It seems that the quickest way to turn avowed communists and socialists into radical capitalists is to give them an opportunity to stop someone they dislike from speaking. Youtube's ban on firearm videos (and other content restrictions handed down from corporate boardrooms) have caused people who normally dislike the notion of private property and would like to vastly curtail the power of corporations to begin chiding people and telling them that their freedoms are in no way curtailed because such limits are simply an exercise of dominion over private property. Somehow, the same people who offer a critique of rights that explains the insufficiency of the American constitutional model's provision of negative rather than substantive rights and the its false assumption that only the government can violate them will insist that everyone has only the negative right to be free from prior legal restraint, and that nobody has the right to a platform. These anti-corporate crusaders will call any claim that someone (unless it's someone they agree with) is being illegitimately silenced through private power ‘freeze peach’.
This entire notion is errant nonsense. Let us dispose of its various pieces in no particular order, though we may as well kill the easiest off first.
The First Amendment only Applies to the Government
Since when have our ideals of interactions and our community norms been a product of the United States constitution or other formal law? The flow is and should be the other way. Our norms, notions of social goods, what we think each person owes to others and is owed himself, and how we expect to improve eventually becomes codified law. The counter “That's not in the first amendment!” is as wrong in private affairs as any appeal to the first amendment itself would be. Outside of a court-room the formal text of law is not the bound of good behavior.
There is no formal, legal right to be free from petty slights caused by ignorance, yet we expect people to educate themselves and get to know others and refrain from doing things that are odious to them. There is no formal, legal right that a small group in casual association will understand and make accommodations for someone with a different background or ability, and yet we expect them to do so and condemn them if they don't. The first amendment nowhere requires that minority views and minority voices are given a chances to be heard and heard respectfully, and yet when we are honest we recognize that everybody has a right to a platform and demand that they have it.
Freedom of Speech Doesn't Mean Freedom from the Consequences of Speech
This is the most vile and execrable of the lot. I think you've found Gamer-Gate's creed. All those women who say something unpopular and get a pile-on of threats and people trying to get them fired? No right of theirs has been violated. They're just experiencing the consequences of speech. Of course you should feel angry at that reasoning. That's because you should feel angry whenever anyone trots out the honestly disgusting and shameful canard of ‘consequences’ to justify anything.
The invocation of ‘consequences’ is the refuge of some scoundrel vestige of natural law. It is devoid of justification. It sidesteps why we should have these consequences for this and those consequences for that and just licenses them all under some vague idea of ‘consequences’. It's the domain of the abusive parent, the authoritarian principle, and mobs of trolls generally.
If you want to advocate the establishment of social norms such that we practice exclusion against people for this or that behavior, then by all means do so, but do so honestly. Explain why you think the exclusion you want will produce some worthwhile end. Explain why it should be that level of exclusion and not some milder or stronger form. Actually come to grips with how to avoid licensing exclusion or harassment more broadly. However, keep in mind that whenever you indulge in the vague and stupid discourse of ‘consequences’, you are nothing but the bosom buddy and enabler of every harasser of Cathy Newman or anyone else who angers a mob on the Internet because, hey, speech has consequences right?
Power 'n Stuff
There usually comes a point where someone, rather than providing an public reason for why some speech should be silenced, will make a vague hand-wavy appeal to ‘power’. They'll claim that the people they want to silence are white or men or cisgender or able or neurotypical or any number of things. Often times they're factually wrong (Oh, yes, the spectacle of people angrily assigning identities to their opponents so they can oppress them without feeling bad for it is as ridiculous as it is irrelevant), but even when they aren't, this is nonsense.
Thus ‘power 'n stuff’. It is extremely important to consider actual power relationships and the kinds of distortions they can cause. Substituting the political or economic power of a group instead of analyzing matters with the focus and primacy placed squarely on the individual where it belongs is the kind of disordered nonsense that sloshes out of Marxism and Critical Theory and makes it impossible to reason about anything clearly. (Also you end up with rich, well-educated comedians going on television and actively denigrating and mocking poor and uneducated people for being poor and uneducated before patting themselves on the back for ‘punching up’ and ‘speaking truth to power’.)
I am quite clearly and obviously disabled and I am also quite clearly and obviously mad. I think it is uncontroversial to say that mad, disabled people do not make up a notably powerful cohort. There are lots of factors working against them, both through negligence (ninety-five percent, at least, of the United States has my second-class citizenship built into every detail of cement, stone, and asphalt that makes up urban planning) or through outright misrepresentation and discrimination (I recently lied to the People's Republic of China who would otherwise have been quite likely to deny or drastically limit my visa due to my having a ‘severe mental defect’). However, in cases where I encounter another individual, or even a group of individuals, that do not involve them being my employer, deciding if I get a loan, traveling around a small town, seeing things in bright light, or similar, they are not in a position of ‘power’ relative to me. In many cases, given my education and other opportunities I've had in life, it may well be disingenuous and oppressive of me not to assume I am the more powerful in an interaction. More to the point, to assume that I must occupy a generally disempowered position relative to any arbitrary able or neurotypical individual would be an act of frank oppression against me, even if I did it myself.
