“TechCrunch uses the word ‘hate’ so many times—and so without any obvious meaning, that it strikes me as likely a form of attempted Pavlovian conditioning.”
Last week, YouTube caved to an online mob lead by Vox journalist-come-activist Carlos Maza to demonetize conservative shock jock Steven Crowder’s channel. Maza had disingenuously claimed that Crowder was harassing him in a homophobic and racist manner, when, in fact, Crowder was primarily criticizing Maza’s ideas, albeit in a nasty style that involved mocking Maza’s mannerisms and using epithets that Maza accurately applies to himself and has slanderously used against Crowder in the past. Crowder’s fans certainly seem to have harassed Maza, but Crowder has never incited or encouraged this and, in fact, frequently speaks out against it. One might think that an outspokenly political public figure who goes by “gaywonk” and is empowered by a major media organization would be able to take puerile ridicule on the Internet without throwing a tantrum and demanding his enemies be purged. But one would be mistaken.
Maza’s campaign went into overdrive when YouTube originally decided not to punish Crowder, finding that his content, while clearly hurtful, did not violate its policies. At that time, Katie Herzog wrote in The Stranger, “Crowder is a comic, doing exactly what comics do: Mocking a public figure. There’s nothing illegal about that, and if YouTube does reverse its decision and start to ban everyone who mocks people for their sexuality or race, they’re going to have to ban a whole lot of queer people of color who enjoy making fun of straight white dudes next. That’s not a precedent I’d like to see set.” But that is exactly what happened next. YouTube flip-flopped to appease the Vox mob with sweeping reforms aimed at removing “hateful content.”
This effectively amounted to a purge of independent content creators. Some of the most high-profile cases unsurprisingly share Crowder’s politics, but bizarrely and unfortunately, many do not. Many are not even political, but are simply collateral damage, including historical footage, independent reporters covering actual white supremacy, and a channel that makes “relaxing sounds.” These are people whose livelihoods depend on the revenue they receive from their YouTube channels, not to mention the investment already committed and the skills already honed towards the only realistically viable way of growing an audience and monetizing video content online. In some cases, they are entire businesses with low level staff on the payroll.
As Crowder cogently observed in a response video, “If you think this is not going to happen to you—it isn’t just for conservatives now, it’s everybody. It’s everybody who creates original content. We have not been attacked for being conservative—at least that’s not what they said. It’s offensive jokes. So if you do jokes that are offensive, they can completely remove your ability to make a living.” That YouTube can—or even would—do this has proven terrifying to many in its ecosystem. Welcome to the #VoxAdpocalypse.
Many have pointed to the role played by activists posing as journalists in catalyzing this controversy. I would highlight these two articles from TechCrunch and Vox as particularly egregious, though admittedly I was spoiled for choice. While I do not disagree that this is a problematic trend, I think there are two causes that are more fundamental that let the journalist-activists do their dirty deeds in the first place; that grievance studies has seeped out the academy and is firmly ensconced in (at least) tech and journalism; and that we desperately need genuinely neutral Internet protocols.
I found particularly amusing in the TechCrunch article that the cognates of the word “hate” appear a frankly ridiculous eight times. This is on the order of 1000 times that of the expected frequency from the English corpus. I have no intention of defending Crowder’s content, either in terms of its tone, or its message in aggregate outside of what I favorably quote in this article. So, fair enough, Crowder’s content is often hateful. I find him occasionally funny but mostly juvenile and obnoxious. What is interesting is how TechCrunch uses the word “hate.” They do so in a way that almost certainly could never be said of Maza, no matter how many times he publicly incites violence against his political opponents, as in a recent tweet encouraging his followers to, “Milkshake them all. Humiliate them at every turn. Make them dread public organizing.”
I guess we can expect a prompt ban for Stephen Colbert for calling Donald Trump’s mouth, “Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” That’s certainly pretty hateful.
TechCrunch and its ilk do not mean what you and I would mean by “hate,” probably something along the lines of, intense dislike, or, as a verb, express strong dislike for; criticize or abuse. By this definition, it is fairly obvious that Crowder hates Maza—as do I now, and as you should too. This is an expression of a psychological state, not an objective reality. I sometimes hate the weather, but I don’t campaign for it to be de-platformed. It is, in essence, subjective. It relates to my experience of the world, not to the world itself.
The use of “hate” promulgated by TechCrunch, Vox, Maza, and YouTube pretends to be objective. Hate is not something Crowder feels; it is something Crowder is. He embodies “hate.” His content does not communicate his hatred, or incite hatred in others; it is itself hateful, removed from a speaker or target. Of course, despite my attempts to sincerely articulate the philosophy at play here, this is all gibberish. This usage of “hate” is not objective at all—but is quasi-religious. It imitates what might sensibly be called “objective” to attempt to convey legitimacy, but really it is synonymous with “blasphemy” or “impurity.” This might all seem like philosophical pedantry to the reasonable layman, but there are important implications for the ethics of broadcasting or debating allegedly “hateful” ideas.
