EDITORIAL / ANALYSIS
About big-tech censorship: There’s a time and a place.
Where and when, though — that’s where the debate begins.
And well it should. This is an important topic — quite possibly the important topic, leaving wars and plagues aside. Wars of one sort or the other are always with us, and so too are plagues; the difference is, we’ve never been able to live-stream them before.
One thing I personally like to avoid on my social media feed is graphic content popping up without warning. Certain things put me off my breakfast. Truth be told, there are some things I don’t ever want to see or even think of, not even to go through a list to mark them off as “Please Don’t Show Me This”. I learned early on that folks will post anything online, no matter how obscurely insane; in fact, the more unlikely it seems to me, the more certain it is that someone’s done it live on camera.
So yes, I’m fine with a degree of pre-screening; I’m sure most of you are. There are folks that can’t abide profanity, or who have a crippling fear of spiders; they ought to have the right to block those things out for their own peace of mind. Even politics: Much though I deplore the deliberate uninvolvement and self-blinkered pig-ignorance of our voting public, I’d draw the line at forcing education on the unwilling.
Now, if I were to go looking for some of that, I’d want to be able to find it, and hope that the opinions of the multitude haven’t completely eliminated content I’d usually avoid. My niece might have to write a school report on spiders, for instance.
There is some content that should never exist, and no responsible outlet should host it or link to it — but which? Almost everyone will object to snuff films and child porn; some would ban all pornography, and others would restrict instructional videos on the construction of zip guns or kitchen explosives. The public display of private information without consent is sometimes legal with celebrities but usually not, and certainly platforms need a way to abide by the laws without burdening themselves out of existence with content monitoring and moderation.
Most of these are questions for courts to decide, if the platforms in question can’t preempt the lawsuits by formulating general policies — which is what they’re doing right now. It’s a difficult process, and they’re bound to screw it up from time to time. I’m not urging sympathy; instead, we should be vocal when they do make a mistake, or when their policies become onerous.
How far should Twitter and Facebook go to fight misinformation, disinformation, outright propaganda? Many will agree that deliberate, malicious lies should not be allowed to masquerade as news, and so at least some effort ought to be made to screen it. This is easy enough with posts urging us to drink detergent or bypass prescriptions to take horse pills, but the line quickly blurs: Is it OK to block RT broadcasts on the Ukraine war but not equally transparent false facts that favor Ukraine?
We’ll be having that debate publicly for quite a while now — and that’s the way it should be.
Which brings us to today’s anti-headline: The Babylon Bee, noted conservative counterculture humor outlet, has been reprimanded by Twitter for one of their stories. Their account has been blocked pending removal of the offending content, and they refuse to take it down on the grounds that they intend to tell the truth as they see it and not be bullied by Big Tech. Seth Dillon, the CEO, writes, “Truth is not hate speech.”
It can be. The most hateful thing I can do to a person is to publicly describe them, hewing close to the facts but doing so in as slighting, dismissive, contemptuous manner possible. Spreading lies about someone is one way to cause deliberate damage, but it’s nothing next to spreading truth. I wouldn’t post Seth’s home phone number, his address, or a list of his food allergies because it’s not merely an invasion of privacy but an actual invitation for someone else to do him harm (like, say, his next waiter). Truth can be hate speech and often is.
There’s a legitimate question here about whether online platforms have the right to police tone in humor, or on the other hand a positive obligation to fight harm from potentially damaging content, whether emotional or physical. At this point in our national discussion, we’ve come to a point where it’s agreed (at least among lawyers seeking damages) that there exists some obligation. So far so good; we can’t expect Twitter to get sued because you want to be an ass.
The question that remains for us is this: What level of protection does humor provide? The individual targeted by the Bee post is public; satire of celebrities and politicians is to an extent permissible. Moreover, humor is the preferred weapon by the weak against those in power; that’s traditionally fair use, and in a free society it should be protected.
But when that humor is used to cause gratuitous harm to the helpless, it’s known by another name.
The Bee is trying to make a vocal point about transgender acceptance. If it were about politics or policy, and not about people, they might find me tolerant (if not necessarily accepting) of their views. However, with such a personal topic, it would be tough to remain impersonal — and they’re not trying, which makes it about people and not politics. That makes this bullying, and Twitter is right to oppose it.
It is not my place or yours, and certainly not the Babylon Bee’s, to tell anyone else who they can and cannot be — but I merely assert this. I won’t try to persuade anyone about a person’s right to choose to define themselves in any way they want; that’s rather beyond the scope of this article. Besides, it’s unnecessary; we’re not discussing rights, but rather basic civility, without which dialogue can’t happen. Your mother raised you better than this, Seth.
Consider too that a substantial percentage of humans (enough that you probably know one or more) are born intersex and have no option but to exercise a choice in this respect or have the decision made on their behalf. Logically, either this is God’s will or God is powerless to prevent it. So long as that group of people exists and can feel reflected shame or feelings of inferiority from a joke, that type of joke is never harmless. It will always hurt someone who is helpless to avert it. Don’t do it.
Personally, I extend this reasoning to cover those who may have other than genetic reasons for how they define themselves. Who am I to judge reasons, or for that matter “normal”? Who are you?
The Bottom Line: If the Babylon Bee, or anyone, wants to make a political point about public policy with respect to sexual identity other than their own, they should keep it impersonal or expect to face consequences in any reasonable world where free expression is valued. Bullies deserve to get what’s coming to them.
If what you just read pisses you off, that’s not because it’s wrong. People are wrong every day and it doesn’t get to you. If you’re upset by this article, it’s because deep down part of you knows it’s true.
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Image Credit: I’m making fun of the Babylon Bee, because humor is designed as a weapon by the weak against the powerful, and it’s supposed to be used against bullies. Suck it, Bee.