Culture Friday – The consequences of censorship

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, January 15th, 2021.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Well, one of many decisive moments this week saw Big Tech either preventing insurrection or assaulting free speech. Depends upon your perspective.

One week ago, Facebook and Twitter banned the president of the United States and several of his supporters from its platforms. President Trump had tweeted that his supporters would not be disrespected or treated unfairly, and that he wouldn’t be going to the Biden inauguration. 

Twitter said this was sufficient to incite violence and on that basis banned the president.

REICHARD: Then Google, Apple, and Amazon Web Services pulled the plug on Twitter’s competitor. Parler launched in 2018 as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter; it had 15 million users before it was forced offline last Sunday. Parler filed a lawsuit against Amazon in a Seattle federal court, alleging Amazon kicked it off servers for political and anti-competitive reasons. 

And now news that YouTube also banned the president. 

Of course, all this is in the context of the riot at the U.S. Capitol nine days ago. To be clear, decent people condemn the riot as vile and damaging, unpatriotic and a threat against the American government.

Yet it’s fair to ask: why no such bans on politicians and supporters following riots across the country all summer long? Riots resulting in property damage that set a record for insured losses, likely exceeding $1 billion. And precious lives lost.

BASHAM: Joining us to discuss all this is Trevin Wax.  He’s senior vice president of Theology and Communications at LifeWay Christian Resources. He’s also a visiting professor at Wheaton College. 

Good morning, Trevin.

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Good morning.

BASHAM: Well, let’s start with what defenders of these shutdowns say: that Google, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are private companies. They can do what they want to do. After all, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech from government infringement. These are private actors. 

You’re a publishing executive, so do you resonate with that argument?

WAX: Well, on this one I do resonate with that argument. To some extent I don’t want the government telling private companies what they must and must not do. One of the challenges about this, though, is that these private companies have over the years acted as if they are the public square. 

So, yes, as a private company, for example a Kroger, would have the right to kick someone out of their store who was saying incendiary things or yelling in the aisle. But what these companies have done, now they’re saying, well, we’re like Kroger. We can kick people off. But they have marketed themselves and they have platformed themselves over the years as if they are free speech areas, public square places where people can come and can share all sorts of opinions and that’s been the appeal of it. That’s really been—for an advertiser’s perspective—what has driven the financial system that props up these companies. And we’re having the conversation right now in the middle of one of the most polarized moments in American history with unprecedented events taking place at a rapid speed, where the news is changing day to day. This is probably the worst time to have the conversation about Big Tech, but we are — it is what it is and we are where we are.

REICHARD: More of a theological approach: What about the idea that social media platforms are using ever-changing terms of service that only shut down one side? Does that not violate our sense of fairness or justice?

I mean, I can think of many disturbing examples that didn’t result in shutdowns like this— Chuck Schumer saying before a crowd that Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh “have released the whirlwind and (you) will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you” if they vote a certain way?  Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley calling for “unrest in the streets?” So many other examples. 

So Trevin, Christians care about fairness. Our antitrust laws address monopolies, and all these companies simultaneously shutting down Trump and his supporters looks a lot like collusion. So what about that or is that just so much whataboutism?

WAX: Well, I think all of these questions are valid and legitimate and even now, the double standards are pretty glaring. You have Louis Farrakhan who says awful things about Jews that is still on the platform or I saw this week people were retweeting the Communist propaganda arm of China talking about their wonderful treatment of the Uighurs you know. I have a visceral reaction to censorship as an American, as a free speech advocate. It’s not exactly censorship to be kicked off a platform when you can go to another platform or you can go to something else to be able to say what you want. But when Big Tech becomes this powerful, it should strike a note of concern in everyone, even if you are someone who agrees with the decision to ban Trump from these platforms at this moment to get us to the inauguration or whatever. That kind of control is going to make it very difficult for certain opinions that are not completely out of the mainstream or incendiary or threatening violence to be able to have their day in the future.

BASHAM: I want to talk about what precedent this sets for Christian organizations. Christian doctrine that holds to traditional marriage, binary biological sex and so forth could well become hate speech. That in turn could shut these organizations out of the public square. What’s the role of Christians here?

WAX: Well, I think Christians need to recognize some of what we say is going to be seen as untenable in the future. So, one of the things we have to come to terms with is that some of just historic Christian truth claims are going to be seen as beyond the pale. In certain parts of the country, I think people already recognize that they’re there—certain university settings or on the coasts in certain areas. They feel like they’re already in a position where they are definitely the minority and saying things that would not have even been controversial 20-30 years ago are now seen as hate speech. For example, talking about our male and femaleness rooted in biology not just in our mental state. So, I think we’ve got to prepare for the fact that that is coming and in some places is already here.

At the same time I think we have to recognize that we do have recourse in the courts, we have recourse in a number of areas. We can’t let the Southern Poverty Law Center be the definer of who is an extremist and who is not. And I’ve actually been encouraged to see some, I think, well-meaning people on the left begin to question the over-the-topness of some of the organizations that just immediately label a group as a hate group. People that are rushing to label any group that they find out of the mainstream of popular opinion on sexuality or anything like that as being a hate group. So, we’re going to have to continue to stand up for free speech and at the same time, I think we will have to partner with people who disagree with us on some of these issues and yet who recognize the importance of those issues still being able to hashed out in the public square, who truly do — this is what I would say are the old school liberals who do believe in a society where free speech and free opinions can flow and there can be good discussion of these events. It’s going to be some weird partnerships in the future with some of those folks.

BASHAM: I was having an interesting discussion with one of our editors and he brought up the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s and those were technically, again, private companies choosing not to work with certain actors and screenwriters, but as you look at the PR damage that that did for decades, the Republican, the right-wing brand, that was pretty lasting and I have to look at that and wonder if there are parallels here.

WAX: That is a great analogy. It was remarkably effective and successful in the short term but incredibly damaging in the long term. And it could be that we are seeing something as, since you mentioned that as an example, of something of an overreach in this moment among some of the tech companies and some of the practices that they’ve done on the left. The kinds of speech especially I would think on gender issues, it may be an overreach to say that it’s beyond the pale of respectable opinion or that it’s violence to say that male and femaleness is related to our biology. Some of the overstepping and exaggeration of some of those claims, it could be that in the next decade or so we see things turn around to where we have more free speech because people have kind of seen the bluff of that, they have seen that that’s actually over the top and leading to a kind of censorship that activate some of the, what I mentioned before, the old school liberals who are committed to free speech principles, even principles that they disagree with. We should never look at history, we should never look at our current moment as if they trajectory is set in stone and is always moving in a particular direction. History is full of surprises—as we have seen over the last 5 to 10 years—and it could be that there is a backlash against this kind of thing and to where the companies for the sake of their own business models have to engage and change course due to some of the decisions they’ve made and the fallout from them.

REICHARD: Maybe we humans can learn from our history. Trevin Wax is senior vice president of Theology and Communications at LifeWay Christian Resources.

WAX: Thank you so much.

BASHAM: Thanks, Trevin.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) This April 26, 2017, file photo shows the Twitter app icon on a mobile phone.

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