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Let’s not “Free Milo”

July 23, 2016

I have a Facebook friend who’s all over this Free Milo movement.

That’s the one where they try to get Milo Yiannopoulos, who was recently banned from Twitter, reinstated.


Normally, this acquaintance gets several likes for her political commentary from her fellow Right-wing friends, but not this time. No one on her friend list can get inspired over this cause.

The is because, frankly, Milo Yiannopoulos is a bit of a knob. If you don’t know anything about him, he’s sort of like Katie Hopkins, in the sense that he seems to go out of his way to insult every conceivable group of people.

I would guess that they both harbour this warped notion that sensitivity to the struggles and history of particular social groups is some kind of moral weakness, and that strength of character is in speaking aloud these great truths of the human condition. To phrase it their way, the Zeitgeist of oversensitivity and political correctness is killing freedom of speech, and it is their duty to counteract it.

Well, interesting that we should arrive at the issue of freedom of speech, because I have plenty to say about it. It is top of the Free Milo list of reasons to free Milo, so let’s at it.

Banning Milo is against the principle of freedom of speech.

Oh, freedom of speech. I’ve written several pieces on the flaws of the freedom-of-speech-is-everything political viewpoint, but toady there’s another angle; the fact that people have forgotten that Twitter is not, and was never, contractually bound to give Milo or anyone else freedom of speech on a media platform which belongs to Twitter.

In law, freedom of speech is the right of any individual to speak their mind on their views without interference from the government. It does not concern private companies, and the use of Twitter is ultimately a privilege, not a right.

Use of Twitter is specific, like use of your local pub (which has the right to bar you at its discretion) not general, like the concept of freedom of speech, which indicates that the Powers that Be are purposefully silencing you across all platforms. Twitter does not have these powers to abuse, however big a corporation it is. It is more like your local pub on a grander scale, and therefore has the freedom not to host any individual.

Every independent TV channel, every public meeting and every newspaper gets to choose whether they ban someone from a hustings, omit someone’s point of view from a piece of writing, or edit a video to support one point of view more than another. Since this is a concern about state interference, we accept that taking away a media host’s right to be partisan requires regulation which would be too intrusive. Twitter is a media host in the same way, but is often mistaken for a public body whenever discussion like this crop up.

Milo is a journalist by trade, but on Twitter he is a regular Joe, in-so-much as he isn’t being hired to express his views. Because Twitter is free to use and no one is paid to use it, people forget it’s a business and a media host, and that the people who use the site are contributors. As such, Twitter can decide which of its contributors are bringing the publication down, and figuratively give them the sack.

Social media is no doubt subject to slightly different rules, but not to the extent that people assume. We think of social media as the equivalent of a political panel, but it is closer to the pub metaphor. Twitter hosts opinion, because that’s all it can host; your essence, not your body. But that’s still you on there, not merely Your Opinions, as a disembodied concept. Your Opinions aren’t being banned. You are being banned. If your behaviour is inappropriate, you are banned, just as you would be in any physical space where you went around shooting your mouth off and making people uncomfortable.

This confused view originates from our dependence on social media for crowd-sourced truth. If one were banned from all social media, it would certainly have a profound effect on our ability to express our views. Here is where capitalism comes in handy; because all social media sites are in competition with each other, the most tolerant and least intrusive will fetch a larger audience. There’s a significant market for “the truth” (partisan, misinformed pseudo-science); “the truth they don’t want you to know (conspiracy theories); and “the truth no one talks about” (extreme prejudice).

Make no mistake; Twitter knows this. There is only one reason why they would remove a precious user, considering that every user is money to them; if he was bad for business. Twitter are proud of their adaptability and universal functionality; there are a great deal of uses of Twitter than increase its relevance, reputation and capital. They would not silence anyone who was contributing to the site in this way.

So, presumably, they felt that the removal of Milo was no loss at all; rather an improvement to the site. Under current laws, that’s their call. Most Free Milo people are libertarian, so presumably wouldn’t favour the government preventing Twitter from banning as it pleases.

Twitter shouldn’t pander to the pressure of aggressive Social Justice Warriors who just want to silence anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Twitter cares more about majorities than minorities as a global business, and will notice when any act has a broadly negative effect more than a positive one. Most people are not SJWs, so there is little danger of them inverting the site.

Because it is democratic in the sense of hosting all views, Twitter mimics society’s democracy. Despite Daily Mail paranoia to the contrary, SJWs have only the merest smear of an effect on values and legislation, compared to the effect they would like to have. What sticks is the stuff that most people think is a good idea. This will happen if the point is expressed in a way people respond to.

