Recently, Tim cook, the CEO of Apple made a zero tolerance on hate-speech speech. It was quite hateful. In chilly totalitarian language, he threatened, in so many words, a ‘social media’ summary execution of any person who committed the not-easy-to-define category of hate speech. Although Cook’s words had a tone of: ‘Apple is the mother of compassion and will protect the weak and the vulnerable everywhere’, we can perhaps be a bit critical of that presumption.
When Tim Cook says “We only have one message for those who seek to push hate, division, and violence: You have no place on our platform. You have no home here” this might sound quite reasonable. After all, you wouldn’t invite a violent hateful person into your home, would you? However, note the flavour of triumphalism here: is this our corporate overlord speaking or Mahatma Gandhi?
Apple is not your home or your government but is apparently a technology company. Except it is so much more than that. In some ways it is also a religion—or even a cult—at least when it starts putting forward a system of laws and punishments as well as a spiritual agenda. Interestingly, Cook defines hate speech as a ‘sin’, using religious language. As head priest of Apple, he speaks with an elect and divinely sanctioned authority as if from God himself. Theoretically, Apple, with its limitless and transnational power, could de-platform and destroy the livelihood of anybody it doesn’t like, just as Patreon did with Youtuber Sargon of Akkad.
So what to do? And just what the hell is hate speech anyway? Here is my definition: Hate speech is an arbitrary, unjust, or violent verbal attack directed toward destroying another person or group. My friend Stephen Lewis has an even better definition: ‘when one identifies only the vices of another, never acknowledging the virtues’. Of course, everybody has a different idea of what they consider hateful, which is precisely the problem here. We all have to draw our own lines in the sand and define things as best we see them.
Obviously, hate speech applies to such horrors as the ‘n’ word. And everybody know that the n-word is hate speech when it is used earnestly against a black person. And if you relish the use of the n-word you are a racist obviously. Thank goodness that good people don’t use this word anymore, except ironically, or in comedy, or in rap songs. Only a truly terrible person would use this casually to demean a living human being simply because of his or her race.
It is however possible to use the n-world word ironically, in art, or in comedy for instance. I think of the Patti Smith’s ‘Rock and Roll nigger’? Patti Smith is a white women but she is not a racist: she uses the n-word as a badge of honour, to celebrate the maverick outcast. Smith sings ‘Jimi Hendrix was a nigga, Jesus Christ and grandma, too. Jackson Pollock was a nigga.’ Patti Smith’s song feels like uplifting punk rock anthem with a positive message celebrating human creativity and diversity—even if Smith is a white woman using a racial slur. Context is everything.
Smith and others use the n-word alchemically — transforming its meaning. In the best rap songs, but also in comedy, slurs are used to this effect: they liberate us from real obscenity, they make bigotry laughable. Through humour we bring the racist, the sexist, the homophobic to the light—better than to fester in the dark. Consciousness, humour, and art liberate. Especially if we risk going to dangerous places, rather than remaining on the sterile surfaces of life.
Different kinds of hate
Still there are other groups who do employ a certain kind of naked hatred in their speech. Should we let the holocaust deniers speak, for instance? This is tricky. Personally, I think it's probably better to expose the hateful to the harsh public gaze than keep them in the dark where they can form dangerous sub-cultures. The problem is: if free speech is not supposed to include hate speech—then how precisely is it free? Freedom goes hand and hand with maturity and responsibility, which is not a given.
And yet who gets to define hate? The powerful and the ideologically possessed, it would seems, through the overreach and political correctness of hidden people at Apple, Facebook and Google—not to mention Patreon — even if such companies are mostly composed of well-meaning souls. Their attempts at making the online world more safe and compassionate are all very well-meaning. But there is a strange paradox at work: they are oddly intolerant, even hateful, of those who are slightly off in message, not just the total Nazi wingnuts.
Sargon of Akkad, for instance, has been a bit too cosy with people like Steve Bannon. His politics are the real reason he is being deplatformed, not because he has used the n-word in an ugly manner—Patreon were obviously looking for a reason to bring him down. Sargon’s crime was in being too hot headed, but his motivations were not evil. He was attacking actual racists with racist slurs, mirroring their poison with poison—showing them up for what they were. Having had some contact with dangerous ideologues and racists, I can understand the impulse to want to hurl the worst possible sling of obscenities their way. There is no doubt that ugly, hateful words came out of Sargon’s mouth and he has admitted it. But Patreon seems to be oblivious to the context.