Firstly, the pretension to objectivity is key to plausibly invoke YouTube’s terms of service. A terms of service is a list of things you can and cannot do. It is, by definition, objective; you either did or did not do these things. But of course, YouTube’s terms of service is so vague as to cover either nothing or everything. For example, one may not make “hurtful and negative personal comments about another person.” I guess we can expect a prompt ban for Stephen Colbert for calling Donald Trump’s mouth, “Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” That’s certainly pretty hateful. You could even claim bonus points for implicit homophobia. And for Samantha Bee for calling Ivanka Tramp a, “feckless c–t,” and for Trevor Noah for his numerous blatantly racist impersonations of demographics that don’t matter much to the American far-left. But no ban is forthcoming because despite clearly being hateful, and clearly in violation of YouTube’s ToS, this is not “hate.” And to Katie Herzog, no, of course YouTube will not ban queer people of color who make fun of straight white dudes. This certainly doesn’t sound hateful (it sounds hilarious) but even if it were, it would not be “hate.”
When YouTube eventually conjured up an explanation for demonetizing Crowder, it cited one video in which Crowder interviews the founder of a charity helping victims of sexual assault by Muslims. The interviewee, was herself a victim of a violent sexual assault as a child. Youtube also cited another video discussing the U.S. military transgender ban in which Crowder interviewed Blaire White, a transwoman, to get her take. At one point in the interview, White sarcastically asked, “Who am I, this prissy tranny in California, to tell anyone that if they pass the requirements and go through the psych evaluations, basic training—who am I to sit here in this apartment in LA and say ‘you can’t fight for me?’” Crowder laughed at this self-deprecating humor, as did White, mid-sentence, and Crowder then praised White for her nuanced assessment. Rather than leveraging his enormous power and privilege to silence people who laugh at him, it would almost certainly be a better use of Maza’s time to take a leaf from White and learn how to laugh at himself—as White herself pointed out in a subsequent video of her own: “I just don’t have any respect for Maza who wants to clutch his pearls when he is insulted online,” she says, “but who works for a publication that routinely tries to destroy people.” Despite not being hateful in the slightest, all of this, of course, is “hate.” Probably even talking about it is “hate.” Who really knows?
But perhaps more worrying than the consequences of strategically vague standards is the semantic muddle that gives rise to them in the first place. TechCrunch uses the word “hate” so many times—and so without any obvious meaning, that it strikes me as likely a form of attempted Pavlovian conditioning. This is commonly elucidated with the example of ringing a bell—a neutral stimulus—whenever giving a dog food—an unconditioned stimulus—repeatedly, so as to eventually condition the dog to physiologically respond to the bell alone by salivating the same way it would respond to food. This is what “hate” is doing here. It is expected that the reader has associated enough uncomfortable ideas with the neutral stimulus “hate,” that they are then conditioned to respond to the word alone, without needing the accompanying idea.
The effect of this conditioning is interesting, if not actually quite tactically brilliant. The reader is psychologically tricked into believing themselves to not need to grapple with the idea at all. They are supplied with the discomfort with which the author wants the reader to associate the idea in question, and so are averse to even becoming exposed to it. Somehow they already know what they think about it. It is like they have rote learned feelings that are triggered by psychological manipulation. Of course, the effect is to justify stifling debate. The reader need not expose himself to the ideas because they have had their reaction supplied for them. In fact, they are probably scared to. Why go through the discomfort? Why not censor?
Greenwald hits on a key point of political philosophy here, that it is rather odd to see supposed left-wingers siding with half-trillion-dollar corporations against independent artists, while supposed right-wingers line up in opposition.
The ultimate endpoint is that the reader will ascribe a meaning to this psychological struggle that is clearly religious in nature. The dismissal of obviously blasphemous ideas is part of a personal struggle for moral purity. James Lindsay and Mike Nayna explored this in wonderful detail in an extended essay for Areo several months ago entitled “Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice.” I will not spell out their argument as I encourage the reader to explore the article in full, but I will pull out two choice quotes:
“In Social Justice, Hate is the maleficent manifestation of power and privilege as it manifests within the Matrix of Domination, acting through discourses upon the realities of oppression and identity. Because power and privilege are everywhere and relational, and because they are deemed to intrinsically operate to justify and perpetuate themselves, Hate is everywhere and eternal.”
“This leads into yet another theme, which is nearly ubiquitous in Social Justice: the work of ‘Justice’ is never finished. As with so much, this doctrine applies both extrapersonally (societally) and intrapersonally (individually). This applies societally, where we must constantly make the effort against Hate to reduce all forms of bigotry (as read through an applied postmodern analysis).”
