Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and most other major internet distributors took a bold stepthis week when they all but banned content from Infowars, a website run by the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The tech companies cited their policies against hate speech for their decision, rather than the trafficking in fake news by Infowars.
It’s tempting to applaud this move, but we should be wary. While Mr. Jones’s rhetoric is certainly repugnant, mounting pressure from the political left to censor hateful speech may have unintended consequences, especially for people of color.
That’s because “hate” is a dangerously elastic label, one that has long been used in America to demonize unpopular expression. If we become overzealous in our efforts to limit so-called hate speech, we run the risk of setting a trap for the very people we’re trying to defend.
History offers countless examples. Consider black nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s. Impatient with the lack of progress for African-Americans after the civil rights movement, leaders like Malcolm X routinely inveighed against white America using inflammatory rhetoric. He had no trouble expressing animosity toward the “white devil,” and he contemplated violent resistance.
That put him in the cross hairs of law enforcement, most notably J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. Of course, the FBI spied on many other so-called black radicals. Under Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program, groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers were subject to routine surveillance, harassment and even violence. Hoover’s justification? He labeled them hate groups. It was a cynical but effective way to turn the tables, framing them as antagonists in the centuries’ long struggle for racial equality.
Hoover is gone, but the tendency to label black radical organizations as hate groups persists, even among groups with more admirable intentions. The Southern Poverty Law Center,which tracks extremist and hate organizations across the country, makes the dubious claim that nearly 25 percent of the 954 “hate groups” they follow are “black nationalist” groups.
There’s no question that black nationalists often argue for racial separation or that many have engaged in bigotry. But it’s false equivalence to label black nationalists and white supremacists alike as hate groups. Doing so ignores the centuries of racial terror that gave rise to black nationalism, as well as the power imbalance that keeps it alive. And it gives a powerful tool to people who want to silence radical perspectives. They can call these viewpoints hate speech.
Take, as one example, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, a Palestinian-led initiative that endorses a series of nonviolent measures to end Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians. As it has gained traction in the United States, in large part because ofsupport from prominent African-American intellectuals and organizations, state and federal lawmakers have increasingly tried to shut the movement down by accusing it of hate speech.
The New York State Senate, for example, recently passed a bill that would prohibit from receiving public funds “student organizations that participate in hate speech, including advocating for the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel and American allied nations.” Meanwhile, Congress (with support from many Democrats) has been trying to criminalize the movement for years.
If people engaged in a boycott can be silenced, even criminalized, for discriminating against the group they accuse of discrimination, we begin to see how problematic it is to punish “hate” speech. It can devolve into the politics of choosing sides, and that is usually bad news for people who lack political clout to begin with.
Black Lives Matter would know. A movement formed in response to police violence against African-Americans, it has been accused by law enforcement officials, and even some state legislators, of being a hate group, despite the fact that it renounces violence and welcomes allies from all walks of life.
By accusing Black Lives Matter of peddling hate, politicians effectively turned the tables on the movement, allowing lawmakers, in some cases, to strengthen protections for the police. Since 2016, several “Blue Lives Matter” bills have been enacted across the country, many of which seek to add police as a protected class covered by hate crimes laws. Following this logic, Black Lives Matter’s opposition to police brutality is a kind of hate itself, from which the police require additional protection. Yet killings by police officers are increasing while line-of-duty deaths of police officers are decreasing.
It is difficult to imagine a more ridiculous outcome. But it speaks to one of the most serious perils of limiting speech: a measure to protect minority perspectives can instead be used to further marginalize them.
Despite this, a significant number of young Americans, especially young Americans of color, believe that hate speech should be limited by the government or on college campuses. In addition, some scholars have recently argued for legal restrictions on hate speech.
But how would stronger limits on hate speech affect progressive protests against white supremacy? What would have been the fate, for example, of the historic Million Man March in 1995, an event organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan? The Nation of Islam is a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, and Mr. Farrakhan has openly made anti-Semitic comments for years. At the same time, the March was a landmark effort focused on uniting black men in the face of widespread inequality and racism.
What about the equally historic Women’s March in 2017, after it was revealed that some of the event’s most prominent organizers had ties to Mr. Farrakhan? Or that they openly revered Assata Shakur, a black revolutionary who was convicted (albeit questionably) of killing a police officer and is now on the F.B.I.’s list of most-wanted terrorists? Predictably, they have been accused by some of embracing hate, yet they organized one of the most significant protests in United States history.
If we allowed these voices to be silenced on grounds that they promote hate, we’d find ourselves scrambling to defend the radical poets, musicians, filmmakers and other artists who have pushed the boundaries of expression into what could arguably amount to hate speech, but who have done so from the vanguard of social and political protest.
That almost certainly explains the response from the music industry when Spotify announced its decision to stop promoting artists who engage in hateful speech or conduct. A number of people, including representatives from Kendrick Lamar’s record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, expressed concerns that such a policy would lead to censorship and threatened to pull their music from the service.
Within weeks, Spotify reversed course, noting that its policy was “vague.” But by silencing Mr. Jones on its platform, it’s not exactly clear where Spotify is drawing the line.
And that’s the inherent danger in attempting to limit something like hate. It can be so broadly defined that our efforts to counteract it will be broad, too.
If that happens, we risk silencing the voices and perspectives we can least afford to lose. That’s not a triumph over hate. That’s falling victim to it.
Erik Nielson (@ErikNielson) is an associate professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond.
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