The battle over permissible speech in American society was helpfully, and predictably, elaborated by Facebook last week in an update to its “hate speech” rules. The social media giant’s changes are a signal of the new limits being placed on political expression and the freedom of the mind. Other major American institutions are almost sure to follow its lead.
Until recently, most online platforms largely defined “hate speech” as speech that could lead to imminent physical harm. But Facebook now demands that its users “not post” speech critical of “concepts, institutions, ideas, practices, or beliefs associated with protected characteristics, which are likely to contribute to imminent physical harm, intimidation or discrimination against the people associated with that protected characteristic.”
“Protected characteristics,” according to Facebook, include “race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity and serious disease.” On its face, this sounds neutral and universally applicable. Yet anyone following the matter knows that it is inconceivable, for instance, that Facebook would ban critiques of “cisgenderism,” a concept whose purpose is to attack heterosexuality and the legitimacy of the generative family. It is similarly unimaginable that protected groups would be blocked from criticizing American constitutionalism as a construct of “whiteness.” Oppressor groups, after all, do not possess “protected characteristics.”
Discrimination once meant denying housing, access to public accommodations, or employment to people based on immutable characteristics. This, of course, was corrected by civil rights laws. But discrimination now means speech that protected groups find insulting. In other words, the last place where discrimination exists is in the minds of oppressor groups.
This new view of discrimination conflicts with the basic requirements of political liberty. It means, for instance, that speech defending the traditional family harms the self-respect of LGBTQ people; that arguments in favor of secure borders harm the self-respect of illegal immigrants; and that analyses of the different rates of criminality among demographic groups harm the self-respect of some groups, while also lowering their stature in the eyes of the oppressor group. Anti-discrimination comes to mean enforced silence on behalf of protected groups, no matter how central the issue in question is to the nation’s political and social future.
Serious political deliberation in a nation devoted to constitutional self-government is circumscribed or even prohibited under such restrictions. Big Tech platforms are undeniably the major, if not the essential, forum for political debate today. Pew Research reports that 36 percent of Americans receive news from Facebook. YouTube, whose “hate speech” rules are similar to Facebook’s, accounts for 75 percent of the world’s video viewing.
Forbidding the discussion of “concepts, institutions, ideas, practices, or beliefs associated with protected characteristics” also hobbles the use of speech as a tool for discovering the truth about basic matters. Leading “hate speech” restriction advocates already demand the banning of factual claims, should they harm the self-respect of protected groups. Facebook’s guidelines could preclude the critical discussion of dogmas claiming that all oppressor-group members are unconsciously biased, or that only racism accounts for disparities among groups.
By this logic, the speech of protected groups becomes sacred, insofar as it cannot be subjected to rational inquiry, critique, or even calls for clarification. Liberal democracies separate church and state, but protected groups now form a new priestly class, not only with power over social life and death, but with the capacity to make unfalsifiable declarations.
Facebook’s reasons for these changes are murky. At their most hopeful, Facebook executives once seemed to believe that by connecting the entire world, their platform would help erase the causes of strife and war—like loyalties to nations and gods—without which, they hoped, human beings could live in harmony. “If people are asking the question, is the direction for humanity to come together more or not? I think that answer is clearly yes,” Mark Zuckerberg enthused several years ago.
More cynically, however, prohibiting “hate speech” coheres with Facebook’s business model: users with heightened, enraged tempers do not yield authentic user data that reflects their sellable tastes and preferences. As Facebook knows, “people use their voice and connect more freely when they don’t feel attacked on the basis of who they are.” So, too, is the Left’s pressure apparatus—which now includes the federal government—more effective at compelling corporate decision-makers to listen.
Facebook is one of the referees of our public square, a privilege that grants it the power to determine the thoughts, ideas, concepts, and even political direction of the nation. This immense power must not be permitted to warp the ability of citizens to exchange their thoughts freely and fearlessly.
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