Free Speech Is All Well and Good—Except When You’re Being a Complete and Total Asshole

milo_you-can't_hear_him
Don’t be sad, Milo. You weren’t banned because Twitter hates conservatives, free speech or gays. You were banned because you were being an asshole. (Image retrieved from pixel.nymag.com)

In one form or another, you’re probably well familiar with the saying attributed to Voltaire, but really authored by writer and Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” With that, this phrase is probably the most common citation used in evoking the fundamental right of the individual of free speech in a free society. Not made explicit herein is the presumption that any argument which qualifies as protected speech under this maxim is reasonable or otherwise not intended as an injurious attack, though many would contend this much is implied. In other words, freedom of speech, conferred upon the American people by the First Amendment to the Constitution, is not absolute.

Where common sense has been insufficient, case law has helped to fill the void and define the parameters of what constitutes protected speech and that by which an individual may be held liable for what they say. Pursuant to this notion, another popular trope concerning the potential limitations of free speech is the “shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater” analogy made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in expressing the Supreme Court’s opinion in the unanimous ruling in the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, which seeks to illustrate the point that false statements of a kind that would “create a clear and present danger” to the public are and should not be protected. This is to say, in a larger sense, that malicious or reckless language could present a liability for the person who indiscriminately utters it.

Now that we’ve got some context under our belt, let’s get to the relevant present-day circumstances, shall we? As reported by Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel and his cohorts on numerous other media outlets, on July 19, conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned on Twitter after he evidently orchestrated a campaign to attack Leslie Jones, Saturday Night Live cast member and star of the female-led Ghostbusters remake, via social media, which Yiannopoulos’ loyal followers acceded to in the form of scores of racist and otherwise derogatory images and remarks. The totality of the hateful messages Jones received spurred her to, in an emotion-laden post, announce her self-imposed Twitter hiatus, prompting Paul Feig, the director of the new Ghostbusters, to come to her defense and, eventually, Twitter itself to intervene. Here’s what the company—or a spokesperson within its ranks—had to say on the decision to ban Milo:

People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.

We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it’s happening and prevent repeat offenders. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.

As Warzel highlights in the Buzzfeed piece, it’s not so much his own hateful speech which got Yiannopoulos indefinitely barred—though his bullying, condescending (Milo refers to Jones as “barely literate” after a typo) and insulting comments likely didn’t help his case—but that he put a target on Leslie Jones’ back and encouraged abuse hurled at her. Milo Yiannopoulos, meanwhile, did not go gentle into that good night of social media censure, firing back at Twitter from his soapbox on Breitbart, for which he serves as tech editor. Straight from the horse’s ass, er, mouth:

With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.

Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

Wow. Yiannopoulos’ response to Twitter’s administrative action hits on a number of underlying issues, so it’s difficult to know where to begin. Before sifting through his arguments, let me first say that I find it a tad bit perplexing that Milo would vilify Leslie Jones for playing the victim when his speech is framed in a way that makes him seem like a martyr, crucified by the “totalitarian regressive left” and its dictatorial arm, the fascist Twitter. Nice use of manipulative demagoguery there, Milo. Maybe the Trump campaign could use you as part of its public relations wing.

Without going further on Milo Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric, let me take a step back with my own views on the very concept of a Ghostbusters remake. Personally, when I first heard about this project, I was not enthusiastic about it. Before you go ahead and infer a reason, let me explain. My aversion to this 2016 do-over of the original popular action-comedy film has little to do with the casting, and much more to do with the decision to green-light it in the first place. See, this kind of “creative” work strikes me as an example of the kind of unoriginality which plagues much of Hollywood’s output these days. If movies are not being remade, they are adapted from existing media. Like comic books and graphic novels. There are more superhero movies nowadays than one could shake a turbo-charged stick at, and as some might argue, these are a big part of the problem with modern American cinema. Or there are “reboots.” You can thank that trend for why we’ve had not one, but two shitty Fantastic Four adaptations in the past decade. And sequels. God help us, the sequels. From reports, the Saw film series, which I submit should have never gone beyond the first iteration, is likely to see its eighth installment start filming in the next few months. And the Ice Age franchise just released a movie involving a saber-toothed squirrel flying around, of all things, a spaceship. SPACESHIPS? FOR F**K’S SAKE! DID WE REALLY NEED ANOTHER F**KING “ICE AGE” MOVIE?!?

