Few ideas have done as much damage throughout history as empowering the government to criminalize opinions it dislikes
By Glenn Greenwald | The Guardian
Writing in the Guardian today, Jason Farago praises France’s women’s rights minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, for demanding that Twitter help the French government criminalize ideas it dislikes. Decreeing that “hateful tweets are illegal”, Farago excitingly explains how the French minister is going beyond mere prosecution for those who post such tweets and now “wants Twitter to take steps to help prosecute hate speech” by “reform[ing] the whole system by which Twitter operates”, including her demand that the company “put in place alerts and security measures” to prevent tweets which French officials deem hateful. This, Farago argues, is fantastic, because – using the same argument employed by censors and tyrants of every age and every culture – new technology makes free speech far too dangerous to permit:
“If only this were still the 18th century! We can’t delude ourselves any longer that free speech is the privilege of pure citizens in some perfect Enlightenment salon, where all sides of an argument are heard and the most noble view will naturally rise to the top. Speech now takes place in a digital mixing chamber, in which the most outrageous messages are instantly amplified, with sometimes violent effects . . .
“We keep thinking that the solution to bad speech is more speech. But even in the widest and most robust network, common sense and liberal-democratic moderation are not going to win the day, and it’s foolhardy to imagine that, say, homophobic tweets are best mitigated with gay-friendly ones.
“Digital speech is new territory, and it calls for fresh thinking, not the mindless reapplication of centuries-out-of-date principles that equate a smartphone to a Gutenberg press. As Vallaud-Belkacem notes, homophobic violence – ‘verbal and otherwise’ – is the No 1 cause of suicide among French teenagers. In the face of an epidemic like that, free speech absolutism rings a little hollow, and keeping a hateful hashtag from popping up is not exactly the same as book-burning.”
Before getting to the merits of all this, I must say: I simply do not understand how someone who decides to become a journalist then devotes his energy to urging that the government be empowered to ban and criminalize certain ideas and imprison those who express them. Of all people who would want the state empowered to criminalize ideas, wouldn’t you think people who enter journalism would be the last ones advocating that?
I’ve written many, many times about the odiousness and dangers of empowering the state to criminalize ideas – including the progressive version of that quest, especially in Europe and Canada but also (less so) in the US – and won’t rehash all those arguments here. But there is a glaring omission in Farago’s column that I do want to highlight because it underscores one key point: as always, it is overwhelming hubris and self-love that drives this desire for state suppression of ideas.
Nowhere in Farago’s pro-censorship argument does he address, or even fleetingly consider, the possibility that the ideas that the state will forcibly suppress will be ideas that he likes, rather than ideas that he dislikes. People who want the state to punish the expression of certain ideas are so convinced of their core goodness, the unchallengeable rightness of their views, that they cannot even conceive that the ideas they like will, at some point, end up on the Prohibited List.