Also, all this scrabbling about identity based power obscures the real power asymmetry that comes up in these matters: the one between us and the lizard people. …Did I say lizard people? Corporations. I meant corporations. Corporations and economic influence generally.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Henry. He opened a factory building automobiles and would pay his men five dollars a day if they allowed a committee to regularly inspect their homes and ensure they attended church regularly, weren't smoking or drinking, spoke English at home and taught it to their children, avoided gambling and playing pool and fit other notions of Good, American Clean Living. This was a bonus. You could work for Henry Ford and smoke and drink and refuse inspections and get $2.56 a day if you wanted. Even so, most people would object to this. A paternalistic business making a bonus pay packet contingent on behavior outside of work seems offensive to us.
Even more if they make employment contingent on behavior outside of work. it is amazing to me that people accept employer drug testing at all. This is precisely the kind of abuse that should be outlawed. The radical capitalists among you will doubtless disagree, and come to the defense of the property owners. How 'bout the socialists? Same people who were defending Youtube as being allowed to do whatever it wants with its private property? Feel like defending its right to do whatever it wants with its private property? How about this? Any socialists here want to defend Google's use of Pinkerton Security to spy on its employees out of work? The first amendment doesn't say they can't. They're a private corporation. Surely they can set whatever conditions on employees they want. To say otherwise is to deny them their right to dispose of their money as they see fit. Anyone?
No. We find that offensive. An illegitimate overreach on the part of capital, extruding itself into parts of people's lives where, even when it arguably has a legitimate business interest, it doesn't belong. We should have the same intuitions toward speech. We should be offended and angry when a woman is fired for flipping off Donald Trump's motorcade. We should demand stronger protections for workers that penalize employers for that kind of activity.
We should be angry that it is legal to fire someone for advocating communism in their free time off work. We should be upset that people are fired for random stupid things they say on Twitter. Yes, even sexist or racist things. If you want to have hate speech laws, fine. Push for them as part of a democratic institution. That's a completely orthogonal matter. Outsourcing our collective consciences to corporations without public oversight is a bad idea.
It's probably worth pointing out that there is not and probably shouldn't be a ‘Magical Nazi Exemption’ to every principle. There are areas where corporations simply have no business and jumping up and down screaming ‘But they're fucking Nazis!’ in an ever shriller voice does not magically change that. We do not need to create an incentive for people to throw wild accusations in order to get an exception, nor do we benefit from being able to enact ad hoc authoritarianism over any issue sufficiently many people are irrationally panicking over. I disagree, for example, with the Southern Poverty Law Center arguing that credit card companies should simply refuse to process payments for ‘hate’ groups. Credit card companies are an oligopoly. they should be forbidden to deny payment processing except in extreme cases of verified or likely fraud. This is simply a power they ought not have and their being able to do so has harmed sexual minorities much more than it has racist institutions.
Economic power extends beyond the range of employment. I should not have to explain what a monopoly or oligopoly is to my socialist comrades, nor network effects to anyone technically competent. Needless to say, when technical companies refer to ‘a platform’ they refer to some combination of code and data and branding that is a means for all kinds of interactions that, they hope, becomes the dominant venue for certain kinds of interactions.
Youtube is the place for people to post and share video, at least outside of China. I focus on Youtube largely because it is in some sense the closes thing to a ‘natural’ monopoly on the Internet. Other applications can and should be federated, and Youtube can and should be too, but the challenges of providing sufficient bandwidth at sufficiently low latency to make streaming video attractive makes it more difficult.
So Youtube, at least at present, has a near monopoly and with it monopoly power. Monopoly power is a thing that we normally want to constrained. When Youtube started flagging and hiding content that involved same-sex relationships, people thought Youtube ought not do that. And they were right.
The kinds of content regulations that should be permissible to an entity are, roughly, proportional to the power and reach of the entity. If leaving Youtube presents a significant burden not only in hosting content, but also in how easily content is discovered, and how well users of that content can participate in discussions with users of other content, then Youtube should simply be forbidden from engaging in certain kinds of curation. I am aware that this is, in some ways, a radical stance. In other ways it is simply the logical outworking of the kinds of concerns we have about monopolies and ways in which we would like to constrain their power over society. In a world with lots of platforms where no group has the power to make content unavailable or difficult to find for the average user, and users of one platform can easily communicate with members of any other platform without having to create multiple accounts, then platforms are and should be much more free to curate the content they host.
