Perhaps the most important debate in America concerns the debate itself.
The Biden administration made it clear recently that it wants social media companies to censor certain content – and users – that it finds objectionable. It is not an abstract goal. White House officials are monitoring social media and telling companies what they want to remove and amplify.
“Within the Surgeon General’s office, we report posts on Facebook that disseminate disinformation,” Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said recently. She has made a series of White House demands on private social media companies, including removing some posts and promoting others.
Psaki was not finished.
“You shouldn’t be banned from one platform and others not if you – for providing disinformation,” she said.
It would not be surprising to hear these feelings emanate from Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. Totalitarian regimes are not interested in debate. They maintain power in part by limiting the speaking ability of their opponents.
It is surprising to hear these feelings coming from the White House. Since the founding of the country, America has had vigorous – and even nasty – discussions and disagreements.
But there is much less agreement today on the process of public discourse. In a formal debate, each side presents their best arguments and a judge selects a winner. The real world version is much more freewheeling. Advocates of the idea market argue that vigorous debate is the best way to determine the best ideas, since all humans are fallible.
There are other, more devious ways to win a debate. One way is to stop the other side from speaking. Censorship lets you win by default. That’s what Biden wants to do. You can accept Biden’s objections to certain information. But it’s an entirely different thing to agree with the White House’s desire to silence those voices. Laundering this authoritarian will by private companies does not make it any more acceptable either.
Biden says his actions are necessary to prevent the spread of disinformation. But determining what is and what is not disinformation is often a subjective judgment. Sometimes misinformation is a label applied to true statements presented in a way that someone objects to. In other cases, what was once considered disinformation is becoming widely accepted. A recent example is the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
It is not clear how bipartisan opposition to censorship is today. On Thursday, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Introduced a bill that would allow social media platforms to be prosecuted if they amplified “health misinformation” during a public health emergency. The Secretary of Health and Social Services would determine what is eligible.
Do you see the difference here? Republicans are unhappy with Facebook and other social media companies for over-censoring. Some Democrats are angry with Facebook for not censoring enough.
Another way to win a debate without winning an argument is to label your opponent’s speech as violent. It sounds absurd in the abstract, but it happens on a regular basis.
For example, the American Booksellers Association sends boxes of books to its members. It’s a way for publishers to promote upcoming releases. A recent box included Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage,” which challenges transgender orthodoxy. After complaints on Twitter, the group apologized, calling the book’s inclusion a “violent incident.”
Think about it. A group of booksellers equated the mere presence of a book to an act of physical injury. Among many students, this is a common view.
Acceptance of this idea makes it impossible to debate hot topics. After all, if someone commits an act of violence against you, you would be right to call the police or hit them in self-defense.
Canceling culture is a bit of a catch-all term, but it’s another example of the debate over who can say what.
There are many important political discussions going on right now. But don’t miss the bigger picture. Who wins the debate on how we can debate will have lasting implications.
Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at [email protected] or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.