know the answer. Is there Holocaust denial? You know the answer.

France has gone back to the online hate speech well, only this time rebranded - as a combo with some Islamophobic provisions. It appears that the hate speech game can be played by the bad guys too. Some people think we should restrict racial slurs, some other people think that’s a good idea plus let’s use that law to restrict all those radical Muslim teachings. You see it turns out that when you insist on promulgating a nebulous, easily-manipulated term like “hate speech,” you are giving free rein to bad people to exploit it for their own ends. France has also recently attempted to pass a law severely restricting the ability of citizens to share photos and videos of police violence. You see, when you government gets in the censorship game, they don’t stop just where you want them to. This may come as a shock but consistent principles like “don’t censor people” are easier to defend than sentiments like “censor people because they’re bad but make sure you ask me who’s bad first because I’m the one who decides who’s bad, OK?”

Of all the pretense and hubris that regularly spools forth from the social justice crowd, probably the most deluded is their dogged belief that if some new laws restricting speech were to be passed, they would inevitably be the ones to choose who gets silenced and what they don’t get to say. This is from a group that constantly self-identifies as marginalized and othered, and yet they are certain that they will be the ones left on the throne to decide who gets to say what. Why? I have no idea. The cops like you as little as you like them, lefties. You really think they’re gonna enforce the hate speech law the way you want them to? You want to defund the police, you think they’re irredeemably racist, you think they’re all fascists at heart, but you also want to give them sweeping new powers to limit what people say? That’s… strange.

Look: the most powerful governments, militaries, and intelligence services in the world have in recent decades tried to prevent the communications of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, using the most sophisticated digital means possible and with the full backing of various publishing and social media platforms. And yet those organizations effortlessly shared their propaganda and their rhetoric and coordinated across distance all the same. If there was ever a time when censorship could be effective at actually squelching extremism, it certainly isn’t now, the era of the internet. “You can’t kill an idea” is, again, a truth statement, not a values statement. It is literally true, whether it should be true or not. You can stop ordinary people from engaging in the kind of legitimate exchange and consumption of ideas that is a bedrock principle of free society. You can do serious harm, yes. But you can’t stop some of those ordinary people from gradually devolving into extremism and using your heavy-handed censorship efforts as a rallying cry and proof of their conspiracy theories. Extremism is not a technical problem. It can’t be stopped with technical solutions. You can’t skip the hard work.

When people say they want to ban hate speech, what they really mean is that they want to ban hate. And you may as well say that we should ban jealousy, or anger, or greed, or fear. Hate is an endemic part of the human experience and so hate speech always will be too, even after they implant behavior-modification chips in our brains. Ban all the words you like; people will find new ways to express hate. Censorship is always an end run around a larger issue, a deeper, more vexing, stickier issue. The problem is never the expressions you wish to repress themselves but the existence of the people who would express them, and those people are ultimately the product of conditions in the world you can’t control. You cannot eliminate hate from the world, and no one alive will live to see the end of fascism. What you can do is to mitigate the negative effects of hate as best you can by empowering targeted groups and by trying to present a more compelling and attractive vision than the fascists. But that’s wild, unrealistic stuff. Try to stamp out extremism and hate with censorship when every attempt to do so has failed in the history of the world, cool. Try to make people see why you’re right and the other side is wrong? That’s too crazy to contemplate.

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One of the more amusing/sad commonplaces in American leftist circles is overhearing long, passionate conversations about who will soon face legal consequences for hate speech, a legal category that does not exist.