If you think that it's wrong of Google to limit or hide videos about same-sex relationships, and view it as unreasonable to just tell gay people to go somewhere else, then you cannot say that the makers of gun videos are not having some ‘right’ or reasonable expectation of fair treatment and equitable distribution of social goods violated when their videos are banned. For certain kinds of content You may certainly say, ‘Yes, your rights are being abridged, but it is reasonable in this case because it achieves some much greater social good.’
Some people find that idea unappealing, as it requires that you actually are getting some greater social good out of it or can at least demonstrate a reasonable expectation of getting a greater social good. This is harder and less fun than simply shouting, “I have angry and unhappy feelings toward guns and people who enjoy them right now!” and then laughing at them and coming up with a pious, nonsensical fiction about how their rights aren't really being violated.
Again, none of this rules out restrictions on hate speech. It is orthogonal to it, beyond requiring that one make a good consequentialist argument that the principle you advocate will actually result in a desired outcome without creating too many collateral problems. Pragmatically, putting matters like this in the hands of corporations, who are loyal to their shareholders and profit margins creates rather bad results, and you end up with Facebook doing a lousy job and Google doing a lousy job and Twitter doing what anyone who thought for five minutes would expect given ‘notice and takedown’ style incentives.
Nobody Has a Right to a Platform
I'm fairly sure most people who say this don't believe it consistently. I think there's one a normal mental compartment where they realize that the means to speak and be heard is a social good that everyone has a claim to and expectation of. This is why we think it is bad that underrepresented voices are underrepresented. We have ideas like the ‘progressive stack’ to showcase people we think aren't normally heard. We tell children that everyone deserves a chance to be heard and a chance to be understood. Then there's the other compartment that opens up when they're in a position of power and want to silence someone and when they object and demand a good reason, they shout “Nobody has a right to a platform!”
One of the more legitimate critiques of liberalism, at least the Lockean, Capitalism-flavored sort most commonly practiced in the US, is that formal, procedural, and ‘negative’ rights are insufficient to ensure a good society. A right to formal equality under the law fails to provide equality under the law without a guarantee that each person can get skilled, willing, and not overburdened counsel. A right to life is meaningless without ensuring the means to live. A right to property ensures nothing if one can never get the means to gain or purchase property. A right to liberty fails if all things one could or might do are priced beyond ones reach and even the education to know what choices there are is unavailable.
By the same token, a right to freedom of speech is in itself meaningless without the right to the means to speak and be heard. Behind the veil of ignorance where none of us know what views we hold or what we would wish to say, each of us could only agree that we all have the right to a platform and laugh at anyone who claimed we had freedom of speech without it. We might, if we knew that in the world as it is the availability of ‘platforms’ was limited, decide to distribute platforms in a way that prioritized truth or social utility, though this in itself would be rather difficult since it would limit our ability to discuss what was true and decide on social utility.
Fortunately, we don't live in that world. The defenders of platform ideology will often bring up the New York Times and say something like “Surely you don't claim that people have a right to be in the New York Times! That's just ridiculous!” and go on from there. There are a few problems with this analogy.
First, some people, often the same ones who brought up the analogy in the first place, do think that some people who aren't in the New York Times actually have a right to be there. Often they'll claim that the Times or other venues have a duty to publish more content from underrepresented ideologies or marginalized voices. This, at the very least, suggests an intuition that there is something beyond ‘my platform, my rules’ and that there are public goods to be reasoned about that come into play.
Second, the New York Times is not just a platform. It is a curated collection. The value of the New York Times is not simply that it's (we hope) true but that it is a selection of articles likely to be about things the average New York Times reader cares about and written in a style the average New York Times reader appreciates. Claiming a right to be in it is not simply demanding something from the owner, but removing value for all the readers.
Third, the New York Times, at least in its paper version, is finite. (And in practice in all versions, given the desire to have a uniform editorial style and oversight.) There is an opportunity cost here where every article put into the Times means that some different article must be excluded.
Fourth, if The New York Times were the only source of written material most people read, then yes, I would say everyone has a right to be in it. A right we can't yet fulfill and for the moment would need to prioritize, but there would be an imperative to create more capacity and extend platform so that all those who have a right to it can have their right fulfilled.
So, as you can see, there are many ways that The New York Times or other curated collections are not ‘platforms’ in the way that people who like to apply this reasoning to social networks or youtube or other venues would like them to be. Electronic media are effectively infinite. Everyone has a right to be on Youtube or Google or Facebook or Twitter.