Sorry, I get worked up about these kinds of things. But yes, my major malfunction is with the perceived lack of effort on producers’ and studios’ parts, not on the gender of Ghostbusters (2016)’s primary quartet. If anything, my quibble with the casting would be that the film’s makers borrowed too heavily from the current and former ranks of SNL (though I acknowledge the common lineage), but on talent, I can’t say I fault these choices—Leslie Jones especially. Others who are more vocal in their criticisms may have similarly legitimate objections to the existence of this new movie, namely their condemnation of the updated model in favor of the 1984 original, which has stood the test of time since its release and has inspired its much-warranted affection and legacy. Simply put, 1984 Ghostbusters is good enough that 2016 Ghostbusters was patently unnecessary. That the comedic talents of Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have been supplanted or usurped, as some might see it, and in a format that simply because it is different is threatening, makes this especially galling. “They’re just sweeping the 1984 version under the rug! There’s no emoticon for what I am feeling!”

For those individuals who are not Ghostbusters fanboys, or otherwise are not nerdish enough in their protests to argue against the Jones-McCarthy-McKinnon-Wiig quaternity based on its revisionist nature, if not embracing this fab female four, or just hopelessly ambivalent, the likely alternative is outright hatred, and not necessarily based on the movie’s technical merit. Here’s where we start to approach the position of Milo Yiannopoulos and his ilk. While Yiannopoulos may choose to hide behind his assertion that Leslie Jones participated in a terrible movie, and hence deserves to be targeted, the tone of the “hate mail” directed at Jones as a result of his efforts really puts the “hate” in “hate mail.” Jones, who is black and fairly large in physical stature (though not obese/seriously overweight or anything like that), drew unfortunate comparisons to an ape in many of the Tweets that bombarded her account. Otherwise, death threats, derogatory imagery of a sexual nature, and taunts about her being ugly pervaded the glut of responses she received as a result of her involvement with the movie and her own reactions to the vitriol to which she was subjected. I don’t blame Leslie for wanting to abandon Twitter outright after having to absorb that level of abuse.

In the eyes and minds of Jones’ online assailants, a prohibitively male audience, the new Ghostbusters and its star are a symbol of a vague leftist conspiracy that intrudes upon their way of life. In particular, their reading of a feminist bias in the movie’s cast—which to them, based on their definition of “feminism,” stands for the subjugation of the male even though mainstream feminists seek elevation of the female only to the extent female and male are equal—and an ever-increasing tendency for society as a whole to insist on political correctness represent a threat of the highest order. Consequently, those so-called “social justice warriors” who argue on behalf of what are seen as faulty defenses of feminism and political correctness (under this purview, I suppose I would qualify as an SJW, too) are ostracized for their beliefs and for pontificating from behind a keyboard on issues they neither care about nor truly understand. As much as one might counter that this rebellion against the social justice warrior is a bit like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black, with any confrontations with chauvinistic trolls on these terms, appeals to logic may only go so far. So it goes in the arena of Internet discourse.

As a result, right or wrong, these users’ free speech is understood by them to be unassailable, and in turn, any harassment of other users is justifiable based on the cloak of the First Amendment and the imminent danger of a woman-oriented, politically correct existence. Which brings us back to Milo Yiannopoulos. Let’s—at last—dissect what he has to say regarding Twitter’s “cowardice,” as he elects to call it.

With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.

Putting aside that these may be legitimate issues, what does this have to do with you getting kicked off Twitter? You’re deflecting from the subject at hand: whether or not you specifically targeted someone for abuse.

Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?

