On Free Speech and Cancel Culture, Letter Three
To Take This Topic Seriously, We Need Consistency
This is part 3 in a 6-part correspondence series between writer Freddie deBoer and me, Parker Molloy. I will be writing parts 1, 3, and 5 here at The Present Age; Freddie will be writing parts 2, 4, and 6 at his Substack.
Links will be added as the letters get published: letter 1, letter 2, letter 3, letter 4, letter 5, and letter 6.
I just finished reading Freddie’s response to my first letter, which you can find here:
Thank you for the thoughtful response. You make a lot of interesting points within it, and there’s one portion that really stuck out to me [emphasis mine]:
And, look, I think Libs of Tik Tok sucks. I think people using clips posted by that account to get people silenced or fired are hypocrites who have no attachment to principles beyond that which is momentarily convenient. And right-wing school book bans are indeed worse than college trigger warning policies, as little as I think of those. The question is, what do we do in the case of an account like Libs of Tik Tok? I have no choice but to support its right to exist even as I recognize it for the dishonest right-wing agitprop it represents. I especially oppose shutting down that account on the grounds that it mostly just reposts things other people have knowingly posted on their own. I say that fully aware that they frequently remove context in a destructive way. The question of what’s a platform and what’s a publication, what constitutes the public square online and what constitutes an intentional community that has the right to exclude, whether services like Cloudflare should restrict their service to anyone for political reasons…. These are not easy questions, and I understand that in trying to muddle through them, we won’t always come to consensus.
Now, this is a complicated topic, and I do think reasonable people can disagree. You’re right, questions about what belongs on the internet — and specifically, on one platform or another — are not easy. People will disagree, feelings will be hurt, lives will be improved or imperiled, and careers will be created or crushed, all based on the outcome of the near-infinite content moderation decisions that get made on the internet. Neither action nor inaction are value-neutral approaches, so this topic needs to be taken seriously. My belief, as I wrote in a 2018 piece about the difficult choices Twitter had to make about Alex Jones for The Verge, is that platforms should only implement rules they have both the willingness and capacity to enforce. And then they should actually follow through on enforcing whatever those rules are.
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Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even Substack have limits on what they officially “allow” people to post, but, dare I say, none of them actually enforce these self-imposed rules. Why is that? Why implement rules beyond an organization’s capacity and will? My best guess is that it’s largely to “virtue signal” (a term I don't particularly like and feel like it’s pretty wildly misused, though would be appropriate here) to advertisers and users, to make people feel comfortable joining a service and companies feel comfortable spending their money on it. It makes sense, too. I understand that from a business point of view. Sure, most people will follow the rules as they’re written (even if they’re not making any sort of intentional choice to do so), and most people won’t see the examples of people who break the rules because those accounts are probably tiny, don’t get a whole lot of reach, and are extreme outliers.
Maybe there was a moment once upon a time when this sort of we have rules, but if you break them, wink-wink, it’s fine approach worked, but in recent years it’s become untenable, as the extreme views have lurched into the mainstream and users with hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers began flouting guidelines simply to demonstrate that they could. This, I think, can at least be partly blamed on the fact that the Facebooks and Twitters of the world simply won’t enforce what’s on the books. This only gives the users who break the rules a sense that they’re being transgressive. It’s all very “conservative is the new punk rock,” to borrow from a very cringy Paul Joseph Watson tweet.
To fix this, as I wrote in 2018, I believe social media sites should start from a clean slate, and only implement rules they can and will actually enforce with consistency. They won’t do this, and for good reason (for them): people don’t actually want to spend time paddling around in a cesspool. There’s a reason advertisers might spend on Facebook and Twitter, but not 4chan, Gab, or Truth Social. Were Twitter to actually adopt Elon Musk’s “that which matches the law” approach to what is allowed on the site, giving it the all-clear to become 4chan, I think you’d see a lot of users and a lot of advertisers rushing for the exits, and for entirely understandable reasons. There’s a lot of really gross stuff out there that is legal (but nearly always irresponsible) to say. I wrote about Musk’s vision for a 4chan-ified Twitter and what that might look like here.
What responsibility do platforms have to the people who do follow the rules?
