I’m supposed to be angry at Twitter, I realize. But I’m finding it difficult.
On Wednesday, the social-media giant went on a “purge,” removing white-nationalist Richard Spencer and the account for his “think tank,” the National Policy Institute; Ricky Vaughn, well known for his lightly informed theories about “the global banking elite”; Pax Dickinson, of muckraking site WeSearchr, who recently suggested that an Evan McMullin electoral victory in Utah could prompt a “Mormoncaust,” and who was previously forced to resign from Business Insider in 2013 for offensive tweets; and a number of others.
The purge was somewhat capricious. Some of those banned seemed to have been engaging in genuine harassment, contrary to Twitter’s stated rules; others, it appears, were blocked strictly because of their views.
There’s no legal issue here, of course. Twitter is a private company; they can ban whoever they like, for (almost) any reason or no reason. When you sign up to use the site, you agree to play by their rules. That’s why I’ve suggested that if conservatives are incensed about Twitter’s treatment of its users, the only lasting solution is to create their own social-media platforms.
But conservatives are likely to see a principle at stake: “If it can happen to them, why not me? First they came for the ‘s**tlords,’ and I didn’t speak up. . . . ” And, indeed, Twitter regularly is arbitrary, hypersensitive, or hypocritical — for example, when it baselessly stripped the verification checkmarks of prominent conservative users earlier this year. Likewise, earlier this year, it was discovered that Facebook systematically suppresses conservative views in its “News” section.
Yet, sometimes the corporate jackboots accidentally get it right.
Those of us on the right spend our time trying to loosen the very real clamps that exist on speech, for instance, on university campuses. And that’s important work. DePaul University has the right to forbid Ben Shapiro from speaking, as it did this week. But conservatives oppose DePaul’s doing so because they object to the idea that Ben Shapiro is somehow morally beyond the pale. He’s not. He’s a mainstream conservative, working within a delineable tradition of conservative thought.
It doesn’t follow, though, that because Shapiro should be allowed to address DePaul students, so should Jared Taylor. Just because we should not draw the line at Shapiro doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw a line anywhere.
Communities form a consensus about what is right and wrong based in part on public debate, but also on custom and taboo and religious practice and a whole lot of other factors.
Conservatives are sometimes apt to forget that there isn’t, and never will be, a perfect “marketplace of ideas,” because just as people are not perfectly rational shoppers, they’re also not perfectly rational assessors of ideas. It would be a nice world in which the KKK sat down at the table with the Anti-Defamation League, and they debated their respective positions, and the ADL convinced the KKK that it was wrong, and all those white supremacists stopped being white supremacists. But that’s not how things go. Communities form a consensus about what is right and wrong based in part on public debate, but also on custom and taboo and religious practice and a whole lot of other factors that were built on syllogisms and that are not entirely subject to rational debate.
Currently, there is a pretty strong consensus in America that if your idea of “free speech” is to say that “Hitler didn’t get the job done,” it might just be okay to ostracize you from polite company. And that consensus is a good thing.
The obvious problem is that a similar justification — that this or that group is beyond the pale — is used to justify campaigns to silence opponents of same-sex marriage or skeptics of an open immigration policy. But that error in judgment is not an argument for refusing to marginalize any view. It’s an argument for greater charity and more thoughtful moral training.
Our liberal outlook, which in the spirit of conflict-avoidance prefers to sideline questions of a common good, and by extension what a well-formed conscience looks like, makes this extremely difficult. Without a shared political vision, we struggle to adjudicate the disputes that arise from conflicting values. Conservatives traditionally have been attuned to that problem and have tried to keep liberalism connected to a public consideration of higher things.
Twitter would do well to be more transparent about its decisions. There’s no reason that Twitter could not demystify its guidelines about what constitutes impermissible speech on its platform, and then enforce them fairly. Doing so would be fairer to users and would reduce the aggrievance of users and observers who feel that the site is just another instrument of an arbitrarily restrictive left-wing agenda.
But the problem goes well beyond social-media etiquette. Conservatives would do well to recognize that and begin to think bigger.