There has been a disturbing trend lately in our discourse where we attempt to de-platform and shun people with whom we disagree, rather than take their ideas head on in the marketplace of ideas.
Why is it so problematic? Discourse is all that we have to safely navigate the world together. I use the word “safely” purposefully: when dialogue ends, the only option left is solitude or violence. But also, when dialogue is not even pursued, it simply moves underground instead to places where it is even more dangerous. Think of it as being similar to the war on drugs. If drugs were legal, there would be not be a need for shady drug dealers or drug deals gone wrong. Gang and drug-related violence would diminish organically. Forcing it underground means inevitably you are making it more dangerous and unregulated. And while I am not advocating for legalizing drugs, I am using the simple analogy to showcase the potential harm in forcing peoples’ speech underground to places where we cannot monitor what they intend to do. And when that may result in political or other violence, we will only have ourselves to blame.
This phenomenon has been going on for quite some time. I was quite dismayed for example to learn that Spotify employees had attempted a sort of internal revolt against the company in protest to them providing a platform for podcaster Joe Rogan. I understand why there are people who do not like Joe Rogan. As an avid listener of Joe Rogan myself, I recognize my own bias in defending him.
That being said, there is probably no podcast currently broadcast that welcomes a broader spectrum of ideas than Rogan’s. That is one of many reasons why it is also the #1 podcast on the planet. Rogan himself endorsed Bernie Sanders – the most progressive candidate on the planet – and yet he is reviled by progressives for a couple of things he has said in the past that they do not like. However, rather than just making the mature decision to decide not to listen to him if they so choose, Spotify employees tried to do everything in their power to pressure the company into punitive action against Rogan, simply because they have philosophical differences with him. There are plenty of things that companies have done that I disagree with, but I lack the egotism and narcissism to believe that my ideas must be the right ideas – so much so that I must go out of my way to punish anyone who gets in my way.
The attempted cancelation of Rogan is problematic precisely because of what he does represent: one of the few remaining people willing to engage with people of all stripes and walks of life. We may not like every single thing that he says – maybe some of his opinions are problematic – but there is a difference between someone having an objectionable perspective, and someone being truly evil. In other words, when we strive to understand someone, we should try to determine how they arrived at their conclusions. When it comes to someone like Rogan – who so very clearly wants to provide a platform for anyone to have a seat at the table – it makes me worry about who would be next if the Spotify employees got their way. What ideas are acceptable if Rogan’s are not? The same person who invites Bernie Sanders and Alex Jones on his podcast – someone who has made it clear that he will let anyone talk, no matter how reprehensible their ideas, and always says “sunlight is the best disinfectant” (meaning that exposure to bad ideas is the easiest way to quash them) – is not someone we should be casting aside. Because when you cast Rogan aside you create immediate resentment amongst everyone who even slightly find value in the particular ideas being shared.
I was thinking about this matter because recently conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, penned a column for Politico, which received immediate backlash from the staff. I certainly understand why Ben Shapiro did not receive a warm welcome. Unlike Rogan, he is unabashedly conservative and has made a living based on abrasive behavior towards left-leaning individuals who absolutely hate him. I consider myself politically-centered, so while I do not share the left’s vitriol for Shapiro, I certainly understand why they feel the way they feel, and I would say that they are entitled to their opinion. It is a justified opinion, as he makes little effort to try to appeal to anyone except those who are already in the center or right of center. Unlike Rogan, he is not really an interviewer of people; he is a critic of the left. Regardless, Shapiro has a popular voice, and one that should not be de-platformed simply because a handful of people believe they are somehow changing the world by doing so. They are making the world worse instead.
The thing is, someone being mean or having a reprehensible opinion is not what it should take to have a staff revolt against its own employer. When you work for an outlet that reports on the news or broadcasts opinion pieces from popular figures, it is literally your job to create such platforms. For all of the problems Shapiro may have in the eyes of his political opponents, he is probably the most popular conservative media figure today. His social media gets more engagement than most of the top left-leaning news outlets combined. To make no space for him is to effectively say that there is no space for a lot of people. And when you remove his ability to speak, you reinforce an idea in the minds of political conservatives: that their opponents prefer not to engage with them head on, and instead prefer to silence the speaker and simply make their ideas magically vanish.
I am Jewish, and there is no shortage of anti-Semitism these days. Whether it’s Louis Farrakhan, Nick Cannon, DeSean Jackson, or the white supremacists who just marched on the Capitol wearing t-shirts that said “Camp Auschwitz” or “6 Million Was Not Enough,” there are examples of people publicly being anti-Semitic all the time.
It came to my attention that the anti-Semitic t-shirts from the Capitol riot came from a store in New York City. I was asked if I thought Mayor Bill de Blasio should do anything about that. My answer was “no.” Just like my answer was “no” when it came to whether or not the Eagles should cut DeSean Jackson, or whether should be removed every weekend from promoting anti-Semitic, misogynist and homophobic scum from his pulpit. These people are out of sight and out of mind. I give them none of my attention and I hope that others will do the same. Those that do give them attention are often intellectuals who are able to soundly and quickly refute their ideas. I raise this example to show that I practice what I preach: intellectual honesty is critical here.
Ironically, it is by going out of our way to scream and whine that we actually end up giving people attention when our goal is to do the opposite. A year after the Charlottesville white nationalist rally, white nationalists once more showed up in town. The second time, there were no more than a dozen of them. They were met by something like 1,000 counter-protesters. What would otherwise have been a meaningless and embarrassing showing for these people instead turned into a national news story where they were able to pitch some storyline that they were being victimized. I have no sympathy for them, but that does not mean there were not others back home who watched that segment, learned about their intentions, and then believed them. If they had just been left alone to do their thing, few people would have known about it, and they would not have some sorry tale to tell the world. They would just look like the losers that they are.
Sometimes, we need to let go of the conviction we have in our ideas. When we have so much belief in our own ideas, we are unwilling to listen to others. Conviction in our own ideas is really a manifestation of our ego. In fact, I recently read a scientific study positing a very real correlation between people who are extremely political and often attend protests (whether left or right leaning) and narcissistic disorders. We need to let go, somewhat. We need to be open to the idea of maybe being wrong. Only then is there enough sliver of doubt that we can tolerate the opinions of others at the table – even when it is really hard to do so.