Questions about content moderation tend to focus on the speaker; rarely, do we think about what responsibility Facebook/Twitter/et al. have to deliver the as-advertised product to users who set up accounts and build followings on these platforms. Once again, maybe this wasn’t always as obvious a problem as it is today, but things have changed.
If you go to see a movie, there are some general expectations you probably have going into it. You expect there to be a seat for you to sit, the screen to play the specific movie you paid to see, and for others to remain quiet as the movie plays. Understandably, there will be moments where the audience isn’t perfectly quiet, and I think we can all understand that. People laugh, they gasp, and there may even be a few people who break the cardinal sin of the theater and exchange a few words here and there. All-in-all, that’s fine, even if the people who talked were mildly disruptive. Overall, that’s a fine experience. People who bend the rules beyond a reasonable amount will likely be shushed or glared at by others in the theater, and if necessary, asked to leave by someone who works there. Why? Because we all agreed to these rules, both written and implied, when we bought our tickets.
Social guardrails (shushes and glares) serve as mild corrections with actions by authority (theater employees asking someone to leave) serving to handle the more serious violations. Without those things, without any way to nudge people to follow the rules they agreed to abide by — if, for instance, people who shushed or judged others for talking were accused of trying to “cancel” the talkers; if theater employees wouldn’t intervene even in the most severe instances — then this leaves the people who just want to enjoy a movie in a pretty difficult position, doesn’t it? And what would happen if, for some reason, the people who spoke throughout the movie as if it were their own personal Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, actually benefitted from their rule-breaking, financially or socially? Well, that would likely encourage others to do the same. Pretty soon, you’ve got a theater full of people talking, and suddenly you’d find yourself wanting your money back and never planning to make a return trip.
This is a lot like what’s happened with social media. (It’s not just passive experiences like movie theaters, either. You could also run through this same metaphor with an active example of people who go to a gym, sign up to use a basketball hoop, but have their games sabotaged by people who won’t respect the house rules.) Don’t they have, if not a right, at least a fair expectation that they’ll be able to enjoy their movie (or basketball or whatever else) in peace? For all the discussion we have about the rights of speakers, I ask, what about everyone else?
I believe that if rules exist, there’s a responsibility to enforce them. Otherwise, they’re not actually rules at all.
Does Libs of TikTok regularly break Twitter’s rules? Absolutely. Does Libs of TikTok regularly break Substack’s rules, which state that the platform “cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes” (which includes “race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition”)? Probably. Do I expect either platform to actually enforce their rules? No.
But if these platforms are going to continue to have these rules, I think they should enforce them. If they won’t, these platforms should re-write the rules to make that position clear. While the best outcome would be for Libs of TikTok to simply not break the rules of these platforms (and/or for people who defend Libs of TikTok on “free speech” grounds to take a moment to criticize the act of trying to get people fired simply for being openly LGBTQ, getting their audience worked up into a rage about children’s hospitals, and directing their audiences to the nearest pride event to menace people just trying to live their lives), that doesn’t seem all that likely. I genuinely do not have a preference for which route platforms take, but either would be an improvement over the current systems of rules that are inconsistently enforced. The issue is inconsistency. The issue in all of this is inconsistency.
That brings me to this other worthwhile point in your letter, Freddie:
Still, the question of proportion and attention is a very fair one. Is a campus revolt against cultural appropriation in the dining hall worth making national news? Probably not. But I think there are campus controversies that speak to deeper problems, ones worth paying attention to. To pick some examples, Oberlin students trying to get particular staff members fired for their political beliefs, Amherst students trying to get their peers formally punished by the university for criticizing their protests, Northwestern launching a literal federal investigation against a professor for publishing an essay students didn’t like…. These things don’t strike me as “oh college kids are all crazy” stuff, but as canaries in the coal mine that speak to a deeper rejection of basic elements of functioning democratic society. Now, it’s definitely relevant that in each of these cases, the students failed in their efforts to censor. But I’m interested in this for their sake too. That is, when I fret about such incidents, I’m not just doing it because I oppose the students, but because I worry for them. I’m a former college educator who taught dozens of college classes and hundreds of students, and when I see students trying to silence ideas they don’t like, I worry for them and their future lives. They have to learn how to live in a world with ideas they don’t like.
