Censorship Won’t Stop Racist Extremism, It’ll Hurt the Left

·9 min read
Scott Olson/Getty
Scott Olson/Getty

After Payton Gendron allegedly murdered 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, Gov. Kathy Hochul called for a new push to censor extremist views on social media. That’s a badly misguided response.

The white supremacist ideology that shaped Gendron’s crime is despicable, and it is indeed dangerous. But the government pressuring social media companies to crack down on noxious ideologies is exactly the wrong solution.

Free speech is both valuable in itself and essential for social progress. Sacrificing it for the sake of fighting right-wing extremism would be dangerous for society as a whole—and it wouldn’t even be an effective strategy for combating the ugly ideas about “replacement” spouted by the shooter.

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Hochul’s Call for Censorship

After describing the shooting as a result of “philosophies filled with hate” that is “spreading like a virus” online, Hochul said she was “calling on the CEOs of all the social media platforms to examine their policies.” The governor added that she wanted to make sure those CEOs can “look me in the eye and tell me that everything is being done that they can to make sure that this information is not spread… these theories that result in the radicalization of a young person sitting in their house.”

That’s not just a call for social media platforms to ban direct incitement to violence—which all the major ones already do, as a matter of course. It’s not even just an endorsement of existing policies banning the expression of hate toward “a person, group, or protected category.” It’s a call to go much further in shutting down the expression of “theories” and “philosophies” that are linked to such hate. That goes right to the heart of what free speech protections are supposed to protect.

It’s one thing to stop a physical virus from spreading to protect everyone’s health, but trying to stop the supposedly virus-like spread of dangerous ideas into people’s minds is breathtakingly authoritarian. The right to expose your mind to infection by any idea you choose to entertain is essential to both individual freedom and collective democracy. You can’t simultaneously believe that ordinary people are capable of self-rule and believe that for their own good they can only be exposed to a range of political ideas pre-selected by benevolent censors.

It's also worth keeping in mind that in any realistic scenario in which sweeping new policies were enacted against “dangerous” or “extreme” ideas, those policies would be written in an even-handed way, targeting whatever the authorities deem to be “extreme” on the left, as well as the right.

Those on the left who are tempted to support such policies would be well-advised to take a moment to reflect on the fact that judgment calls about which ideas are too extreme or dangerous to allow would be made not by some committee representing the interests of the working class, but by immensely profitable corporations whose interests absolutely do not align with progressive politics.

There’s a reason that previous generations of socialists, civil rights protestors, anti-war activists, and other dissidents placed so much emphasis on freedom of speech. Movements for change always start out representing the opinion of a minority of the population who need to persuade the unconverted. Powerful actors are typically deeply hostile to them. There’s simply no path to victory that doesn’t involve the hope that their ideas will spread “like a virus.”

Of course, free speech rules that allow unpopular good ideas to become popular will also create the possibility that unpopular bad ideas will spread. But those leftists who understood free speech to be a core left-wing value were confident in their ability to persuade ordinary people—a confidence often conspicuously lacking in progressive technocrats.

Does it Even Count As Censorship?

It’s sometimes argued that censorship by private companies isn’t censorship at all—that just as The Daily Beast has a right to decide which articles to publish, Twitter has a right to decide which philosophies are too full of hate to be allowed. Those that are sympathetic to what politicians like Hochul are doing would likely argue that the governor and other elected officials are just gently nudging private companies to do the right thing.

As a socialist, the basis of my politics is an understanding that private economic power can be a source of oppression, but you don’t have to agree with me about that to see what’s wrong with the argument that there’s nothing to see here because Hochul is “just” pressuring the government to engage in censorship.

The McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, for example, was in some ways the result of government pressure, but it was enforced by private companies. Was there no free speech problem here, either? Was it merely the government leaning on big business to be more “responsible” and tamp down on “extremism”?

Comparisons between editorial decisions by outlets engaged in speech and censorship carried out by neutral platforms also miss the point by a mile. If FedEx or UPS decided to stop shipping certain books and magazines based on their political content, that would be alarming—and doubly so if they made this decision under pressure from powerful politicians.

