Batten down the hatches folks! America is now an Orwellian hellscape. Opposing viewpoints—especially conservative ones—are routinely silenced by Hollywood, the mainstream media and big tech companies. To say even something remotely conservative is akin to throwing yourself willingly into the pyre to be burned at the stake. America is going to hell in a handbasket, and we can thank cancel culture and intolerance towards conservatives, like famous commentator Steven Crowder.
If this all sounds a bit much to you, there’s a simple explanation for that. It is.
This is the common thread you hear when some conservatives complain about the latest attempt to hold one of their own accountable on a platform like YouTube or Twitter. For instance, when Steven Crowder posts racist tirades like this onto YouTube, the Right’s response is often that Leftist mobs and big tech are trying to silence him.
I believe in comedy and a comedian’s right to tell jokes, including Crowder’s—though calling him a comedian is a stretch. But that is a weak argument to defend what he said. This video was about as racist as you can get without blatantly using the n-word. And Crowder was not trying to just get laughs. He was dressing up blatantly ignorant and racist thoughts as satire so he could get away with posting this.
When people like Steven Crowder are criticized, as he was after this video, they usually fall back on a couple talking points: “liberal Twitter mobs” just can’t handle a conservative opinion and social media companies are censoring conservatives. Both of these arguments are false and leave out critical details: the very real harm words and ideas have caused over centuries and the fake phenomenon of social media companies censoring conservatives.
Words can absolutely cause harm
When conservatives are told what they said or did was harmful, they’re often dumbstruck. How can words cause you harm? Don’t you know the old saying: sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me? My reaction usually is: Really? We’re using nursery rhymes as arguments now? Thanks. Next time I go out on the stream, I’ll make sure to sing row, row, row your boat so I don’t forget.
It seems almost innocuous to say that words can’t cause you physical harm: of course they can’t. I can’t literally hit you in the face with a sentence. But let’s think critically here. Words are what make up the rationalizations for some of the worst ideologies and backlashes throughout history. Hate groups and governments don’t just wake up one day and decide to silence or persecute a group of people for no apparent reason. They were conditioned by readings, speeches, and propaganda. Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy was famously perverted by the Nazis of the early 20th century and the neo-Nazis of today. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning is an thorough history of how racist ideas were created to justify racist policies and actions. Tom Cotton literally wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last summer arguing armed military personnel should be deployed to American cities to clamp down on the Black Lives Matter protests. Words can quickly turn into bullets.
Now, am I using these examples to say we need to stop people from writing and saying things that might be harmful? Of course not. But there is often a flippant disregard for those who argue that words can cause real harm, especially against marginalized groups that can have difficulty breaking into mainstream discourse. Some people in the free speech conversation understand this. Others, like Steven Crowder do not.
You still have freedom of speech
Conservatives have every right to express their opinion. They have major media outlets, they can access the internet, they can even walk out on the street and scream obscenities.
Why then are there incessant complaints about conservatives being censored or that their freedom of speech is under attack? Usually, it’s because they said something on social media that garnered some severe criticism. They then spiral into a paranoid frenzy about how social media companies are going to censor their speech because they’re being criticized.
Conservatives’ freedom of speech is not under threat here: they’re concerned they won’t be able to amplify their opinions on social media platforms. But that’s not an argument for free speech, its an argument for maintaining your soapbox. YouTube is the best way for Steven Crowder to disseminate his talking points and make money. If Crowder lost ad revenue on YouTube or was kicked off the platform, he would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Crowder isn’t afraid of losing his first amendment rights, he’s afraid of losing his microphone.
I believe in free speech and I am not one of those people who think cancel culture is a made up phenomenon. My criticism is that many of the right’s most prominent talking heads weaponize free speech and cancel culture to protect themselves. Steven Crowder is a terrible posterboy for both free speech and honest debate. He is a live action internet troll. He does not enhance the public discourse around sensitive topics like trans rights or police brutality. Honest conversation has never been his goal. His goal is to feed into people’s knee-jerk reactions and defensiveness around racism and discrimination using “satire”. And when he crosses a line, he jumps to the “liberal’s can’t take a joke” defense followed by: social media companies are censoring me; protect the first amendment!
I’m not here to argue whether or not Steven Crowder should be pulled from YouTube—though that video absolutely should have been taken down. My concern is that he and others are weaponizing free speech not for any real belief in the first amendment, but so that they can have a defense against the “Leftist mobs” who inevitably will criticize them for saying awful things. Steven Crowder is a great personification of a free speech hijacker. They don’t actually care about free speech. They just don’t want to lose their social media megaphones.
I don’t deny that Steven Crowder has a right to say whatever he wants about Black farmers, but does he have a right to have those thoughts amplified on YouTube? I don’t think so.
Photo of Steven Crowder courtesy of Gage Skidmore’s Flickr account
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