As a rule, we don’t respond badly to political points of view expressed neutrally and fairly, even if we disagree with them. We get annoyed with aggression, antagonism, condescension, mocking, belittling, sarcasm, sneering and all manner of other tools used by a person to dismiss an argument they would rather not engage with. If Milo were simply expressing his point of view, no one would know who he was – which he probably knows, hence the behaviour.

Let’s examine the sheer arrogance of Milo thinking that, if Twitter was afraid of controversy, they would silence him. Twitter is a site which contains many elements, of which several are controversial or likely to antagonise particular groups. There are collections of insider accounts on closed or war-torn parts of the world. The Klu Klux Klan are on Twitter, as are many other inflammatory groups.

So, what does a journalist who is freely invited to panels on British TV, where the Klu Klux Klan and equivalents would never be welcome, have to be in order for Twitter to ban him? The answer is not extra controversial or extra prejudiced. The answer is extra stupid. The Klu Klux Klan are actually more careful. When they aren’t being antagonised by Anonymous and other protesters, they don’t say much.

Milo’s over-visibility has nothing to do with what he believes, and everything to do with how he behaves. He was careless and flippant about the rules of Twitter (which are not unclear) and paid the price all serial offenders eventually face; total removal of a certain privilege.

In order to be banned on Twitter, you have to be spectacularly annoying. Milo annoys SJWs because he’s annoying. So annoying, you don’t have to be a SJW to find him annoying. So many people find him annoying, Twitter thought that its service would be better off without him.

Saying he has the right to be annoying has an odd ring to it. Actually, we don’t like annoying people and we don’t want them in our social circle. We’ll do anything to make them less annoying, and failing that, cut them out of our social circle.

If that seems harsh, it is the harshness of human social interaction, not the harshness of Twitter. Twitter is just reacting to the sentiments we all have and express; that there isn’t room or need for comments of no worth on Twitter, and the only reason most of the drivel on there is allowed to slide is because it is too much of an undertaking to remove it. Most people’s Twitters are, after all, boring at best.

Milo had the skill of being so incredibly annoying, even the up-tops were bound to notice. And you know a part of him is proud of it.

Milo has as much right to use the service as anyone else.

Only by default. Above, I noted how Twitter has a professional identity they are proud of. As well as a platform for truth, Twitter is about sharing and community. Therefore, anyone who acts against the community is no longer welcome, just as someone who purposefully farts at the neighbourhood watch meetings is no longer welcome. In the Twitter sphere, Milo has farted on too many occasions, and that’s why he’s out.

If Twitter wants to promote free exchange of ideas and opinions, it is actually not their job to let everything slide. Like all stewards, their job is keep everything in order. Someone who upsets everyone all the time for no reason but to amuse themselves and “make a point” (abstractly, the way a teenager does when they want to win a needless row) is not using the service well and brings the tone down. Twitter is better when it is kept healthy by removing bad elements.

If we’re going to say that Milo is equal to everyone else, remember that people on Twitter who don’t happen to be famous journalists and commentators have been prosecuted for “hate speech”, a thorny classification, but one which does brush up against the kinds of things Milo has been saying. His Twitter ban is comparatively minor, and in my opinion a more appropriate response.

The fact of the matter is, Milo’s manner of expression is childish. Twitter does have children and teenagers on it, but as it becomes more socially important, it becomes an adult medium; a compliment to news and commentary and a pooling of resources for information. Misbehaviours are usually childish, and as with children, we remove the privileges of people who misbehave.

People made a fuss about the Christian bakery refusing to serve a gay couple, but they’re OK with Twitter banning Milo. That’s inconsistent.

I’m not a libertarian, nor are probably most people who are anti the Free Milo campaign. I don’t see social issues as mechanically as that. That the bakery should be allowed to ban gays because Milo is allowed to be banned from Twitter is an evaluation that pays too much attention to the process, and not enough attention to the reasoning.

In other words, there are and should be different rules for different people in different circumstances. Not wanting to serve gay people is not the same as not wanting to serve arseholes and troublemakers. The latter is to be expected, based on their behaviour; the former is bald prejudice, not based on the individual behaviour of person who has been denied a service.

As it happens, the bakery thing wasn’t entirely to do with homophobia per se, and as soon as people understood the nuance behind the situation, many retracted their stance against the bakery. Peter Tatchell was one. He eventually defended the business because he recognised the business owner’s right to have their own beliefs, and that they shouldn’t be compelled to act against them.

If you subscribe o that notion, it means that Twitter has a right to exercise its own beliefs as well. Sure, it’s a bigger company, but let’s not confuse big and rich with socially powerful. Twitter’s power, like the power of all services, is in people’s willingness to use it.