Payton Gendron and the Great Replacement Theory

Even if you take the concerns I’ve been raising seriously, you might hesitate to oppose social media censorship.

The state of free speech in America is already pretty bad. This is a country where most people go to work at non-unionized workplaces where they can be fired for expressing the wrong opinion. And even in the unlikely scenario where stricter censorship helps stop hate crimes like the one in Buffalo, we need to consider what it means to weaken the depressingly few free speech protections we still enjoy in this late capitalist hellscape.

And whether or not censorship will actually have any positive effect is a very big “if.”

It can be difficult to sort out cause and effect in mass shootings where the shooter’s rage has some sort of ideological dimension, if only because people unstable enough to commit them often have deeply incoherent views. The alleged New York City subway shooter Frank James, for example, both frequently expressed Black nationalist sympathies and talked about how Black people who were killed by the police had it coming. “You play stupid games,” he wrote, “you win a stupid prize.”

The 180-page manifesto allegedly issued by Gendron before the Buffalo shooting is at least that incoherent. In one breath, he pledges allegiance to the far right, calling himself an “ethno-nationalist” and a “fascist” (specifically an “eco-fascist”). In the next, he claims to be some sort of left-winger (“I fall in the mild-moderate authoritarian left category”).

The word “authoritarian,” in my experience, is one that no normal or politically literate person wants to apply to themselves (no matter how well it fits their views). A person self-describing as a “mild-moderate” that’s also an ethno-nationalist authoritarian fascist is one with incoherent politics, taken to an extreme.

That said, one thing Gendron clearly does believe is that white people in the United States are victims of a plot to “replace” them with non-whites. This is the main theme of the manifesto.

He writes that he picked the location of the shooting based on the number of black people who lived in that zip code. While typical “great replacement” theorists are talking about the supposed “threat” of immigrants and refugees from foreign countries, Gendron reasoned that Black people born in the United States can also be counted as “replacers.”

This kind of ugly white supremacist nonsense, and not Gendron’s bizarre attempt to label himself (or, for example, the rambling thoughts about gold, crypto, and fiat currency expressed in the manifesto) is what Hochul and other censorship advocates have in mind. I agree that it’s loathsome—but will social media censorship really stop its spread?

I doubt it. For one thing, “replacement” paranoia is spouted by a number of mainstream politicians, as well as by legacy media figures like the wildly popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Several other Fox hosts, and prominent figures in what currently passes for the Right’s mainstream, have also said disturbingly replacement-y things. And now elected Republicans like Hochul’s fellow New Yorker, Rep. Elise Stefanik, are flirting with great replacement phrasing and imagery, too.

Is Twitter or Facebook likely to censor one of the biggest cable channels in the United States, or even “just” one of the network’s highest-profile on-air personalities? Please. Marginal conspiracy theorists and World War II reenactors who say the same thing in a cruder way might get the boot, but no one’s censoring Fox News. Outside of circumstances far more unusual than yet another mass shooting in the United States, censorship is for the little guys.

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Carlson’s defenders have pointed out that his paranoia is about native-born Americans of all races being “replaced,” not just white people, which makes his views technically distinct from Gendron’s slightly more eccentric interpretation of the replacement narrative. They also point out that Gendron never specifically mentions Fox News or Carlson in his manifesto, but that he did say he hates “conservatism.”

Whether you blame Carlson and his fellow purveyors of bigoted nonsense for this particular horror, the premise that they have a real and pernicious influence is undeniably true. Further empowering corporate media censorship, though, isn’t going to stop the spread of ideas other powerful corporations beam into millions of living rooms every day.

The only real solution is for a renewed and self-confident left to defeat this narrative in the larger political war.

“Replacement” paranoia relies on the perception that the interests of working-class people who are born in the U.S. are opposed to those of immigrants coming in from poorer nations. That’s a classic scapegoating technique used by people who don’t want native-born workers to realize that their real enemies are the corporate oligarchs who have spent the last several decades crushing labor unions and fending off attempts to redistribute their wealth.

The solution isn’t to sacrifice vitally important free speech protections in an ineffectual quest to stop the scapegoaters from having their say. It’s for the left to do a better job of putting forward a more compelling narrative.

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