Permanent Suspension of Reason
Edit 2022-10-23: I’ve revised this post to tone down some stylistic excesses. I’m still of the opinion that dominant tech companies shouldn’t take it upon themseles to censor politically unappealing speech and people. I think censorship is wrong. And doing so doesn’t seem to have stopped the increasing polarisation of U.S. politics anyway. However, while I express the view that the social media bans may have helped Trump’s popularity in the post (arguing that he was shooting himself in the foot at the time), I’m now unsure whether this was true.
A man found some gold and left a noose in its place.
The owner, finding his treasure gone, donned the noose.
– Plato (or elsewhere Statyllius Flaccus)
The storming of the U.S. Capitol was a spectacle, a farce and an embarrassment all at once, bundled, packaged and distributed for an international audience. What was surprising about it was the fact that news, in this day and age, can in fact appear spontaneously, without human intervention. Good thing for the West that our revolutionaries only plan far enough to get themselves up on the barricade; having reached that place, they forget at once why they climbed it in the first place. But that is only a minor consolation.
The tech behemoths, meanwhile, feeling that they are under pressure, and feeling somehow that people – we don’t know who – need to be protected, or at any rate that something has to be done, reach for the tool at hand. Thus on 7 January, Facebook suspended Donald Trump’s account until the end of his term or longer; and on 8 January, Twitter, having previously awarded him a 12-hour ban, suspended his account permanently due to two tweets he had posted after regaining access that day.
The tweets, beautifully expressed as always, were:
The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!
To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.
It’s funny that the President of the United States should get kicked out of Twitter. But it’s also pathetic. The tweets don’t look incendiary. What was Twitter’s rationale for the suspension? They explained that the two tweets violated their Glorification of Violence policy, which reads in part:
Under this policy, you can’t glorify, celebrate, praise or condone violent crimes, violent events where people were targeted because of their membership in a protected group, or the perpetrators of such acts. We define glorification to include praising, celebrating, or condoning statements, such as “I’m glad this happened”, “This person is my hero”, “I wish more people did things like this”, or “I hope this inspires others to act”.
What violence was Trump glorifying? I presume the storming of the U.S. Capitol. But neither tweet made any reference to that event. Instead, they give me at least the impression of a man who has realised that the sustained temper tantrum in which he’s been indulging has resulted only in ridicule and begrudgingly decided to go away and sulk. But they don’t refer to the events of 6 January, let alone glorify, celebrate, praise or condone those events, let alone do any of those things for the violent elements in them.
So how does Twitter read these tweets as glorification of violence? They do it by interpreting every word in the least charitable way possible, so that Trump saying he won’t attend the inauguration “may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target” and his saying that his supporters will have a “GIANT VOICE long into the future” and that they “will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form” is “being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition’”. Whatever this is, it is not incitement to violence.
So Trump and his followers will continue their exodus to so-called free-speech alternatives like Parler. Except, yesterday Google removed Parler from its Play Store due to insufficiently “robust moderation for egregious content”. Apple, taking the moderate line, announced that it would only follow suit if Parler did not “improve moderation and content filtering”. Remember that this is a duopoly: if you are shut out of these two places, you are shut out period. And later that day Amazon Web Services, too, suspended Parler, leaving it without a web host.
Addendum 2022-10-22: Apple eventually followed through, banning Parler from its App Store. However, after adding censorship of certain posts to the app, Parler was allowed back on Apple’s App Store in May 2021 and on Google Play in September 2021. (This month it was announced that Ye aka Kanye West, having recently been blocked from Instagram and Twitter for making anti-Semitic posts, had agreed to buy Parler.)
I think that all of this is a mistake twice over.
It’s a mistake first because, politically, it’s all drawback and no benefit. Everything Trump says at this point is a liability to him. Either he apologises and admits his mistake or – and this is more likely, because he can’t bring himself to renounce the soil in which he grew – he doubles down, opening himself up to renewed and intensified criticism.
It’s a mistake second because, morally, it is censorship of viewpoints different from ours, which is wrong. In a different world, the tech industry is populated with conservatives and these flimsy pretexts are used for the suppression of activists on the Left. That sort of thing is already happening today. If Twitter can draw a line from the two tweets for which they suspended Trump to the storming of the Capitol, they could easily, had they only wanted to, draw lines from anti-racist activists and Democratic politicians to the violent elements in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. This is not whataboutism; this is living with what Robert Musil called a sense of possibility.
It reminds me of how Sir Thomas More, or St Thomas More if you want, in A Man for All Seasons, having heard his son-in-law advocate that More try to arrest an enemy of his, demurs:
WILLIAM ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
SIR THOMAS MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
WILLIAM ROPER: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
SIR THOMAS MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat.
But why should I care? I’m not a conservative, let alone a Trumpist, let alone the sort of Trumpist who thinks it’s a fine idea to storm the Capitol. Only, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently.” And consider the passage in which that famous quote appears. Luxemburg is setting out on a critique of totalitarian tendencies in the Russian revolution. She is saying that the Bolshevik suppression of democratic processes like the Constituent Assembly (this was written from jail in 1918) prevents the proletariat from getting the political training and education that it needs to govern. She goes on to write:
It is the very giant tasks which the Bolsheviks have undertaken with courage and determination that demand the most intensive political training of the masses and the accumulation of experience.
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.
I know that I risk provoking laughter by saying that I think deplatforming today, one century later, is also hindering people from getting the political training and education that they need. But I do. It prevents them from seeing possible objections to their arguments (and there are fair objections to every argument). It creates the kind of climate where they are afraid to criticise what others in the movement say. It is hindering them from being able to truly participate in political processes.
Liberals and conservatives alike now issue calls for “reckonings” – what is one to do? The events of 6 January and the responses that have followed have produced in me a mixture of feelings best put into words by Freddie DeBoer:
True to form, my disgust with the right is balanced – not matched, but balanced – by my despair over the response from the left, if that’s what we want to call it. What I saw yesterday was a liberalism/Democratic party/left that is not just ignorance towards what power is, how to gain it, and how to wield it, but [seemingly] uninterested in power at all.
Identifying problems is easy and cheap and permits one to affect radicalism. Proposing meaningful solutions is much more fraught. Solutions are hard. Solutions are messy. Solutions are inherently unsatisfying. And, crucially, solutions require an honest and frequently uncomfortable accounting of whether you can possibly achieve them without the support of people who largely do not share your culture or your values. Sometimes asking how to get what you want leads you to the conclusion that you have to appeal to the very people you’ve been saying are irredeemable. Today the habit is for people to say that they need to convince no one, that the only political task is to rally the already convinced. A comforting idea. If it’s true.
The most charitable explanation for the obsession with identification and naming is misunderstanding, that these people simply don’t understand power and how change is made. They constantly make appeals to the heavens because they believe, very deeply, that if you identify injustice often enough some cosmic authority will hear you and … well, it’s unclear.
He goes on to write, quite beautifully:
Justice, as a target, has made the left into a cult, one that appeals constantly to a higher power that never appears and never delivers on anything. The appeal to justice is the most common act of left-wing practice and the most useless. I have never seen a single bit of good done through an appeal to justice. Instead I only see millions of people, ringed around a ziggurat, praying to a God who isn’t there. Justice does not exist in the corporeal universe. There is no justice. There is only power.
What do you want? Who doesn’t want you to get it? Which of you has more power? How can you gain more power to get what you want if you need it? Those are the only political questions I care about anymore.
I see people on the Left who are content to point out problems and avoid proposing solutions. But I also see people who, wanting to do something, latch on to the first thing that comes to mind, which is not coincidentally often the thing that’s closest to them. That is how we get the president of the largest flight attendants union calling on airlines to ban Capitol rioters from “the freedom of flight”. That is how we get Google workers of all people unionising. That’s also how some Twitter and Facebook employees, feeling that they don’t have the power to defeat Trumpism, but nevertheless feeling the need to do something, act out with suspensions, like the man who, having found a noose where his treasure had been, dons the noose: because that is all he has.
These are reactions to powerlessness. If you see an injustice and feel powerless to do anything about it, avoiding talk of solutions is avoiding the moral uncertainty that comes with it. If you see an injustice, doing something that is in your power, however ineffectual, is a balm for the soul. Neither reaction does much to remedy the injustice. The remedy, I think, is to adjust your expectations and to try to work out where you can do the most good on the margin.
Laertius, D., Mensch, P. & Miller, J. (2018). Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ↩︎
As it happens, I think that some of the things that Trump (who shortly thereafter, like a coward, broke the promise he’d just made of marching with his supporters) said at the rally that day in a real way did incite his followers to storm the Capitol. And I think it was fair for Twitter to give him a temporary suspension for that. ↩︎
I am not saying that these companies are breaking the law or violating the First Amendment. But there is the law of free speech and there is the spirit of free speech. I am concerned with the spirit of free speech. Incitement to imminent violence is already a crime in the U.S.; Americans don’t need Facebook and Twitter to help enforce it. ↩︎
I also think, for similar reasons, that calling for his impeachment is a mistake politically. ↩︎
In October Twitter suspended a socialist for writing: “Boomers need to kill the Joseph McCarthy that’s still alive in their heads! He is dead but he still censors the thinking of many Boomers!” (The suspension was later lifted after she agreed to delete the offending tweet.)
On 15 September, Twitter suspended the account of a Chinese virologist for suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 was lab-made.
On 8 January, Twitter suspended the account of Sci-Hub, which doesn’t post any copyrighted content, for violating their Counterfeiting Policy.
Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution. The original German reads: “Gerade die riesigen Aufgaben, an die die Bolschewiki mit Mut und Entschlossenheit herantraten, erforderten die intensivste politische Schulung der Massen und Sammlung der Erfahrung. Freiheit nur für die Anhänger der Regierung, nur für Mitglieder einer Partei – mögen sie noch so zahlreich sein – ist keine Freiheit. Freiheit ist immer nur Freiheit des anders Denkenden. Nicht wegen des Fanatismus der ‘Gerechtigkeit’, sondern weil all das Belehrende, Heilsame und Reinigende der politischen Freiheit an diesem Wesen hängt und seine Wirkung versagt, wenn die ‘Freiheit’ zum Privilegium wird.” ↩︎
It also puts more power into the hands of corporations which we cannot hold accountable and which, like all institutions, will do everything they can to hold on to their power as they inevitably decay. But that is rather a separate point. ↩︎