The pro-capitalists among us would say that Twitter should be allowed to make its bad business decisions if it wants to, because ultimately it will pay for them. Indeed, if Twitter started banning people left right and centre, its reputation would plunge. It relies on its reputation even more than the average business, so you can be sure they think twice before risking it.

So, this is not such an issue of broad principle as people think. The fact is, this is not the beginning of a slippery slope towards routine censorship of Twitter. This is most likely a rare one-off, which Twitter will only risk when it thinks it stands to gain.

Its gain is directly related to its own internal democracy; therefore, its gain is our gain. I think Twitter’s standing has gone up for the fact that it has been seen to act in a socially responsible manner and intervene when one person becomes too bellicose.

It’s shown that it is listening to the concerns of its users, as opposed to rubber stamping a free-for-all environment which leads websites like 4-chan to get very unpleasant, very quickly. Therein lies the reason why I am not libertarian; I can see that without moderation from outside elements, individuals succumb to their worst instincts.

We need a leviathan – and failing the law, the internal rules of Twitter have to be taken seriously by the company and users alike.

This censorship could be used to silence fringe views and minorities.

I’ve been a social media user since before the term existed, back when it was only basic forums with comment threats to discuss niche interests. There were always moderators, usually just ordinary users who’d been with the site a long time.

They could ban people who were rowdy, and this was misused when the moderator took a dislike to someone – banning them for minor infractions that other users got away with. This doesn’t happen on Twitter, where individual personalities and grievances play a minimal part of moderating. That said, it actually was always troublemakers who got this bad reputation, and therefore bad treatment, in the first place.

There are two points in here. One, that moderating has always existed, and if anything has become less dictatorial than it used to be; two, that expression of forceful views was never enough to get a ban even under that crusty old system. You really did have to be insulting and aggressive to a degree that would wind everyone up; until a ban was not only justifiable but widely supported by the community, who were sick of you.

That’s what has happened here with Milo. His views are really irrelevant. It’s not that his views inflame people; there is no such thing as a view that inflames nobody, since an expression of total banality is bound to wind someone up. It’s a question of degree, which is about presentation and context.

We on the Left have a thing about “oppressed groups” as everyone knows. It’s become a buzz word, so let’s put it into historical context. In the past, every time a group of people who did not have the same rights as the majority tried to protest, they were met with an inappropriate level of force from the establishment.

Incidentally, I mean actual rights, like freedom from harm – not the array of liberties we label as “rights” today. That tendency towards oppressive use of power is receding, thanks in part to the sensitivity we have developed towards it.

Systematic oppression definitely wasn’t what happened to Milo. He may phrase it that way, but his ejection from Twitter and the reasons for it had nothing to do with majority-minority power play.

Fringe views and identity are not the same. He hasn’t been ejected for being a gay rabble rouser in a homophobic society – he is not living in a society rife enough with severe institutional homophobia for anyone to give a shit. What he’s actually doing is making unreasonable and needlessly antagonistic stabs at other people; moreover, sweet irony, often in a prejudiced fashion. So, in-so-far as there is still pressure against minorities, he’s not victim to it – he is it.

Milo hasn’t done anything wrong, if other people have an issue with his opinions, that’s their problem.

It is indeed their problem, hence why they have chosen to do something about it. It’s also Milo’s problem, because he reaps the consequences. So, it’s everyone’s problem. When a particular behaviour causes a problem for everyone, sometimes the smart thing to do is knock the action on the head, especially when it serves minimal purpose; he could have expressed his views more diplomatically, with no detriment to the views themselves, and he would not now be banned.

The fact is that when a person ignores the rules of society, the sensible response is not to say that a grown adult can do what they like. The only reason grown adults can do what they like is because, supposedly, they no longer need the guidance of others, the way they did when they were children. In whichever people do not seem to have learned the lessons of childhood, the principle of freedom to do and say what you like does not apply.

When children walk around telling strangers to go fuck themselves, we don’t pat them on the head and tell them well done for utilising their right to freedom of speech. We sanction them, because we hope to change their behaviour for the better, both for their sake and the sakes of everyone around them.

If, in adulthood, someone has still not learned that lesson, why do they suddenly get told that everything they say is fine, simply by virtue of having come of age? Again, it seems against the grain of conservative thinking to suggest that for the sake of freedom of speech, one can say anything one likes and there should be no consequences. If you value manners, you cannot support that notion.

