THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and most other major internet distributors took a bold step this week when they all but banned content from Infowars, a website run by the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The tech companies cited their policies against hate speech for their decision, rather than the trafficking in fake news by Infowars.
It’s tempting to applaud this move, but we should be wary. While Mr. Jones’s rhetoric is certainly repugnant, mounting pressure from the political left to censor hateful speech may have unintended consequences, especially for people of color.
That’s because “hate” is a dangerously elastic label, one that has long been used in America to demonize unpopular expression. If we become overzealous in our efforts to limit so-called hate speech, we run the risk of setting a trap for the very people we’re trying to defend.
History offers countless examples. Consider black nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s. Impatient with the lack of progress for African-Americans after the civil rights movement, leaders like Malcolm X routinely inveighed against white America using inflammatory rhetoric. He had no trouble expressing animosity toward the “white devil,” and he contemplated violent resistance.
That put him in the cross hairs of law enforcement, most notably J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. Of course, the FBI spied on many other so-called black radicals. Under Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program, groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers were subject to routine surveillance, harassment and even violence. Hoover’s justification? He labeled them hate groups. It was a cynical but effective way to turn the tables, framing them as antagonists in the centuries’ long struggle for racial equality.
Hoover is gone, but the tendency to label black radical organizations as hate groups persists, even among groups with more admirable intentions. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and hate organizations across the country, makes the dubious claim that nearly 25 percent of the 954 “hate groups” they follow are “black nationalist” groups.
There’s no question that black nationalists often argue for racial separation or that many have engaged in bigotry. But it’s false equivalence to label black nationalists and white supremacists alike as hate groups. Doing so ignores the centuries of racial terror that gave rise to black nationalism, as well as the power imbalance that keeps it alive. And it gives a powerful tool to people who want to silence radical perspectives. They can call these viewpoints hate speech.
Take, as one example, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, a Palestinian-led initiative that endorses a series of nonviolent measures to end Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians. As it has gained traction in the United States, in large part because of support from prominent African-American intellectuals and organizations, state and federal lawmakers have increasingly tried to shut the movement down by accusing it of hate speech.