Clearing the Stage: The Case for Deplatforming
Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos (and many other “freethinkers and rationalists” that have abused their privilege and platform to spread hatred and divisive rhetoric against disadvantaged communities), habitually complain that being deplatformed infringes on their right to free speech. Deplatforming is the restriction of individuals from using platforms in media to reach a wider audience, by removing their content or refusing to cover their stories. The first question I want to try to answer here is this: when is limiting speech admissible, and why is deplatforming a legitimate response?
As a rule, rights are limited when they tangibly affect the lives and enjoyment of rights of others. The right to freedom of speech is no exception. Speech that incites violence is restricted because this use of speech can take away the right to life of others. Hate speech meets similar criteria. The use of platforms to malign individuals that are already oppressed by society adds fuel to an already powerful fire of hatred and bigotry. It gives fresh life to those that hurt individuals from minority communities, as well as creating a hostile environment in which they cannot express themselves without endangering their safety and security. Notably, this is inherently tied to an unfavourable balance of power. J K Rowling’s transphobic comments add to the strength of a pool of people that further commit violence against trans people. This does not go the other way around. A trans person calling Rowling a TERF does not carry the power to influence society to violence and discrimination against TERFs in their words. They are limited in their capability of causing harm to people that are advantaged by the system. This means that it is in the nature of hate speech that it can only be used by those with power against those without. Jordan Peterson doesn’t face discrimination on a daily basis because people of colour or trans people speak out against him — while it is justified to restrict his speech, it is not justified to restrict theirs. The question however remains: if the law does not recognise this nuance, how do we restrict hate speech?
This is where deplatforming comes into the picture. Removing people from the air that use their influence to inspire oppression and divide, and instead redirecting the spotlight towards minorities and disadvantaged groups. Cancelling interviews, removing their content from your platform, etc are some steps in the right direction. This, importantly, also includes content from bigotted individuals that is not directly related to their problematic views. To explain it simply, anything that lends them credibility as a public figure contributes to how dangerous they are. J K Rowling may be a TERF, but it is the almost entirely unrelated Harry Potter series that put her in a position to be able to spread her views and incite hatred. As long as Rowling gains money and influence with each purchase of her books, the only way to act against her is, sadly, to stop buying her books.
Deplatforming, of course, should not be done carelessly. It is easy to fall into a habit of cancelling individuals and forgetting about them, but people are people, and opinions change. Deplatforming should be limited to those that actively hold and promote views that may be problematic, while giving room for people to learn and improve. In fact, the most compelling stories come from people that once had problematic views and then learned to reject them. Replatforming people that have a genuine change of heart is a good way to include strong and compelling allies to the cause.
However, it may be important to give airtime to dangerous people in certain situations. One often forgets that credibility goes both ways, and public figures often increase the credibility of the organisations that platform them. While it is irresponsible to platform such individuals for personal gain, it must be remembered that not everyone is an ally to your movement. More likely than not, someone will give them a stage. Using platforms for actively calling out bigotted individuals is a responsible use of influence, aimed specifically at delegitimizing those individuals, and consequently, those views.
As a general guide towards deplatforming, do not like or share media posts or content that supports problematic people, if you want, share posts that specifically delegitimize them. Restrict interactions with such individuals to a rational debunking of their views and opinions. Importantly, share and support posts and content of people from minority communities. Amplify the voices of women, people of colour, LGBT+ people, backward castes, indigenous people, the poor, the differently abled. If you can’t stop the bigotry, drown it out.