This is what we can expect from grievance studies having found its feet outside the academy: deployment of this religious conditioning to psychologically overwhelm any rational desire to judge ideas on their merits, to deem reason to be a form of privilege, and to feel personally, religiously moved to neverendingly root out “hate.” There is no consistency in what YouTube decides is and is not “hateful” because consistency is only valued as a pretense. Power is valued in actuality. The ability to shame blasphemy is valued. YouTube exists to spread the faith, and faith is avowedly not logical.
It should absolutely be stressed that this is not indicative of the Left—however well or poorly defined we deem that term to be—but a small but extremely powerful and vocal subset of that category, which self-identifies as to the left of almost everybody. Avowed leftists Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey have been among the most outspoken critics of YouTube, Vox, and the like.
Tracey tweeted: “Looks like whining journalists have successfully pressured YouTube to more aggressively ‘tackle hate,’ whatever the hell that means. The strategy includes ‘partnering closely with lawmakers’ and ‘raising up authoritative voices.’ Good job media, this creepy Newspeak is for you.” And Greenwald: “Liberals are so attached to their fantasy about the goodness of authority that they actually convince themselves that Silicon Valley giants—who they’re otherwise willing to malign—are exercising censorship powers in defense of marginalized people against the powerful.”
Greenwald hits on a key point of political philosophy here, that it is rather odd to see supposed left-wingers siding with half-trillion-dollar corporations against independent artists, while supposed right-wingers line up in opposition. Their arguments in favor of the former seem to come straight from the Milton Friedman/Chicago School of Economics playbook: YouTube is a private platform and can make whatever rules it wants, right? Perhaps, but I don’t think things are quite this simple. As I wrote in Quillette in December, “a cartel of politically aligned capitalists controls access not just to cyberspace in the abstract, but, arguably, the very means of online business functionality.” YouTube is not a bar which can turn away rowdy patrons—or a magazine that can reject submissions from writers. YouTube is a monopolistic utility for a certain kind of important media. It is the protocol for video on the web. Being banned by YouTube is analogous to being cut off from the banking and payments system, if enacted by a company, or being banned from using email, if the access is to an Internet protocol.
I admit neither analogy is perfect, but in a sense, their peculiarity is the point. We have failed abysmally to adequately account for the economics of software driven networks in our legal system. No two are the same, but many share a previously unknown characteristic in capital intensive businesses: increasing returns to scale. If we also believe, as Marc Andreessen famously wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, that software is eating the world, then it follows naturally from the combination that many activities that consist essentially of information or of process, and which are of vital importance to a healthy society, will become ensnared in the rapid and profitable growth of these kinds of networks. For all intents and purposes, the public square is majority owned by Google, Facebook, and Twitter. To a worrying extent, they dictate who can and cannot effectively participate in politics and culture. But what political and cultural viewpoints are best (or least “hateful”) should be determined collectively by free and open debate, not unilaterally by flagrantly ideological, for-profit corporations manipulating our perception of reality on their privately-owned commons. That YouTube owes Crowder no First Amendment protection is not an excuse; it is a serious problem. With some poetic license as to what precisely we mean by “protocols,” we need them to be as neutral as possible.
Regulation would be my lowest preference in this regard, but it is almost certainly coming. It is the bluntest approach of all: the protocols are not neutral, so coerce their operators until they are. A better approach would be what seemed to be the case for a long time: private and very possibly for-profit protocols operated neutrally. I strongly encourage everybody to explore as many open networks as possible that at least, so far, profess to be open, as alternatives to the Silicon Valley cartel: Minds, Gab, Brave, and Telegram would be a good start.
More are on their way. But best of all is protocols that are neutral by design. This is coming soon too, but it depends on social buy-in. In fact, I think it will seem ironic in years to come that the success of decentralized networks of value and information exchange was primarily driven by users fleeing the power grabs of centralized incumbents. This is precisely why they will lose their power. It will be engineered away, both technically and socially.
My Quillette article celebrated PewDiePie gaining enough cultural leverage to have the upper hand over YouTube. Naturally, Vox attempts to diminish his influence with smears of “hate.” But now I fear I may have been far too optimistic. YouTube can’t ban PewDiePie, but it seems like they can ban just about anybody else. I am generally very wary of this kind of slippery slope argument, but frankly, it seems like the burden of proof has shifted. We have already slipped halfway down the slope. If they can ban one comedian for entirely unspecified reasons, why can’t they ban any other? Why can’t they ban me? Why can’t they ban Quillette? Or Merion West? If you think this is hyperbolic, the odds are that you arrived at this article via either Twitter or Facebook. If you are already familiar with the site and go straight to the homepage, how did you find it the first time, and what won’t you find next time?
YouTube’s statement on its updated guidelines includes the intention to, “reduce borderline content and raising up authoritative voices.” Merion West is “borderline content” par excellence and can certainly be banned. In short, they can ban whoever they want, for reasons that will pretend to be objective but really will amount to little more than professions of their ad hoc religious faith. We may as well assume that we will all be banned if we don’t toe the line. Obviously, we are not going to. Let’s just hope that, by that time, it no longer matters.