The Roundtable is a discussion of news and events among Torchlight staff. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and to add links. This conversation happened on August 27, 2017.
Tom Rich, Editor-in-Chief
Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville, many white supremacist groups had their web hosting canceled, their Reddit groups disbanded, and their social media accounts suspended. The CEO of Cloudfare expressed some discomfort with the amount of power he was wielding in doing so, even as he wielded that power. Our topic today is the social and employment consequences of open white supremacy. What should they be? Who should enforce them? Do some limits need to be put in place? What, in a nutshell, ought to be the consequences for showing your face in the neo-Nazi crowd at Charlottesville?
Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor
There’s a school of thought that says that we need only worry about government censorship and government action; but this is untrue. It’s private citizens who lynch, who enforce sometimes terrible social boundaries, who discriminate unfairly, who segregate themselves. Especially today, when giant internet platforms become monopolies, there are circumstances where companies or other internet communities have enormous power over individuals. I am deeply concerned about how this power is wielded. But Nazis are the exception to that concern, and I hope we’ll get into why today.
Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor
Freedom of speech is not freedom of the consequence of speech; racists are not a protected class. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for there to be real world consequences for showing support to Nazis, especially in attending a rally. (Unless one goes to chronicle it as a journalist or somesuch, but presumably those news organizations knew about that) So there should be no concern for a Nazi or Klansmen’s special feelings. However, Josh is correct, the amount of power we have ceded to certain singular people is troubling, but it has always been thus. It’s just that it is now basically impossible to, say, break up twitter when what we used to do was break up Ma Bell. I think it’s a new aspect of our society that needs to be seriously considered, but at the same time with how the platforms effectively work, I don’t know enough to see a solution
Sam Dieffenwierth, Researcher
As far as I’m concerned the firing of employees for attending political events is another step on the road that began with demanding social media usernames in job interviews. Unless someone shows up in a Bob’s Widgets t-shirt he shouldn’t be fired for what he does on his own time, plain and simple. Flip the script- would you be okay with Black Lives Matter supporters being fired for attending marches? No you wouldn’t and rightfully so. We’re headed down the slippery slope of employer control and it ends with employers demanding to know who you voted for and GPS trackers on your smartphone.
There’s the scale of the platform to consider as well. Say Torchlight gets a new person, who does a bunch of good writing for us but then gets photographed at a Klan rally. The damage done by kicking him out of our clubhouse is pretty minimal; kick him off Twitter, though, and he’s now lost access to a significant public forum. I think there comes a point where a platform is so ubiquitous and important to participating in civil society that it has to operate under different rules than smaller platforms, much like a company that starts to close in on monopoly status starts to run afoul of different laws. I’m not clear on how you mark the point where a platform moves from one to the other, though.
Sam mentions a slippery slope, and that is well taken (although I would have gone with an argument of where that retaliation stops. antiabortion protests, rallies for clearly racist and awful candidates etc). However, Nazis and Klansmen litterally depend on that ambiguity of legitimacy to survive and harrass. (We should remember that besides Ms Heyer, there were other assaults and beatings committed by these people.) So while that criticism is well taken, I think we also need to consider the rights of people to live without fear from having to be in close proximity of people willing and desiring to hurt them.
I have answers for both concerns here. First of all, there are political views on which rational people can disagree, and then there are views which call for genocide; the latter have no place in society and must receive no social protections, because they are fundamentally against society as a whole. A society must be able to defend itself from people who wish to destroy it. Second, Tom asked about the line, and I think the answer lies in the idea of utilities. I don’t think Nazis should lose their water and electricity, and I believe the internet should be a protected utility that all people have a right to. But I have a much harder time calling Paypal or Twitter utilities.
I’m mostly with you, Josh, on the utilities model of internet access, though if a viewpoint gets you kicked off of every site of any particular size or scope I’m skeptical if you can say you have meaningful access at that point. Where I’m less confident is on the employment circle. We spend a lot of time on the liberal side of the aisle worrying about getting people employment, improving employment conditions, making sure everyone has access to what they need to survive; it’s a point of pride. I’m uncomfortable with adding a rider of “unless you’re a Klansman” to all of that, and I’m not sure if that’s a real philosophical discomfort or just being uncomfortable with conflict. Help me see the thinking, here.
Your freedom of speech runs up against your employer’s freedom of association, essentially; as soon as you become a public figure, your reputation reflects back on the company. Some people are comfortable buying aluminum siding from a known white supremacist but many aren’t; and many of those are the very minorities that white supremacist would like to genocide. While we’re getting all concerned about the Nazi’s ability to find employment and Tweet, let’s also consider the ability of Jews, people of color, and other oppressed minorities to patronize businesses without worrying about their customer service rep advocating for their destruction on his day off.
Fundamentally, I agree with you Josh. There is certainly a limit to where political speech goes from being personal to being a concern for the people around you. Nazis and Klansmen certainly fall over that line. The problem is the ambiguity of that line, but in this specific case, the issue is pretty clear to me. If the message is about violence, I think that should be the dividing line.
I’ll also point out that rooting out Nazis from our society is bigger than a purely social issue; there are a healthy (or unhealthy) number in government. Ignoring the White House, law enforcement has been infiltrated–in fact they just found out that the new chief of police for Colbert, Oklahoma owns a white power record label. The catastrophic influence of white supremacy and Naziism on our society is so damaging that it should outweigh concerns about their social standing. And this applies on a personal level, too. Nobody has to be friends with a Nazi if they don’t want to.
That all makes sense to me, and the line between “speech I dislike” and “speech that moves toward violence” seems like the sort of difficult parsing that we have a legislative and court system to figure out. Got about ten minutes left, everyone: final thoughts?
And of course the problem is that our criminal justice system and government is riddled with people who are at best sympathetic to these toxic ideologies, as you mentioned. If there comes a time where our government is not on the side of white supremacy, I guess we can deal with that issue then, but we haven’t actually experienced that yet.
Tearing out the racist elements in our society, root and branch, is the great American project of this century. We should all get more comfortable using the tools we have available, while recognizing that we shouldn’t go any further down the slope in terms of who we do this to or what we do to them. And it’s possible that we wouldn’t have to use these tools if the government was leading on the issue. Instead, we have Trump giving aid and comfort to enemies of the state and its people, including his pardon of Arpaio, as blatant a symbol of racist hate and abuse of legal authority as we’ve seen in years. Vigilantism (in a broad sense) is not good, but it arises when the authorities who properly dispense justice become ineffective or unwilling to do properly. If we’re so worried about Twitter and Paypal and the internet mob taking matters into their own hands, we should make sure that they don’t need to fill that gap.
Where I’ve been struggling with all of this is that I generally want to bring people back into the fold of polite society; I’m slow to condemn, quick to look for ways to reconcile. But reconciliation and redemption can’t happen until the active harm has been stopped, and what’s been driven home for me is that the harm hasn’t just continued, but it hasn’t even slowed nearly as much as we might have hoped. Shutting down neo-Nazi sites, banning them from platforms, and so on, doesn’t jive with the instincts of the slice of liberal democracy I inhabit. But stopping the harm they’re doing has to come first. We can’t let a good instinct be co-opted to protect bad actors.
Especially when those bad actors are taking advantage of the good instinct to inflict the harm that they do. This is a deliberate strategy in order to propagate their hate.
Exactly. That’s all the time we’ve got for the Roundtable this week; thanks as always, everyone, for a lively conversation!