Those are fair points! People do have to learn to live in a world with ideas they don’t like. I’ve always found it funny when people have accused me of living in a bubble or trying to “ban ideas I don’t like.” (Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you’re saying anything like that. This is just a semi-related tangent.) I’d usually find myself looking back at the people who say this and just thinking, “Buddy, you have no idea.” Having spent the past several years studying the world of right-wing media, I can safely say that I’m flooded with ideas that I don’t like (to say the least). And sure, that’s important. Absolutely. But again, it’s a proportion thing.
The media, generally, paints a very skewed version of reality.
We’re not just getting a straight feed of college craziness; we’re getting a curated collection. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the Oberlin example, as the portion of the 14-page document of demands students lobbied for dealing with calls for firing nine school employees seems to include a number of serious allegations. Obviously, I have no idea what’s true, what’s not true, etc., but I don’t see the problem with students upset about things like “the mishandling of Black students’ safety needs” or racially-motivated discrimination. Was framing all of this in the form of a “demand” the best possible way to address the issue? Probably not, but these were college kids. This would be an issue if the school went ahead and fired people without so much as an investigation into what was and was not true.
Likewise, the Amherst example seems to be a situation that was a messy collection of student complaints. Were their complaints justified? Hell if I know. Did the students handle it in the correct way? Probably not. I disagree with the students’ call for the school to issue statements condemning “All Lives Matter” posters and demands for sensitivity training and the like. But rather than engage with the issues at hand, a number of national columnists who covered the story just used it as an opportunity to dump on the students. What we didn’t hear in so much of this coverage is that their protests sparked a broader dialogue with school administrators that seems to have (at least at first glance) been somewhat productive. That’s good, right? That’s what we should all hope for.
I remember reading about the issue involving the Northwestern teacher, and yeah, that seems like a pretty clear-cut case of Title IX process being wielded inappropriately as a weapon. No argument from me there.
Still, I argue that consistency is key, especially when we’re talking about what newspapers like The New York Times decide to publish or CNN decides to air. Just recently, CNN anchor Brianna Keilar went on a multi-day tirade over there being Marines in the background of Joe Biden’s recent primetime speech. It was horrible and offensive and inappropriate and yadda yadda, you get the idea. And while I felt this was excessive on her part, the major problem I had with it was that when Donald Trump gave speeches with Marines standing in the background, Keilar said nothing. It’s the inconsistency that is so irritating because editorial decisions about what gets covered, what gets denounced, and what gets praised all shape public opinion. By criticizing Biden for something she didn’t criticize Trump over, she’s handing Trump a benefit; she’s grading him on a curve, and the public is being misled as a result.
Because, Freddie, while I don’t expect you or any other individual writer to single-handedly work to actively seek to put instances of attacks on speech in proportion, I do feel like places like The New York Times and The Atlantic do have an ethical responsibility to illustrate what’s happening in the world in an accurate and proportionate way. This point, from you, is extremely valid:
I have liberal readers who complain to me that I don’t go after the right frequently enough, and I always intend to do it more often. Then I look around and think… who am I going to debate? The crew at Breitbart? Someone tweeting anti-Semitic Pepe cartoons? Yes, there are Never Trump conservatives and thoughtful right-wing writers like Ross Douthat, and I occasionally engage with their work. The problem is that they aren’t reflective of any real major movement within conservatism. The Republican party is still Trump’s party. So I can write in reaction to something written by, say, Brett Stephens, where there are arguments (that I almost always disagree with) and good faith. But to do so is to fixate on the small percentage of conservatives who oppose Trumpism and the ideology’s devolution into pure conspiratorial and hateful power-mongering. Meanwhile, actually-existing conservatism rages on and on. You can see my dilemma, I hope: I can either preach to conservatives who are marginalized within the movement, and thus can’t change anything, or I can preach to the right-wing mainstream who will never listen to a word I say. Neither is appealing.
We write about what we care about (and our time is extremely limited!). That sort of autonomy and ability to focus on things that matter to us as individuals is genuinely one of the best things about writing newsletters or freelancing.
I’m inclined to disagree with the idea that flare-ups on college campuses are indicative of some larger problem (but this is just my opinion). After all, I can point to New York Times articles from 1903, 1918, 1935, 1970, and well, you get the idea… that all make the same arguments that are made in whatever the latest 2022 campus controversy pieces you’ll find every week in the Times. I’m concerned because if you look at the examples that The New York Times and The Atlantic tend to curate into the zeitgeist, you’d get the impression that threats to speech and cancel culture are primarily coming from the left.
Here’s a very recent example of this framing, from David Leonhardt’s September 17 New York Times article, “‘A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy”:
Many Democrats share the concerns of historians and scholars who study democracy, pointing to the possibility of overturned election results and the deterioration of majority rule. “Equality and democracy are under assault,” President Biden said in a speech this month in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”
Many Republicans have defended their increasingly aggressive tactics by saying they are trying to protect American values. In some cases, these claims rely on falsehoods — about election fraud, Mr. Biden’s supposed “socialism,” Barack Obama’s birthplace, and more.
In others, they are rooted in anxiety over real developments, including illegal immigration and “cancel culture.” Some on the left now consider widely held opinions among conservative and moderate Americans — on abortion, policing, affirmative action, Covid-19 and other subjects — to be so objectionable that they cannot be debated. In the view of many conservatives and some experts, this intolerance is stifling open debate at the heart of the American political system.
The divergent sense of crisis on left and right can itself weaken democracy, and it has been exacerbated by technology.
So, on one side, you’ve got Republicans who have nominated a bunch of candidates who baselessly believe the 2020 election was stolen and won’t say whether or not they’d certify the results of the 2024 election… and on the other side, you have “cancel culture,” with positions on “abortion, policing, affirmative action, Covid-19 and other subjects — to be so objectionable that they cannot be debated.” Leonhardt then goes on to say, “In the view of many conservatives and some experts, this intolerance is stifling open debate at the heart of the American political system.”
While it’s likely clear to people who are plugged into the world of news and politics that this is a pretty wild false equivalence for multiple reasons (one of which being that there’s actually zero evidence that the left is any more “intolerant” than the right, especially given that the right is currently in the middle of an obsessive and puritanical campaign to purge discussion or acknowledgment that LGBTQ people are legitimate… plus the implementation of state-mandated versions of history that gloss over some of the messier parts), the Leonhardt view is pretty prevalent. Why has the idea that the left is “intolerant” become a mainstream truism? For one, that’s how it gets curated and presented to us.
The big, mainstream media outlets don’t cover stories about conservative students mobilizing to try to get pro-Palestinian speakers blocked at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The New York Times isn’t going to rush to defend students who were arrested on campus for criticizing Border Patrol agents. When the Nebraska state Republican Party got Creighton University to rescind its offer to let former-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) deliver a commencement address, that was met with virtual crickets by the national media.
A more recent example might be a South Carolina county Republican Party demanding an investigation into who ordered LGBTQ children’s books, the call for banning them, and in the meantime, deciding to check all of the LGBTQ books out and hide them in the basement of the party’s headquarters so no one could read them. That story didn’t pick up steam at a national level, but I’m willing to bet that if a local Democratic Party (or even just a group of people vaguely considered “the left” or liberals) did something similar with books they believed promoted racism (or really, any issue), it would receive massive coverage in the press as an example of “the left” being “anti-speech.” This asymmetry makes it impossible to take some of the self-styled defenders of “free speech” and “cancel culture” opponents seriously.
I just want a world where we all get to play by the same rules. Again, if it’s “anti-speech” and “cancel culture” for students to make a series of demands that schools fire teachers for whatever reason, then shouldn’t accounts like Libs of TikTok and right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson and Matt Walsh’s actions to try to intimidate hospitals into discontinuing services for trans teens be viewed similarly? Instead, amazingly, I tend to see people defending Carlson/Walsh/Raichik’s anti-speech actions on the basis of free expression. Where’s Conor Friedersdorf’s scathing “Tucker Carlson is an anti-speech monster” article on that, I wonder? Or are attacks on speech only bad if they’re coming from a bunch of college kids?
Anyway, I’ve rambled on for long enough! Back over to you, Freddie.