The following text is the opening statement by Western Standard Publisher Derek Fildebrandt in a debate on “deplatforming” as a means of fighting hate. Video of the debate is available HERE.
The question before us today is a relevant and important one: “Is deplatforming a useful tool to eradicate hate?”
Unsurprisingly to those of you who know me, my answer, is a “hard no.”
To start, let’s try to define “deplatforming.”
“Deplatforming”, is the private-sector counterpart to public-sector censorship. While “censorship” is the state inserting itself as the arbiter of what is permissible to say, and who is permissible to say it, “deplatforming” is by-and-large, private actors taking up the role of arbiter.
While Canada’s press is by-and-large free, it is still subject to censorship around certain sensitive subjects. One of the more notorious examples was the attempt by the Alberta and Canadian Human Rights Commissions to censor the Western Standard from publishing the Danish cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammad in 2006.
While these same self-professed “human rights commissions” never batted an eye at art, or writing critical of Christianity in displays like the famous “Piss Christ”, they were only too eager to make a series of cartoons illegal for print.
No doubt, the cartoons were offensive to some. But that was the point. These cartoons had triggered grown men around the planet to start rioting and killing people. Free men and free women had a right to know what all the fuss was about; and while most of the Canadian media cowered, the staff at the Western Standard did their duty as a part of a free press.
As the bad press around the issue was building a groundswell of support at the time to abolish the Human Rights Commissions themselves, the government capitulated its own case in court (rather than face a Charter challenge). Since that time, governments have been more careful about applying its ham-fisted censorship legislation on major press outlets.
But since 2006, the lead role of arbiter has passed from the public-sector, to the private-sector; which brings us to “deplatforming”.
However more prominent deplatforming is now, it is not new, and while it is primarily employed by the political left today, it has historically been used just as frequently by the old political right.
In 2003, the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the US invasion of Iraq. At that time, public support favoured war, and being a semi-country band, their fans were disproportionately in rural and southern areas of the US that tended to favour war.
Many pro-war Republicans set about deplatforming them. They were labelled unpatriotic, and therefore unworthy of listening to.
But rather than individuals decide not to buy their CDs or turn them off when they came on the air, many pro-war activists tried to get them off the air. It wasn’t good enough that they didn’t want to listen to what the Dixie Chicks had to say. They wanted to make sure that others didn’t listen to what this group had to say.
I raise the case of the Dixie Chicks, because today’s modern campus censorship crusaders must understand that whatever they may feel about a particular politician, speaker, or singer, this is a knife that can cut both ways.
Surely, there are many individuals that hold views repugnant to us as individuals. And to that, there is only one legitimate action that free peoples can undertake in a free society: change the channel.
Today’s campuses are riddled with students and professors that feel some – or many – messages and speakers are just too dangerous to be heard. That if people hear these people out, they will be transformed into goose-stepping storm troopers bent on wanton racial and homophobic murder.
Supporters of deplatforming say that shutting speech down only applies when someone “crosses the line.”
But where do they draw the line? Are any of them qualified – intellectually or morally – to draw that line?
The de-platformers draw little distinction between a genuinely hateful character like David Duke, and someone who merely happens to hold controversial opinions, like Jordan Peterson.
For my own part, deplatformmers attempted to pull a fire-alarm while I gave a speech on a campus about three years ago. The controversial, hate-filled message I was giving? That those on the right should not be afraid of the de-platformers, and should never stoop to using petty deplatforming against those we disagree with.
Our concept of deplatforming now extends to the online world. Controversial personalities are now routinely “deplatformed” or “demonetized” to stop them from perusing a meaningful career. In some cases, this can be justified, but not only any grounds that they are “hateful” or “offensive”. Privately owned, online platforms are private property, and just as you have the right to tell a trespasser to get off your lawn, owners of private online platforms have the right to tell people to “get off my server”.
This is complicated for major social media and monetary platforms however. When the CEOs of these tech giants are hauled before Congress, it is clear that legislators require them to bend to their political will, or else face direct regulation. In conflates the private with the public, and makes deplatforming by Facebook and Twitter an act of indirect censorship by government.
For example, YouTube has bent to the will of governments around the world and blocked nearly all Covid-19 related material that contradicts the statements of the World Health Organization. This is a case of deplatforming silencing not just voices deemed “hateful” or “offensive”, but just dissenting and contradictory.
This should serve as a present and dangerous example of what happens when states, major corporate entities, or individuals, decide to make themselves the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes legitimate speech.
Some things are offensive. Some things hurt our feelings. The grown-up reaction to this is to change the channel, or challenge those we disagree with.
This is doubly-so for those with genuinely hateful views. If a speaker is invited from the Westboro Baptist Church or the Iranian regime, shutting them down not only violates the right of people to hear them, but gives them and their hateful message credence. Potential listeners might rightfully ask themselves: “If this speaker is so wrong, why would anyone attempt to stop them from speaking?”
Most open forums – like the one we are having here today – have an opportunity for questions and answers. Those who disagree with the speaker, can challenge them, and shine a spotlight on the inconsistencies that make up most hateful views.
When then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2007, he was asked about his regime’s record of murdering gays and lesbians. His response that Iran “had no homosexuals”, elicited roars of laughter from the crowd.
Ahmadinejad – allowed to speak freely – made a fool of himself and the worldview which he represented. This was a textbook case of allowing the marketplace of ideas to determine which ideas should sink, and which ideas should swim.
All ideas: the thoughtful, the vapid – the liberal, the hateful – the innocuous, the provocative – all deserve to be heard if they can meet only two criterion: someone wants to speak, and someone wants to listen.
Any government that tries to censor them, is a tyranny. And individual that tries to de-platform them, is a tyrant in the making.
Free speech is not meant to protect the expression of the uncontroversial, bland, prevailing orthodox opinions of the majority, but to protect the expression of the controversial and offensive opinions of the minority, or more importantly, the individual.
Only weak ideas and weak men require censorship to defend them from challengers.
In a free society, you have only two recourses to speech you disagree with: don’t listen, or challenge it.
Let me conclude by quoting then Western Standard Publisher Ezra Levant in his interrogation with the Human Rights Commission in 2008:
“I reserve maximum freedom, to be maximally offensive, and hurt feelings as I want.”