Um, Milo, you do understand that was a hoax, right? Yiannopoulos is referencing a hashtag campaign prank circa 2013 with apparent origins on 4chan—a site known for its fair share of targeted attacks and threats of violence as organized by its users. The prank, accompanied by fake but nonetheless graphic photos of people cutting their arms over their frustration with Justin Bieber’s alleged use of marijuana, evidently targeted the singer’s fans, perhaps even aiming to convince them through the hashtag #CuttingForBieber to cut their own limbs out of protest of Bieber’s bad behavior. A sick joke, yes, and again, maybe Twitter bears some responsibility on its end (though arguably 4chan should shoulder a larger portion of the blame), but nonetheless, this is once more deflecting from your culpability with respect to attacks on Leslie Jones and others.

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

Hmm, someone really has a high opinion of himself, doesn’t he? Milo Yiannopoulos speaks of a culture war, and I can only think he’s referring to a seemingly growing divide between Americans who think political correctness is a good thing, because, well, it is—people generally like to be treated with respect and sensitivity—and those who think it imperils and inhibits us—when what they’re really saying is, “I’m bigoted/racist/sexist/xenophobic/all of the above, and I hate that you’re making me think before I speak.” Are you really winning the culture war, though, Milo, or is this just what your sycophantic followers have convinced you is true?

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

I don’t know—last time I checked, Twitter was still doing OK for itself. Really a vibrant community, actually. Beyond the 140-character limit, however, I have never felt particularly restricted by Twitter’s terms and conditions. Then again, though, I don’t target actresses who only appear in films—as opposed to actually directing, producing or writing them—with derision and hate. Hearkening back to my discussion of the First Amendment at the start of this piece, freedom of speech is not inherently absolute, and furthermore, you broke the rules that Twitter had posted as terms of your use of the site. It’s not about free speech. It’s about you being a complete and total asshole.


couldn't_beat_the_rapp
Alison Rapp was an enthusiastic brand ambassador for Nintendo as well as a feminist. Which, of course, is why she had to be the subject of online harassment and get fired by her employer. Nice going, guys! (Photo retrieved from kotaku.com)

Leslie Jones’ harassment at the hands of a small but vocal group of haters is reminiscent of the kind of abuse Alison Rapp faced when localization changes were made in a number of titles by then-employer Nintendo regarding the sexualization of young women and the anticipated negative backlash which would ensue among Western audiences to have female characters depicted in a certain way. Rather than blame Nintendo, however, Internet trolls, always lurking, looked for a scapegoat for this action of the video game company’s, which they saw as emblematic of a feminist-led crusade in favor of censorship and political correctness. Enter Rapp, a self-professed feminist, who had nothing to do with the decisions on content, and lo and behold, their target was acquired. What ensued was an attack of a number of levels. Of course, there was the expected name-calling, with her aggressors labeling her “cancerous” as well as a “femi-Nazi.” Always enjoy that particular portmanteau, myself.

This element hell-bent on Alison Rapp’s destruction, however, which she believed was affiliated with the loosely-constructed GamerGate movement, took things a step further by digging into her academic and professional-verging-on-the-personal lives. Regarding the former, Rapp wrote a paper while in college concerning Western pressure on Japan to strengthen laws against sexualized depictions of minors, arguing that this agenda was misplaced because it didn’t take into account cultural differences and shifted blame away from the governments and other “patriarchal” systems that enable the abuse of children. In the hands of the online lynch mob calling for her head, though, this was translated to mean she endorses the legalization of kiddie porn, which is an absurd extrapolation. As for the latter, the anti-SJW crowd which put Alison in their crosshairs wasn’t shy about bringing to Nintendo’s attention the fact that she moonlighted as a model under an alias posing for pictures that were not unforgivably obscene but still NSFW.

Nintendo, being the understanding company it is, though, was not cowed by the stream of antipathy hurled at Rapp nor was it influenced by these revelations about her off-the-clock identity. Kidding! They fired her. Nintendo has maintained they “terminated” Alison Rapp because of her second job. From a statement by a company representative:

Alison Rapp was terminated due to violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture. Though Ms. Rapp’s termination follows her being the subject of criticism from certain groups via social media several weeks ago, the two are absolutely not related.

