11 December 2016

Talking with and about monsters

Since well before the current crisis I have been worried that too many people don’t know the difference between No Platform and Not My Megaphone, and are not careful enough in thinking about when they are appropriate.

And now we are in a moment when we need to re-think these fundamentals.

Not My Megaphone is a refusal to engage with a person or organization or idea. They don’t get the use of your megaphone: you will not put their quotes in your article, or let them speak on your stage, or debate them in some third party’s venue. You do this in order to prevent them from getting attention, and to identify the range of legitimate discussion which you recognize. So a newspaper may refuse to cover a publicity stunt, an astronomer may refuse to debate a would-be “scientist” offering proof that the Earth is flat, and so forth. This isn’t a form of censorship, since the folks you refuse to favor with your megaphone have other ways to speak. Indeed, there is no way not to make choices about what you allow on your own platform, since the platform is finite. And any platform must exercise some form of editorial judgment: a newspaper that will print any story becomes a joke. There are hard tactical questions — when is addressing a point implicitly helping it? when is ignoring a point leaving it dangerously unchallenged? — but they are tactical questions about what is effective in the moment for your mission.

No Platform is a stronger and more profound move: not just refusing to engage on your platform but fighting to prevent a person, organization, or idea from appearing on any other platform. It is a form of censorship. I say that not to dismiss it as always wrong; No Platforming is an essential part of the immune system of liberal democracies, preventing attacks on the foundations. It is paradoxically a defense of free speech if it is used exclusively to block those who would destroy free speech. In order for that to be true it must be used very, very sparingly, reserved for cutting out sources speaking deceitfully, in bad faith (like fascists) … and cutting out positions which have been already thoroughly and publicly discredited as illegitimate because they attack free speech and other deep liberal democratic principles. There aren’t many of those people, but when you find them you hound them to the point that they can only share their poison on the shitty parts of the internet because if you don’t, they a cancer on a free society which will break free speech and everything else.

We have seen several miscalculations in recent years which have weakened our ability to use these tools effectively.

It must be said that we have had a few leftists who have been too eager to reject ordinary conservative ideas — and even some liberal ideas — as not merely wrong, not merely unworthy of their debate and response, but illegitimate, worthy of No Platforming and comparable tactics. A noisy few among them reject the principle of free speech root-and-branch: “your freeze peach is not more important than the harm your speaking does”. This gives trolls of various stripes an opening to claim that they are defenders of free speech when they are only opportunists who want to abuse the principle of free speech to claim the right to speak on any platform without criticism.

More importantly, we have failed at discrediting the authoritarian-fascist axis. These folks are the classic examples of the speech that should be No Platform’d because it is a cancer on the discourse. Authoritarians want to end free speech. Part of what makes fascists fascists is their embrace of speaking in bad faith as a method. Were our public discourse’s immune system healthy, people would be able to recognize them when they show up so that when we No Platform them, and everyone would understand why. But we have enough Americans unable to recognize them that they just won a huge electoral victory.

And so the cancer has metastasized. The Overton window has come to include authoritarian and fascist ideas. Like it or not, they have a megaphone and cannot be No Platform’d. It is time for chemotherapy on the discourse: doing some stuff that is normally poisonous but necessary now in hopes that it kills the cancer before it kills us. So we need to re-think when and where and how we make Not My Megaphone and No Platform moves. There are things we need to address directly in this environment.

This post was proximately inspired by my frustration at seeing people on my social media feed saying that it was wrong for Trevor Noah to interview Tomi Lahren on The Daily Show because it only legitimizes Lahren and helps her spread her poison. And were Lahren a figure scrambling to be heard, I would agree. Two years ago I would have said without hesitation that someone like her was a good example of a voice that a major media platform like The Daily Show should respond to with Not My Megaphone, and would have been willing to entertain arguments that she should be No Platform’d. But it is not two years ago. Her movement has platforms so effective that they just won a huge political victory. So while I think the jury is still out on whether Noah’s interview was a good move and a tactic worth imitating, it was an interesting experiment in revealing the monster for what it is and so legitimate for Noah to try. We need more experiments like that in fighting this thing that has come upon us.

I do not think that means that in our current world Not My Megaphone and No Platform are dead as tactics. But I do think we need to revisit how and when and why we use them. The time has come for chemotherapy.

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