Censorship is not the answer
Leftists for free speech
Recently, an article appeared in the Atlantic claiming that Substack has a “Nazi problem” and calling for Substack to shut down accounts which promote Nazism and other forms of hate speech. The author of this article also published an open letter to Substack on his own Substack titled “Substackers Against Nazis” calling for writers on Substack to join him in demanding that Substack begin practicing censorship of hate speech.
In response, Hamish McKenzie, one of the founders of Substack, made a statement. In the statement he affirmed that the founders of Substack are also “against Nazis” in that they don’t agree with or condone Nazism, but maintained that Substack operates on a principle of free speech, with few exceptions, one of which is incitement to violence. He writes “We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power…. Our content guidelines do have narrowly defined proscriptions, including a clause that prohibits incitements to violence. We will continue to actively enforce those rules while offering tools that let readers curate their own experiences and opt in to their preferred communities. Beyond that, we will stick to our decentralized approach to content moderation, which gives power to readers and writers.”
I could not agree more with Hamish McKenzie and Substack’s position on censorship. It is in exact alignment with my views. I am a fervent supporter of free speech, including when people are saying things that I strongly disagree with. My one exception to this, also in alignment with Substack’s policy, is calls to violence, either against individuals or groups. Given that this unfortunately seems to be a position that many people are struggling to grasp, I thought I’d take some time to spell out why I take this position.
Censorship does not make ideas we disagree with go away. It does not transform those ideas, make them less appealing to people who are drawn in by them, or prevent those ideas from being spread.
Censorship, like cancel culture, does not do the thing it claims to do. Just like how cancel culture does not end, prevent, or transform abuse, censorship does not end, prevent, or transform hate speech. There is a lack of emotional maturity in the belief that because we say something is bad and attempt to make it disappear, the thing in question will actually disappear. It won’t disappear. It will just go somewhere else. And our refusal to actually face it, be curious about why it exists, and do something meaningful to address it, actually makes the problem worse.
Freddie deBoer spelled this out clearly in his article “You Can't Censor Away Extremism (or Any Other Problem)”: “The debate about whether we should censor unpopular views such as hate speech is an important one, but also a strange one. In my experience, it operates wholly independent from any consideration of the restraints of reality. People debate only on the level of the highest principle; everything is a referendum on the mores of democracy. They are all should questions - should we erode the right to free expression in the name of protecting minority groups from psychic harms? Should we prohibit the use of certain offensive terms? Should we declare some political positions out of bounds in public society? But all of these normative questions depend on the answers to empirical questions that preempt them, “cans” that come before “shoulds.” Can we actually protect minority groups from psychic harms through laws intended to limit speech? Can we actually prevent people from using offensive terms in any practical and meaningful sense?”
The tendency of “social justice” culture to live entirely in the realm of “shoulds” while never facing or using our actual power is so depressing to me. The theatrics of an article titled “Substackers Against Nazis” and the smug, righteous, self-congratulatory tone of this type of “activism” is exhausting. Does the author of this open letter actually believe that those of us who oppose censorship are not also “against Nazis”? Most people today are against Nazism, which is a good thing. But taking Nazism and other forms of dehumanization seriously means thinking about the problem seriously and considering how to best address and transform the problem. Many serious thinkers have come to the principled conclusion that censorship does not make Nazism go away, and in fact gives us the false impression that we are doing something about it when we are not. Instead, proponents of free speech believe that hatred and dehumanization are best dealt with head on, in the light of day, where they can be studied, understood, refuted with compelling arguments, and hopefully, transformed.
Censorship can and will be used by those in power to silence those struggling for liberation and justice. Pro-censorship types are always imagining that they personally will be in charge of what speech will be censored, and they, of course, are correct in their assessment of what speech should not be allowed.
It is completely bizarre to me that this debate is happening now, in the current political climate, and that no one on the pro-censorship “social justice” side sees the irony in calling for censorship of hate speech and antisemitism at the very moment when calls for an end to the genocide of the Palestinians is being framed as hate speech and antisemitism. Charges of antisemitism have long been used to silence and punish activists and organizers who name the massive human rights violations happening in Palestine. This didn’t start with the current genocidal attack; it has been going on for as long as people have been standing up for Palestine. Leftists are frequently attacked as antisemites for demanding justice for Palestine, including Jewish Leftists. In the context of the current genocide and the Palestinian solidarity movement, people are losing their jobs and being accused of hate speech for criticizing the genocidal actions of Israel.