When we punish and lecture people, we hope to change them for the better. The process continues because we all like to live in polite society. On the internet, politeness takes a dip; people do not feel that sense of being watched which leads all people (very much including Milo) to reel themselves in a bit and curtail their worst tendencies.

All these internet arguments are a process of working through what freedom means in the digital age. I see no reason why it should mean do-and-say-whatever-you-want, as long as it’s online.

Everything that happens online is real. If Milo spoke in person like he does on the internet, he’d have been beaten to a pulp by prideful thugs by now. If he hasn’t learned that the same rule applies on the internet, for the sake of courtesy if nothing else, that’s his own fault; and should be exclusively his problem, not the problem of every other Twitter user who shows the least flawed modicum of attempting to be civil.

On the internet as with real life, when an individual creates a problem for everyone else, we remove the individual, and let them consider the consequences of their actions. We don’t tell all the rule-abiding people to just get over it.

We can’t just take away people’s rights because we don’t like them!

Well, we do. All the time. Going to prison is a removal of a right in response to not liking someone. The key point being purposefully overlooked by the emboldened hypothetical speaker is that people who reap a consequence for being dislikeable have undertaken some kind of behaviour to make them so.

As indicated above, people are not punished for what they are these days as frequently as for what they do, itself unrelated to what they are. It’s not that Milo has some kind of Milo-ish essence that makes him inherently dislikeable.

He wasn’t born into some hated group of Milo-type people, who do Milo-esque things that non-Milo people find disgusting for no rational reason. He intentionally (or at least carelessly) upset people, in a way that could and should have been avoided. He had several chances to make good choices, instead made bad ones, and paid the price.

A piddling one, I might add. “Free Milo” indeed. Anyone would think he was in Guantánamo. He’s only lost the use of a service he does not particularly need, and gained some extra fame out of it, which in his case is only good for his career.

As I keep pointing out, use of a service is not a right. But even if it was, we do take away rights in order to keep order and serve as a deterrent. Jail is obviously one. Also, we have the right to go where we will, in theory, unmolested by authorities; yet, every country puts up border controls and legislation to stop people getting in and staying in.

I may be making broad political generalisations here, but I’ll bet the average Free Milo supporter isn’t giddy with enthusiasm for absolute free movement; nor, indeed, are anti-incarceration for criminals. If you really did think that these freedoms were absolute rights, then however blunt your approach, you would at least be consistent.

Why do we get rid of people we don’t like from certain conversations or groups? Of course, because we think the conversation gets better without them. It used to be that the BBC had a strong moral sense of its responsibility to provide the public with quality education, and that therefore speakers on a difficult subject were generally experts. These days, that notion is looked down upon as stuffy old Auntie trying to tell us what’s good for us.

I wish she would. We’ve replaced that intellectual matriarch with a steady stream of opinions “from the public”, as if being a member of the public gives you special credentials. If I wanted to hear opinions from the public, I could go to a bar at 7pm on a weekday night. A fine array I would hear, if I circled the room with my ear cocked. Everything from the EU to aliens and ghosts.

The BBC hasn’t yet set up its own version of Paranormal Activity as far as I know, but by the logic of today, they ought to have, because that’s what counts for “fair representation of alternate views” in the minds of many.

Our view on social media has extended this. The public opinion is ranked as the most important thing in the universe, to the extent that if we eject someone from that conversation – or simply fail to invite them in the first place – however good the reason, we are instantly lambasted as standing in the way of democracy and free speech.

I can’t be the only one who thinks that information quality and manners count for more than just the ability to pitch our two cents into the ring.

Anyone can do that, but is that really what we want to hear? I’m not with Mr. Gove. I’m not tired of hearing from experts, I’m tired of hearing from fools. If Twitter wants to cut the occasionally noisy fool out of its sphere, I’m not going to complain – not until the day a single one of those bans isn’t completely justified.

If my own grandmother stars a flame war with someone on Twitter and gets banned, I will say to her: “That’s fair. You broke the rules, and they aren’t pointless rules. Just calm down before you type next time.”

To return to the beginning: the problem with defending individuals on principal is that principles are only as good as the practises they encourage. People don’t want Milo back, so they aren’t supporting any notion that might bring him back, even at the risk of looking hypocritical.

It is better, surely, to take every example as its own concept. I see no reason to say that Freedom of Speech is a Good Thing Everywhere All The Time, when we could instead agree that X person makes a good point from time to time, whereas Y person is an ignorant dullard who thus far has offered us nothing of substance, and is not owed an ear by wider society simply for being a person with an opinion.

If being a staunch defender of freedom of speech means I have to instantly give a free pass to all manner of rudeness and nonsense, forget about it.


From → Internet Culture

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