Tuesday night saw Twitter “permanently suspend” ubertroll Milo Yiannopolous (@nero) from its site. Even the language is Orwellian; How a suspension—something inherently temporary—can be permanent is incidental to the matter.
In one sense, so are Yiannopolous’ actions themselves. It is not in dispute that Yiannopolous intentionally and consistently engaged in obnoxious behavior. It is also not in dispute that his catchphrase of #FeminismIsCancer never gave anyone actual cancer. He did not reveal anyone’s private information, nor did he call for the murder of any person or classes of people.
The most common defense of Twitter’s action is that since the company is private property (or effectively so, despite being publicly traded), this isn’t a First Amendment issue. Businesses can do what they want. Nothing to see here, let’s move on, the science is settled. And there, of course, lies the rub.
At least since Teddy Roosevelt was President over a century ago, there exists an overwhelming consensus that firms are not mere private property in the traditional sense. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that it as far more legitimate to regulate businesses than to regulate private homes—a private citizen, for example, is free to choose friends by race or sex while a corporation cannot select its employees on that basis. Furthermore, virtually everyone regards it as somewhat appropriate to use social pressure to urge firms to engage in better practices (whatever one’s definition of “better” happens to be).
Uber is a problem because some cars can’t accommodate the disabled. Airbnb is rife with racist users. And of course there are no shortage of articles discussing the ethics of homophobes baking gay wedding cakes, as contrasted with Jews being forced to bake Nazi cakes. (Full disclosure: the author is Jewish, and has received his share of Nazis spouting oven references on Twitter.) Rather than the old cry of “There oughta be a law!”, social media allows organized campaigns to exert social pressure via tools such as Twitter’s hashtags and Facebook groups. So to claim that since this isn’t a First Amendment issue it therefore isn’t an issue at all is simply absurd—especially from those social agitators who are so frequently the targets of Yiannopolous’ vitriol.
One of the most common and most valid progressive critiques of corporate America is its use of a facade of banality to disguise a hidden agenda squarely against the public interest. For the Sanders set, every corporation is an evil, lying conglomerate out to destroy what is good and holy—until and unless it does what they want. Then, somehow, it is redeemed and on the side of the angels. Is it, though? Or is it simply now a more effective liar? Setting up one’s personal morality with the universal good is a very common standard of judgment. It is also a dangerous one, at the very least due to the many biases inherent in our thinking.
A social media platform that allows accounts for Stormfront, terrorists and Laura Bush does not comport itself very well to the Disneyfication of discourse (particularly political discourse). Politics is a messy thing, and it affects all of us worldwide in myriad ways. A facade of genteel agreement is nothing more than a Soviet pretense of unanimity and camaraderie despite all the massive evidence to the contrary. An insistence on respectful dialogue begs the question that all humans beings are worthy of respect—an assertion for which we all have our own pet counterexamples.
The problem is that we have an equivalency of “respectful” and “respectable.” For those in the mainstream, to contravene respectable opinion is to act disrespectfully.
Yet it is precisely the extremists—those whose principles are radically outside the mainstream—who should be given the opportunity to make their views known. Minor issues can easily be hashed out within median political discourse. Bur major course corrections are only visible to those on the fringe.
Imagine publicly predicting on September 10, 2001 what would be happening the following day. Such a person would be written off as a complete lunatic (and, nowadays, racist, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic to boot). This insistence on “staying the course” defies every poll on whether this country is on the right or wrong track. It is only the radical who can tell us that we shouldn’t be taking the train at all.
The world has been down this road before. The USSR had a long and consistent practice of turning individuals into “unpersons.” It was an assault on those who violated the taboos of the time or those who offended the powers that be.
Occasionally these men and women were given some perfunctory trial. But the result was the same: their very existence was stricken from the public record. Their writings were banned, even those once propagated as official dogma. Photographs were doctored; not only did the ex-citizens effectively cease to exist, but they retroactively never existed to begin with.
Historically speaking, the biggest opponents of the fascists were the communists. In fact it was the Soviets and not the Americans who managed to reach Hitler’s bunker first. George Santayana would hardly be surprised to see that the main opposition to Yiannopolous’s neo-fascist supporters come from the neo-Soviet left.
The decision to unperson Yiannopoulos was done in secret in some hidden Twitter office, no doubt one with cheerful Twitter blue birds on every wall. His “suspension” was retroactive: His past posts—virtually all of which were once regarded as acceptable—have been vanished just as much as any problematic ones.
It is unclear which was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nor is it clear which were the past straws. Twitter’s only statement regarding Yiannopolous’s ban was a reiteration of its terms of service, which is akin to reading the criminal code aloud when someone is accused of a crime. There is, however, a very profound difference here. Twitter does not have a Soviet monopoly on the media. It is still largely open to criticism, both on the platform itself and in other venues. This is not a First Amendment issue. But it still remains, quite obviously, an issue.