Lest you worry, I haven't just defended the right of spambots. Spammers really are a serious attack on the indexing system. They actively infringe on the right to platform of everyone else by making it impossible for people who want to find and read content to find and read it. This, incidentally, is why the common antifa argument that you can't defend everybody's freedom to speak is fallacious. The usual claim is that if one group comes out to speak and another group wishes to shut them down by making noise over them or otherwise making it impossible to be heard, then you must choose one group over the other. This is false. In all cases, the group that comes out to ‘shut down’ a speaker is not engaging in speech and actively infringing on the other's right. They are certainly free to protest, free to form a picket line (so long as they don't prevent people from crossing), free to express their opposition and dislike. They simply do not have a legitimate right to deny other people the chance to speak.
The same thing is true of speech at universities. I am not a big fan of Jordan Peterson. In general if there's a choice between Jordan Peterson and …basically anyone else, basically anyone else is probably a more worthwhile speaker. Nevertheless, there are many people who would like to listen to Jordan Peterson. He has a right to a platform. They have a right to listen to him. Scarcity is not generally at play here. In most cases it's ‘Peterson’ or not having a speaker scheduled in that venue at that time. If a third party wants to interpose itself and say that even though Peterson wants to speak to some people and they want to listen to him, this ought not be allowed to happen, they are going to have to come up with a better reason than ‘Nobody has a right to a platform.’
But Nobody Takes the Idea of Completely Unrestricted Speech Seriously!
Indeed not! The defenders of ‘platform’ ideology appeal to copyright, slander, libel, perjury, contract law, and shouting fire in a crowded theater. All of these things, whether you agree with them in their current form or not, have something in common: public reason! Each is a limit on speech that is legitimate insofar as there is a basis for the limit whose reason is available to and comprehensible to all members of society as a means to gain some an overwhelming social good. This doesn't mean current copyright law actually passes the test, in fact I'm fairly sure it doesn't. This is a standard by which laws should be held to account.
Traditionally, in Liberalism, there have been arguments about how to justify the ‘public reason’ requirement and a sense of unease that the most robust and forceful justifications would seem to propel it out of the purely public and legal sphere into the private and personal domains. People have attempted to ‘solve’ this problem, but I believe that it is, in fact, no problem at all.
Older forms of liberalism made the mistake of trying to have sharp delineations between the public, private, and personal. They separated the public sphere of law and public interest from the commercial and private sphere where private property and business interest are absolute, from the personal and familial sphere where parental authority and personal feeling are the only concern. However, it is plain by now that the commercial sphere is not absolute and separate and there is much legitimate social good to be had in regulating and limiting it, and eventually merging it with the public sphere through the establishment of socialism. We rightly reach into the personal sphere and ensure children receive adequate nutrition, medical care, and education, sometimes in defiance of their parents' wishes. As individuals, we expect our acquaintances to deal with others fairly in their social life and not to act cruelly or behave as bigots.
The fact that the various notional ‘spheres’ interact with each other and can inflict their own forms of oppression through imbalances of power is an essential observation and must be incorporated into any modern and sane form of Liberalism. One simply cannot pursue the Enlightenment program of fairly distributing social goods and individual flourishing without embracing this aspect of the world and threading public reason, to one degree or another, into all spheres of life.
As such, any statement of ‘no one has a right to a platform’ when unaccompanied by a robust public reason that can be challenged, whether a federal ban from books, radio and print, a corporate policy, or the declaration “My server, my rules!” is an act petty tyranny, differing in each case only in the pettiness of the tyrant. As the ‘scale’ of power diminishes, the kind of justification and two whom it is required becomes smaller and less formal. If I am, for example, hosting a meet-up for a local interest group in my home and I wished to exclude someone, I would owe the group a reason stronger than what I might owe the individual if I excluded him at other times (where ‘I don't like you’ may be sufficient.)
Now, this by no means implies that I believe there are and ought to be no limits on acceptable speech. I can make a good, consequentialist argument that, in a workplace or school, one who makes unwanted advances or otherwise harasses their co-workers should be disciplined or dismissed (with those in greater authority held to higher standards). I can make a good, consequentialist argument that in casual conversation one who persists in using slurs and other invective, particular related to irrelevant characteristics, that annoys and distresses the target should be rebuked and excluded.
I am willing to entertain the argument that certain ideas are in themselves harmful and it is a bad thing to draw attention to them, or that we should enact criminal or civil penalties for certain denigrating ways of speech. I think it's a hard argument to make, as European style hate-speech and anti-fascism laws seem to have failed to actually accomplish anything. However, it is a discussion that we can and should have in terms of social and individual well-being.
Those are the terms on which the argument should be made. The recent left-wing habit of denying that something is a social good that all people have a claim to with one side of ones mouth while appealing to that same universal social good with the other is disgraceful and self-defeating.