The “social justice” crowd is, for the most part, in favour of the Palestinian solidarity movement, and would insist that they are not calling for the censorship of pro-Palestinian speech when they call for the censorship of hate speech and antisemitism. But the reality is that pro-Palestinian speech is defined as hate speech and antisemitism by a great many people, even though it is not. In the fantasy world of Jonathon M. Katz and other proponents of censorship, we don’t have to worry because censorship will always be carried out exactly how they think it should. No one would ever use censorship to silence movements for liberation and justice for severely oppressed people. Except that censorship is used exactly this way by people who claim to be opposing hate speech.
Who decides what counts as hate speech?
As I said, most people oppose Nazism, and it makes total sense to me that a lot of people feel a natural sense of repulsion at the idea of defending a Nazi’s right to say horrible and dehumanizing things. I get it. I find all expressions of dehumanization disgusting and abhorrent, and I oppose Nazism, racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and any other type of dehumanization. I find this type of thinking deeply upsetting and I believe it’s an expression of a profound dissociation from empathy. My life’s work is about the promotion of empathy and the absolute necessity that we defend and protect the sacred right of every living being to be who they are, with dignity and free from violence.
As I said, I don’t believe that censorship gets rid of hate and bigotry, and in fact acts as a distraction that makes us feel like we are addressing the problem when we are not. But I am definitely still a “Substacker against Nazism.” I am not in favour of Nazism and I believe it should be challenged and refuted, and that we, as Leftists, have a responsibility to understand why such an abhorrent ideology could be attractive to anyone, so that we can meet the underlying needs that lead people so far from their human capacity for empathy. At the same time, I can totally understand the appeal of calling for the censorship of such clear and obvious hate speech. I think it’s an abandonment of our responsibility to face and transform the conditions that lead to Nazism, but I get the emotional appeal of what feels like an easy solution.
And yet, I myself am frequently called a Right wing extremist and fascist on the internet. That’s an obviously insane claim because I am a Leftist who openly and regularly opposes racism and all other forms of dehumanization, but it doesn’t stop the cancel culture rumour mill from producing insane and false stories about me, and many other Leftists who criticize “social justice” culture. In fact, some people slashed my tires and poured shit on my car and they genuinely thought they were doing some kind of “anti-fascist action.” The state of the so-called Left is beyond embarrassing and a great many things are called hate speech and fascism today that are quite obviously and clearly not.
I have already seen a bunch of people resharing the Atlantic article extending it’s logic to terfs. While I don’t agree with terfs, I don’t think they are comparable to Nazis. When we treat everything we don’t agree with as if it were exactly the same as Nazism, we become completely politically ineffective. We aren’t able to listen to or understand arguments we don’t agree with because we’ve trained ourselves to respond by shutting our ears and refusing to engage. When we refuse to listen, understand, or engage we lose all hope of transforming the ideas we disagree with. As Kai Cheng Thom has argued, terfs and trans women hold a lot of common ground and that common ground could be a fertile opportunity for solidarity building. I believe this strategy will be a lot more effective than putting up a sign at the local cafe that says “No terfs, No swerfs, No Nazis.”
For most people who don’t want to think very deeply about it, the idea of censoring Nazism seems straight forward enough. When you have been called a fascist for literally no reason and had strangers slash your tires, things become a little less straight forward. If Jonathon M. Katz got his way, it likely wouldn’t be long until I was no longer allowed to write for Substack, even though I am very clearly and obviously not a Nazi.
Discourse is important and ideas should be discussed.
I believe so strongly in the work of ideas. The Left has been reduced in many places to dogma and the recitation of takes. People are addicted to their phones and struggle to read books. People don’t know why they think what they think. I want people to return to reading long form writing. I want people to think carefully about the great many problems facing the world today. I want regular working people to take up the work of ideas, to feel entitled to think carefully and for themselves. I do not believe there is any hope if we can’t begin to think carefully and collectively. Free speech and open discourse is absolutely fundamental to this. Substack does an amazing job of creating a space on the internet for long form writing and the free exchange of ideas. If they started to practice censorship, that would be greatly hindered.
I am very grateful to Substack for weathering this storm and sticking to their principles. I do not want the internet to be run by the power hungry, downwardly mobile, pundits-in-exile from the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. I am very disappointed in everyone quietly taking their writing elsewhere without thinking seriously about any of this. Unquestioningly following the various rules about what’s currently problematic under ‘social justice’ orthodoxy is totally unprincipled and is a big part of what’s blocking us from actually challenging problems like racism.
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Clementine Morrigan is a writer and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, ethics, relationships, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and a proponent of building solidarity across difference. She is a socialist, a feminist, and a vegan for the animals and the earth.