Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 28, 2022 / 3 Heshvan 5783
Summary: This week, I examine the public response to celebrity Kanye West’s antisemitism and argue that free speech remains our best protection against hatred.
Reading Time: Five minutes
Ye, the rap musician formerly known as Kanye West, has been in the news recently after a long and continuous slew of antisemitic diatribes. His vitriolic hatred encouraged others, as shown by a banner that hung over a Los Angeles freeway that stated, “Kanye West is right about the Jews.” The banner hangers accompanied their action with a Nazi salute.
Public outrage grew and companies that had business dealings with him became frightened of the damage this relationship might cause their brands. As a result, Ye lost his sponsorship deal with Adidas and was booted from Twitter and Instagram.
Condemning Ye is a straightforward proposition. His words and well-documented antisemitism are oozing with nastiness, lies, and the canard of ancient stereotypes. Jews have learned that when we don’t confront such hatred, it can metastasize and spread throughout a society, so I understand and support the large public outcry against his behavior. Up to a point. After that point, I find myself in the strange position of defending Ye’s bile.
Before turning to that defense, let’s get one thing clear. Adidas and any other corporations forge sponsorship deals with celebrities to further their monetary interests and to capture more market share. These ties and relationships are completely transactional; it took no great moral heroism on Adidas’ part, nor on that of the Gap, Footlocker, or the film studios that also had deals with Ye. Indeed, their slow-footed response strongly suggests that their intentions were not primarily ethical.
Removing Ye from Twitter and Instagram, however, poses a serious threat to society as the move is heavy-handed, censorious, and is a standard not applied equally to the countless other examples of invectives that categorize so much of our social media universe. Most dangerously, however, such bans lead to the creation of alternative platforms such as Parler, Truth Social, Tribel, and others, which accelerate societal polarization and provide less-monitored public spaces where hate can go unchallenged. In other words, these bans increase the power of hatred.
In Judaism, rather than censorship, our tradition protected the importance and centrality of free debate and discussion through the laws of lashon hara (destructive speech) and shemirat halashon (self-control and voluntary self-censorship). These spiritual practices moved the locus of responsibility for worthy speech from ruling powers onto the individual, from the oppressive and heavy-handed tools of governments to the free choice that moral development grants to each of us. Cases of slander, defamation, and even truthful but harmful speech, were all banned by Jewish law, and charges could be brought to a religious court (beit din). Proving such charges, however, remained difficult; nonetheless, perpetrators remained responsible before God and community even when they couldn’t be convicted. While this approach has its failings, it understands that culture and upbringing are powerful prophylactics that encourage civil discourse while avoiding the dangers of censorship.
For these reasons, I find myself defending a man with whom I would not want to have coffee. Our society has enshrined free speech as a principal right; consequently, we have needed to avoid drawing a distinction between worthy speech and nearly unlimited free speech, for what is considered worthy by one group is vulgar or unacceptable to another.
Rather, I’d like to expand on the dangers to free speech that occur when platforms like Twitter and Instagram ban users such as Ye. A legalistic understanding of the First Amendment would argue that it is only Congress that is forbidden to pass laws which restrict freedom of speech, religion, or the right to assemble, not private corporations.
While that is technically true, any reasonable consideration of the First Amendment makes it abundantly clear that freedom of speech must not be relegated to the private sphere—it is the public nature of speech and the permission to speak in public which is at the heart of what we are protecting. In earlier eras, the government primarily controlled public spaces; to ensure the protection of free speech, assembly, and religion, the framers of the Constitution had to impose limitations on government interference. It is no longer the case that our government poses the greatest threat to the freedom of expression.
It is popular today to argue that freedom of speech doesn’t mean that we need to “amplify” or “center” hateful speech. We don’t need to provide a platform, in other words, to haters. On the surface, this seems reasonable, but actually it is not. Actions which restrict or even make public speech close to impossible also erode any meaningful freedom of speech for the rest of us. In effect, we are only free to speak that which does not offend, yet democracies are dependent on their non-governmental institutions to maintain the values which support a free system of governance. Today, the most salient of those institutions is our social media.
Thus, when platforms such as Twitter ban users such as Ye, they are undermining a precious freedom that protects us all. While social media platforms may not be public utilities, they occupy a similar space and function. Vast numbers of people depend on these platforms for their material and social well-being, as Facebook outages last October made clear. These platforms are today’s public squares, so when free speech is prohibited on them, it effectively is relegated to the periphery, much as in any repressive regime.
As beneficial as our technologies are, the pace of social disruption they have wrought has left our global society reeling and uncertain how to protect the truth, minimize destructive falsehoods, and tamp down hatred. The rapidity of change makes us anxious for shortcut solutions, such as banning Ye/Kanye West from Twitter. What is needed as a corrective is not a shortcut, but the continuous work of character development that other cultures and eras embraced. These are the soft tools or soft power upon which democracies are built and depend.
What would it look like if we used these media platforms to enhance character development? Could we use AI to scan a post and flag it to its creator before it is posted and explain what is wrong with it? Can we use our technology to impart character? It might sound far-fetched, but automated writing tools have significantly changed the way people write. Might it do the same for today’s hate speech?
We may not clearly see solutions to today’s hate-soaked rhetoric, but it is evident that the forms of censorship we are stumbling into are acts of desperation. They scrape away at the culture which has upheld our First Amendment protections. Kanye West is not the enemy: he is merely a red flag.
Shabbat Table Talk
- Why is free speech important to you?
- What limitations on free speech would you like to see? Can those restrictions be applied in an even-handed manner to all individuals?
- In what ways have you worked to improve the character of your own speech? Are there situations in which you are more likely to revert to older speech patterns that are more harmful or hate-filled?
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