Nintendo is a company committed to fostering inclusion and diversity in both our company and the broader video game industry and we firmly reject the harassment of individuals based on gender, race or personal beliefs. We wish Ms. Rapp well in her future endeavors.

“Ms. Rapp,” meanwhile, disputes this explanation. According to the moonlighting model herself, “Moonlighting is actually accepted at Nintendo. It’s policy.” Regardless of why she was fired, however, what a number of people reacting to this situation when news first broke were dismayed with was not simply that the company terminated Alison Rapp—though numerous critics expressed the belief that Nintendo caved to the pressure exerted by the GamerGate gang—but that it failed to support Alison through months of directed online attacks. As Jessica Lachenal wrote in a piece on The Mary Sue:

For an industry that apparently tries so hard to “make things better” for women, this is one hell of a way of show it. Provided with an opportunity to make an impact for women working in games, Nintendo instead chose to distance itself from someone undeserving of the harassment she soaked up on behalf of the company. Most of all, it comes down to this: For many, it is completely unsurprising that Nintendo did what it did. This is the sad, depressing expectation of all women working in games. When—and believe me, it is a when and not an if—they become the target of harassment, it’s more likely than not that they can expect to be “laterally moved” out of what they love to do and iced out, or perhaps even outright fired for completely unrelated reasons. These things can and will and have happened through no fault of their own; they will have their entire lives dramatically altered simply because a faceless group of people have decided to harass and dig up skeletons in order to assassinate a person’s character.

Viewing the circumstances behind Rapp’s firing in this way, what happened was fairly simple. A group of anonymous trolls decided Alison Rapp was intruding on what they saw as their space—the male-dominated world of video games—they attacked her with prejudice and without restraint, and a high-profile company stood by and watched it happen. The parallels to Leslie Jones’ abuse on Twitter at the behest of Milo Yiannopoulos and others are obvious, and what’s more, her case is just another turn in the long-standing saga of content providers being unable—or perhaps unwilling—to step in to curb misogynistic malice. As Twitter itself seems to grasp in its justification for suspending Yiannopoulos’ account, there are those who feel it hasn’t done enough to discourage or stop hate speech on its interface. I, for one, would count myself among this concerned bloc of users.

The reality is that, even with Twitter insisting it is working on improving tools and enforcement systems to better root out abuse, especially the type coming from repeat offenders, there is little assurance that either Milo Yiannopoulos’ censure will be the first of many to come, or that Jones’ prolonged abuse will be among the last of its kind. Twitter, as a business and one devoted to allowing people to express themselves, respectfully must walk a fine line in generating traffic without wanting to seem like an institution of the “totalitarian regressive left.” That said, if it fails to act in a way that discourages hate, Twitter runs a risk of alienating even more of its millions of accountholders. It’s the same dance that an organization like, say, the Republican Party must reckon with. On one hand, it must try to expand its ranks if it is to avoid stagnation. On the other hand, it is set to feature a man who revels in his divisiveness as its nominee for President of the United States. My, what a dance it is, indeed.

As much as doubts may exist about Twitter and other social media sites’ ability to police its content, aspersions have similarly been cast on their ability to enforce Milo Yiannopoulos’ “permanent” ban. Soon after the announcement of the ban, the hashtag #FreeMilo was trending, and it is doubtful we’ve heard the last on this case or this topic. In the meantime, though, I won’t shed any tears for Milo. Not because he’s a conservative. Or because he’s gay. It’s because he behaves like an entitled asshole. Apparently, he believes he’s entitled to free speech because this is America or that he’s particularly clever or whatever. But when your free speech makes others feel trapped—in the case of Leslie Jones, like she’s in her own “personal hell”—it’s not really so “free.” When abuse, online or otherwise, is on the table, there is always a cost. If Milo Yiannopoulos has to pay it, someone with a history of directing hateful, malicious attacks on innocent users, all the better.

One thought on “Free Speech Is All Well and Good—Except When You’re Being a Complete and Total Asshole

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s