Sargon was already one of the ‘bad people’ in the progressive halls of good opinion. But Patreon made a mistake and underestimated his power by deplatforming him: they will make him an even bigger star, the same way progressives inadvertently made Donald Trump president. A little guy with a big mouth like Sargon could bring down a company like Patreon, not because he is a paragon of virtues himself, but because he was unjustly attacked and the public can smell the stink of bad faith. A David might take down a Goliath.
Sometimes our inner seething and violence gets translated into verbal explosions of bile. Hopefully, if we hurt somebody with our hateful words, we will have the grace to apologize. If not, that’s life. You can’t legislate or control every inch of it. We are all heretics to our better nature at times. It is not acceptable that any person can—if they are out of favour with the current overlords of good opinion—theoretically, be so summarily thrown under the bus, without recourse to appeal.
Hot hate and cold hate
Hate doesn’t exist in words—there are no dirty words as Leonard Cohen put it. It’s all about context. And there are different kinds of hate: there is hot passionate hate and there is cold bureaucratic hate, and the latter may be worse. Hot hate can be seen as the more obvious violent outbursts of speech, which are often inadvertent, impulsive; they are usually less dangerous than cold hate which is more calculated and intentional.
In a civilised society the punishment for a violent outburst of verbal rage is social ostracisation—excessive legislation isn’t necessary. Recently, I was shouted at by the local lunatic who has Tourette’s Syndrome: he almost knocked me off my bicycle with the force of his words. His string of nasty adjectives weren’t personal; they were a result of his terrible condition. Mostly, this local nut lives alone and does nobody any serious harm, I am told.
Sometimes on Twitter one gets knocked over by a Tourette’s Syndrome-like outburst of hate. Still, most of the nastiness there is creative and measured; some craft their insults into a form of high art. The hate expressed on Twitter is intentional and self-conscious and social shaming can temper it to a certain a degree—a sensitive person knows what he can and cannot say. Twitter is a public platform, not a bedroom or bordel, and that there are consequences for behavior there. Excessive legislation and censorship online is always counterproductive because it stops the necessary feedback we must give to hateful beings, for our sake and theirs.
‘Cold hate’ is a far more odious form than naked aggression because it hides behind a benevolent and holier-than-thou mask of compassion. It is hypocritical, in other words. A real far-right Nazi may not have the brains or the billions to hate in relatively sophisticated manner. A person like Tim Cook, on the other hand, who sounds compassionate, might actually be concealing a great deal of hatred.
Hate speech rules make potentially speech criminals of us all — subject to the arbitrary whim of the our digital overlords. If hate speech is a sin as Cook claims, then we all sinners, because we all hate different stuff — it’s part of the human condition. Nobody is 100 percent pure.
Uttering lifeless platitudes of ideology is certainly part of my definition of hate speech: verbal attack directed toward destroying another person or group. We should beware of the totalitarian potential of ‘fuzzy use of punitive language and moral self righteousness’ which is also a form of hate speech. History has shown that moral kangaroo courts have lead to gulag like conditions, where everybody who is off message, gets thrown in the pit.
The Matrix is control
What is Matrix, Neo? The Matrix is control, said Morpheus. Apple is control, Facebook is control, Patreon is Control—a mass ideological control perhaps more powerful today than nation states. Except they can’t control the human choice to act with courage, intelligence, and heart. Courage, intelligence and heart are what prevail against machine like ideology. The thing is: we have to become more self-aware and work diligently to resist all totalitarian modes of control, whether they originate in silicon valley or Saudi Arabia, or deep within ourselves. If we want to remain human, that is.
I admit that there is a certain amount of hate in this essay. There is stuff that I really despise, like Tim Cook's sanctimonious speech, for example. Hopefully, by writing this I have to transform my own seething hatred into some kind of clarity. I know that there is a little sanctimonious prick within myself which I have to fight every day. In psychoanalytic terms this is called ‘shadow work’: noticing when a person causes an intense offence it could be because of an unacknowledged part of our own nature. Tim Cook, I’m sure you know the fascist dictator who lives side by side the the gentle progressive. So often they are codependent bedfellows.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits