United States

Oct 4, 2016

Strong, silenced type: in censoring bigots, Twitter has only amplified their hate

If the genuine hope is to end racism, sexism, homophobia and all their unfortunate cousins, then Twitter et al have got it arse-backwards.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

As previously reported in Crikey, the world will be shortly shot to hell. In an effort to document this unfolding farce, we bring you the latest from the bloodiest, most deprived corner of the planet, which is, of course, the social internet. Reports late last week indicate that those of the self-described “alt-right” -- this, for the justifiably confused, is not a keyboard command but the name for young Western people rich enough to inexpertly throw a few 10-dollar words around, yet dumb enough to endorse Donald Trump -- had sought to outrun new anti-hate-speech policies of forums like Facebook and Twitter. Reportedly, these “alt-right” mutant sons of the Tea Party had agreed to use terms like “Skittles” to replace whatever abusive slur they had previously preferred for their casual demonising of entire population groups. This was a technical response to policies newly emerged, or being considered by, the biggest social media platforms. These policies emerged from business sense. All Silicon Valley companies must uphold the appearance of liberalism. No matter that they avoid paying tax for social good or build their wealth on the backs of the slaves of the Global South, they must brand themselves as “progressive” to sell their poison. So, it was no great surprise when Twitter deleted the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, “alt-right” superstar and pooper of loathing into the chamber-pot of Breitbart. Twitter, like all companies that restate the fuzzy promise of global connectedness -- first successfully used by Coca-Cola nearly half a century ago -- has got to seem nice. In both banning Yiannopoulos and cracking down on “hate speech” -- thereby provoking the “Skittles” coded racism response -- the company made great branding decisions. These were not, however, great ethical decisions. Well, not if the genuine hope is to end racism, sexism, homophobia and all their unfortunate cousins. The concern here is not for the dwindling of “free speech”. We need not fear that expressions of still dominant bigotry are going anywhere soon. The concern is for what happens when you “silence” people, all sorts of people, who have amplified their various messages with the claim of being silenced. Andrew Bolt often makes the claim that he is being “silenced”. The Australian feminist writer Clementine Ford has recently published a popular book that has a good deal to say on the topic of the silencing of female voices -- particularly hers. The popular “Paleo” chef Pete Evans prescribes a diet of anti-civilisation whimsy to his millions of followers, all the while claiming to have knowledge previously “silenced” by “them”. “I can’t be silent,” wrote the rarely silent Caroline Overington in a scion of the never-silent Murdoch press. Overington wrote this in defence of Lionel Shriver, a much-read person paid to talk on the topic of not being silenced to a packed room and whose comments were echoed throughout the world’s press. In short, the posture of persecution sells the message, no matter its content, of its author very well. Look at me. I must be right. I am very polarising and many people want me to shut up. When young, the Australian writer Clive James knew enough history to elevate himself by building a brand of The Man They Don’t Want You to Read. As editor of the Sydney University newspaper Honi Soit, he recounts in his first and most famous memoir, he would publish pseudonymous letters written by himself demanding his immediate resignation. That the execrable Yiannopoulos, who has made his career on the claim that he is “silenced”, was actually silenced by Twitter will guarantee the continued ascendance of his stark idiocy. And his followers, now forced into a partial silence, will feel very smug about the rightness of their message. My “truth” must be dangerous, because “they” don’t want you to hear it. If you have heard of this alt-right group previously, it is likely down to Hillary Clinton. She introduced the term to a wide audience in a speech this year that begged for their silence. The alt-right were terribly excited by this, which they correctly saw as a move toward legitimacy. One of the nation’s most powerful voices raised theirs by asking it to shut up. The alt-right, as just a few minutes in the sewer of Breitbart will attest, have nothing of substance to say. Persons like Ben Shapiro cannot rely on facts or consistent argument. But, thanks to the amplifying calls for his “silence”, he can now appeal to a basic tenet of the liberal humanism that informs our Western nations: don’t silence me. Liberal humanism is, in my view, so full of contradictions that it was bound to collapse in on itself at some point. That we have a bunch of people, of all political flavours, writing memoir accounts of tactics to silence them is not surprising. The next few years will only bring forth more newsworthy narcissism where this or that person claims to be bravely talking in spite of all the death threats and Facebook bans. The next few years will bring more individuals claiming to talk on behalf of their particular identity category, whether it be Paleo, alt-right or feminist. One unfortunate thing here is that claims of being “silenced” obviate the need for actual argument; if everyone is saying “They won’t let me say anything!”, then nothing else gets said. You don’t need to make any kind of case on behalf of the people you claim to represent. You just need to say that you are oppressed, receiving death threats, etc, and that this alone proves your case. Another unfortunate thing here is that we have so many “brave” people claiming to speak on behalf of others and using death threats and censorship as proof, those who are already silent have no room to speak.

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6 comments

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6 thoughts on “Strong, silenced type: in censoring bigots, Twitter has only amplified their hate

  1. mikeb

    If Ford, Bolt, and Overington stopped whining about how hard done by they are then they truly would be silent.

  2. Dog's Breakfast

    They tried to silence me, but then they realised I had no voice, and was already silenced, so I didn’t have a bully pulpit from which to pronounce that I’m being silenced. The silence of my silence is silent.

    I think!

  3. Zarathrusta

    We need to stop thinking about who can speak and look instead at who can be heard above the amplified speech of many.

    1. Duncan Gilbey

      Indeed. Everyone transmitting, no-0ne receiving.

  4. safzoro

    I believe you can forget the dream that internal contradictions might lead to the end of the liberal humanist movement. There’s nothing about a belief system that dictates that it needs to be consistent, unfortunately and you need only witness the success of religion to see that.

    What’s happening here is two or more ideological groups defining themselves in opposition. The alt-right g*mergaters have defined themselves as anti-feminist, and the feminists almost in response have become puritan. Banning Milo is fairly irrelevant to that as both have independent existences and can find ways around it, as you note.

    However, the alt-right are brutal when it comes to naming, shaming, doxxing and online harassment. That’s not theoretical, that can cause young victims to kill themselves. Most online forums before Twitter were much heavier handed about policing online civility and only recently has Twitter been dragged kicking and screaming to moderating behaviour. Milo specifically was banned for repeatedly harassing black actress Leslie Jones, hacking her personal site and making public alleged nude photographs of her. He personally has been banned for that specific reason and rightly so.

    Within all groups, people conform – including those groups allegedly defined by ideas. The need to conform quickly overtakes rational thought, and more so when there is a moral basis to the group, so transgressions of the norms–ie questioning them–is seen as morally offensive. The more polarised and threatened the groups feel, the stronger the pressure to conform. That’s what’s happening here, and while racism and sexism has become a badge of honour for the alt-right it’s not going to end. “How dare you silence me” is just a war cry.

    Ironically, the social media age has given more people more voice than ever before. Whether they can find an audience is another matter.

  5. AR

    So what are we talkin’ here – lumpen salt of the swamp types or whiny, needy inadequates who just need to emote rather act and get out of their own way?
    Surely the common element is that there is so little real experience to be had in quotidian life as lived by most people.
    More than half of the planet’s population is urban (in the white West it has been for decades) and their food, water & self of personal worth, if any, derives from artificial & contrived sources provided by those with a stake in keeping them so.
    Think of Barnett’s overcrowded rats – no danger & plenty of food but they still went nuts.

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