Everybody knows by now that Twitter has permanently suspended the account of conservative Breitbart editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. His crime? Supposedly triggering a storm of abuse directed at actor Leslie Jones, one of the four stars of the new Ghostbusters movie. And as you also know, that movie has been extremely polarizing, largely because it’s taken a franchise that formerly had men in the starring roles and remade it with a female cast.
I see nothing wrong with that, but the movie activated a storm of criticism, largely from men, and much of that criticism was harsh. I see no explanation for such a level of rancor except pure sexism. I haven’t seen the movie, and won’t—those kind of movies aren’t my style—but most of the critics I trust have said that it’s not very good—that there are some clever bits, but the actors didn’t have any rapport and the effects were cheesy. On the other hand, those committed to having more women in starring roles—an admirable motivation—seem to have promoted the movie solely because it had women in starring roles. When one can predict people’s reactions to a movie based on their politics, then you know something other than the quality of the movie is at stake. Ghostbusters became an ideological battleground, and the quality of the movie was totally lost in this battle.
I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say whether it was good or bad—given my dislike of the genre, I’d probably find nearly all movies like it bad—but I can write about what happened later. Leslie Jones, the tall black actor in the movie, was barraged with obscene, racist, and insulting tweets. Among the people who went after her was Milo. Compared to those of his followers, his own tweets weren’t nearly as insulting (though still hurtful), for Milo’s followers share neither his wit nor subtlety.
I am not a big fan of Milo, but neither do I say that he should be ignored or shouted down. He is a provocateur and often says things for their shock value, but some of his criticisms of the Regressive Left do bear pondering. I abhor his politics—he supports Trump, for instance—but I also abhor the way that American college students have treated him: trying to shout him down, pouring fake blood on themselves during his lectures, setting off fire alarms during his talks to silence him. It is a testimony to the power of his message, which drives Regressive Leftist college students mad, that rather than oppose him with words, they act out, behave like babies, and try to shut him up. Letting him speak is the very reason why we need the First Amendment in the U.S.
But that’s the First Amendment, which applies to speech in public. What about Twitter?
It won’t surprise readers here that I think Twitter, which has become THE public social media platform, should follow the First Amendment. It should not have banned either Milo or his followers, regardless of how much hatred they purveyed.
Did Twitter have the right to ban and block these people? Yes, of course—it’s part of their conditions of service. Should they have banned or blocked Milo? No, I don’t think so.
For, as we know, it’s a fine line between real hatred and “hatred” that is merely offense taken at criticism. Who will decide? I don’t trust Twitter to do that. After all, they regularly leave up vile things that make fun of ethnic groups (anti-Semitic campaigns, for example) or of individuals. Here’s a tweet by First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza, not only a specialist in free-speech litigation, but a liberal, and no fan of Milo. It shows the kind of abuse that Donald Trump’s wife gets on Twitter—comparable to the abuse heaped on Leslie Jones. Were Melania Trump’s critics blocked? Nope.
(Click screenshot to go to tweet; it won’t embed for some reason):
What should somebody do who is the target of such harassment? I know that these comments are hurtful: I myself am hurt by a lot of the emails and comments I get about this site, but that doesn’t nearly amount to the harassment directed at Ms. Jones. Most of the comments directed at me just get dumped. One that came after my “get off my lawn” post—about words and phrases I didn’t like—read something like this: “Why don’t you retire, you sick fuck?” I just ignored it and quietly shelved it. Were that to happen to me on Twitter, I would not have reported it, though. Nor would I report a tweet that said something like, “Die in a fire, you ugly Jew.” Sometimes I will block these people on my website, where I have to read the comments, but I would never try to get them blocked on Twitter, where I can avoid comments. Is that hypocrisy? I don’t see it that way. My site is my own, and yes, Twitter is private, but it’s become so big that it is in effect our public social media platform. And no one person can police it all. Further, when I ban someone on my site, I don’t block them for everyone, for they can always spew their invective elsewhere. If you’re blocked on Twitter, you can’t address anything to anybody on the entire site. It’s not a private blog but, in effect, a public forum with millions of followers.
If you don’t like what you read on Twitter, you can block the sender personally, so you won’t even be able to read the comments. And you can retweet the abuse so that others can see it (even when I call attention to nastiness, I don’t dox the sender). My policy is to read Twitter comments only rarely, as I follow the advice of Nick Cohen: “Don’t read the comments on what you write.” Instead of broadcasting every message of hate you get, rise above that hatred and ignore it—or retweet it, mindful that the senders are odious.
I feel sorry for the abuse Leslie Jones has taken, and abhor those who have harassed her. I abhor those who call for the expulsion of Muslims from Europe and the U.S., and I abhor those who deny the Holocaust. But should they be censored? No, I don’t think so. For if free speech means anything, it means we must let the most marginal and the most vile opinions be heard. To give the power of censorship to an individual is to take away your own power of discrimination.
But are there some opinions so clearly “hate speech” that we should block them? I don’t think so. The line between harassment and criticism, or harassment and rudeness, is so fine that I don’t trust anyone, much less Twitter, to adjudicate it. We all know that criticism of the Black Lives Matter Movement, or of Islam, is considered offensive “hate speech” by some. And it really does offend many of those people—they are not pretending to be hurt. But there is room for valid discussion of these issues, and critics should not be censored. We all know of cases in which valid criticism is publicly displayed as a form of victimism, considered “hate speech,” even though it isn’t. (Ghostbusters is not such a case.)
On the other hand, the line between free speech and threats of violence is clearer, and the U.S. government hasn’t had much problem deciding which side of the line you’re on.
Here are two tweets for which Milo got banned. Are they insulting? Yes, one of them is. Are they hate speech? Not in my mind. Should someone be banned for life for saying this? No way.
In my view, Twitter’s policy on discussion should be that of the U.S. government’s: all speech should be permitted except that which threatens immediate violence. (In the U.S., workplace harassment is also prohibited, but that’s not relevant on Twitter as one can ignore harassment on Twitter but not in the workplace.) And surely Yiannopoulos shouldn’t have been held responsible for what his “followers” did.
As we see in the Melania Trump case above, misogyny and hatred aren’t confined to right-wing trolls or Milo Followers. I would suspect that some of those who went after her were simply angry Democrats.
To reiterate: Leslie Jones didn’t deserve the storm of hatred, racism, and misogyny that was dumped on her. I know she feels horrible, and I sympathize with her. But just as such sentiments are permitted in the public sphere, so they should be permitted on Twitter, which has in effect become the online public sphere. If Twitter persists in blocking people, then they must do so equitably, and outline a clear policy for doing so. But I’d object to any clear policy. For if you’re a Leftist, and celebrating Milo’s ban, remember that the next time the bell tolls, it might be for thee.
Dave Rubin, it so happens, shares my sentiments, and posted a video about it yesterday. It’s well worth watching.
Note: Vox has another view, and in fairness I call it to your attention. Their conclusion:
But at the very least, Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Yiannopoulos from the site is historic and most likely will serve as a stepping stone for Twitter to refine and increase its tools for fighting abuse. In particular, this should increase Twitter’s ability to identify the kind of largely indirect harassment that Yiannopoulos specialized in: not individual acts of trolling, but rather homing in on a target and goading other Twitter followers to go on the attack.