There’s not a lot to be gained by engaging in any sort of analysis of Milo Yiannopoulos’ behaviour. He’s an attention seeker and we keep, for whatever reason, giving him attention.
I want to focus on one aspect of the Milo saga: the part where a publisher withdrew a book deal with him due to comments he’d made in support of statutory rape. I want to focus here because it raises questions about censorship and about freedom of expression and because, for whatever reason, we struggle with these concepts as a society. The problem, as ever, is that quite a lot of the tricky bits of liberalism haven’t been resolved, yet all the loudest people on social media think that they have.
There is a common intuition that freedom of speech is a concept that only makes sense in the context of the individual and the State. The insufferably bad Randall Munroe (author of XKCD) drew a comic where he — in his insufferably bad way — pontificates on the nature of freedom of speech. Free speech protects you from the government; it doesn’t protect you from social consequences of speech.
I have argued before why this belief is incorrect and reflects an extremely out-of-touch privileged perspective. For the purpose of this post, I want to push the argument a bit further.
We are increasingly reliant upon private, for-profit services to engage in politics. A political party that can reach a larger proportion of the electorate will, fairly obviously, be more likely to succeed in getting support. It therefore follows that, if a private, for-profit service should refuse to carry political messages from a party, the party would be less likely to succeed in getting support. If Facebook decided that it was going to block all socialist parties, that would cripple socialist parties from lobbying and engaging in political processes.
As Centrelink puts more and more of its services online, there are real consequences if Internet Service Providers start deciding not to service people with particular political beliefs.
But we need not even go to those extremes. People in situations of vulnerable employment are much less likely to engage in controversial political discussion because the consequences of their exercise of ‘free speech’ are severe. I have had (left wing) people contact my employer about ‘mean’ things I’ve said to idiots online. Fortunately, I’ve always had secure employment and I don’t live hand-to-mouth — but what if I were earning minimum wage for an employer who feared controversy? Precarious economic positions coerce people away from exercising their rights.
Also, I’m white, heterosexual, male, and educated. I don’t have any real fear that people could humiliate, intimidate, or offend me in such a way that I would avoid exercising my political rights. But what if I were a minority and had kids? What if I — like many people in our society — genuinely feared the sort of damage that could be inflicted upon me? Precarious social positions coerce people away from exercising their rights.
It’s not as simple as ‘free speech is about government’. That’s such a thin understanding of how political expression works — a cold, formalist approach that allows people to scan the world and shout ‘Boo!’ or ‘Hooray!’ without critically engaging with the lived experiences of people who suffer the consequences of this thin conception.
A thicker conception of ‘free speech’ takes into consideration the economic context of expressing rights. It is not enough to have a right as a matter of black letter law: there has to be the social framework to realise the benefits of those rights.
So should Milo have kept his book deal? Should the publisher have been forced to distribute the words of a man who advocates statutory rape?
Both sides of the discussion about Milo’s book deal are wrong. The relevant question is not ‘Should Milo have kept the book deal?’ but ‘Should Milo have had a book deal in the first place?’
The above discussion about the economic consequences of speech looked at the question of censorship. Here are the ways in which capitalism silences views.
But there is an equally important second dimension to the discussion: what views are incentivised by capitalism?
The political commentary industry is not a meritocracy. We are not served a buffet of the very best produce. The diet we are compelled to swallow has resulted in our intellectual malnourishment. Why is this?
There is no economic incentive to improve the quality of political commentary. Instead, there is an economic incentive to publish material that is inflammatory, controversial, and baits outrage. Publishers want attention, and difficult, intelligent writing does not have wide appeal.
Milo had a book deal because a publisher thought it would be profitable. Publishing companies disregard their social duty to promote cultural and intellectual health; they have a duty only to their shareholders and investors.
This second dimension — what speech is incentivised — is just as damaging to our political environment as the first — what speech is censored. We focus on censorship because liberals live in utter fear of it: the adolescent fear of authority preventing us from doing we do whatever we please. This fear eclipses discussion about what we can do to prevent the proliferation of speech that harms the community.
Individually, we can make the choice not to give attention to the attention-seekers. Collectively, we can encourage parliaments to enact laws that would discourage this attention-seeking. But reducing it to semantic arguments the definition of ‘real censorship’ is neither helpful nor desirable.