Dear NPR, Platforming and Free Speech Are Completely DifferentPhoto by Mark Wilson/Getty Politics Features Mainstream Media
Sunday’s Unite the Right 2 march on Washington was an absolute failure. By the highest count, there were thirty white supremacists present, although some reckoned the count as low as twenty. They were surrounded by a crowd of counter-protesters. It’s hard to think of more irrefutable, demonstrative proof that activism and name-and-shame are working. In a world where the police are strangely concerned with the health of the right, it’s a nice reminder that the public is watching, and the public understands how to push back against white supremacy.
It would be hard to tell any of this, however, if you’re listening to the mainstream media.
Before the rally, National Public Radio raised a public furor for their interview with the public fuhrer, Jason Kessler. Kessler was the smooth-brained trash dolphin who organized the Reich-march in Charlottesville in 2017. The last time we saw Kessler, he was being gloriously chased from a public square. You wouldn’t have known this from Noel King’s interview:
Interviewer Noel King asked about his National Park Service permit that lists KKK leader David Duke and neo-Nazi Patrick Little as speakers at the event, which Kessler responded to by accusing her of not knowing “anything about my rally” … Then the race science talk came into place. “Do you think that white people are smarter than black people?” Asked King — who fittingly began the segment by warning that “what you’re about to hear is racist.”
And then! NPR let Kessler rank the races.
“There is enormous variation between individuals, but the IQ testing is pretty clear that it seems like Ashekenazi Jews rate the highest in intelligence, then Asians, then white people, then, uh, Hispanic people and black people,” he replied — basing his “science” on the unfounded work of Charles Murray. “There’s enormous variation, but as a matter of science, IQ testing is pretty clear.”
It gets even more insulting. Kessler was followed by a Black Lives Matter speaker, which means NPR basically suggested this was a classic “both sides” debate. There’s no comparison. Black Lives Matter is a noble organization calling for justice and an end to brutality and murder; Kessler’s side is a violent hate group who wants destruction and war.
How can NPR back this? Even the Chicago Tribune, the conservative Midwestern newspaper, found fault with NPR:
In a statement, NPR defended the interview: “Interviewing the people in the news is part of NPR’s mission to inform the American public,” Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, said. “Our job is to present the facts and the voices that provide context on the day’s events, not to protect our audience from views that might offend them,” she continued. Sorry, NPR didn’t do its job on Friday. When it comes to handling racist and white-supremacist subjects, the job of a responsible media outlet does not end at simply letting figures like Kessler speak unchallenged, in the name of neutrality and balance
NPR is supposedly the liberal branch of public news. Who hasn’t thrilled to their flat effect and recordings of swans?
But in an era where the mainstream media has fallen down on the job—in a time when coastal liberals are getting suckered by a resurgent right—in a time when CBS Sunday Morning let race scientist Charles Murray play the martyr—in a year when the New York Times is pawning itself off to any Never Trumper thinkpiece-writer in America—we need to remember the difference between free speech and platforming. As I type this, Alex Jones is hectoring his harassing masses to go out and doxx Sandy Hook parents. As I write this sentence, Jack Dorsey is still letting Twitter play host to white supremacists and Nazis.
For all their piety about nuance and context, mainstream liberalism is astoundingly oblivious. They are not equipped to understand the difference between freedom from government censure and enabling.
Now, more than ever, we must be clear about why letting Kessler on NPR is indefensible.
For the fiftieth time, platforming is not the same thing as free speech.
Free speech is absolute. It must be, to be free. Every single person who argues against Kessler and Jones and Murray believes this. They have a right to free speech.
Say it with me again: platforming is not free speech.
This is an unjust society, and in an unjust society, platforms are scarce. Who you give a platform to is a value judgment. It is a direct, irrefutable statement about 1) who you think is worth listening to, and 2) who is within the acceptable bounds of discourse.
NPR made a value judgment, and that judgment was appalling. It’s also telling: liberalism is afraid of the left, and so they will always extend a hand to the right, by default.
Platforming is the logical result of a world where a few powerful interests control the media. When you have private corporations concentrating the power of mass media, those platforms will be scarce. Everyone will fight over the handful of public spaces. And in the end, only a few approved people will go through.
In a just world, this wouldn’t be a problem. In a just world, platforms would not be owned by a few powerful forces. But in this world of created media scarcity, platforms must be fought over.
Free speech is holy. Platforms are not.
Jason Kessler has the right to hiss in whatever reptile tongue is his native speech. What he does not have the right to is a platform.
Platforms are worth fighting over.
There are two ways to do so. The way to pressure private platforms, like the television news media or Facebook, is to boycott their parent companies, or criticize the owners and staff for their choice to enable garbage monsters. Private platforms reflect the selfish interests of private power. If they choose to enable predators, then we must make their choice as costly as possible.
Public platforms are different. Public platforms, like college speaker rostrums or NPR, have a duty to reflect the public interest. We, the public, hire administrators to oversee those platforms. If those administrators choose to give those few, precious spaces to cranks, frauds, and hacks, then the public has every right to protest their inclusion. And oppose it.
The far-right figured out this trick a long time ago, and they’ve been suckering gullible liberals with it for decades. They know that they could never get popular approval for their ideas. But what they can do is trick the public into taking their reprehensible ideology as a matter of moral principle.
Every year, far-right think tanks send our their flotilla of racist bloviators, free-market con artists, NatSec cardsharps, and a whole galaxy of screamers, ranters, and professional charlatans to appear at universities across America. When the students and communities of these colleges object to hosting repellent dungeon leeches, the professional right springs into action, screams “Censors!” They try to force the public education system to foot the bill and provide the space for whatever 19th-century collection of cliches they’re peddling.
Why do we hear the loudest whining about freedom from the side that’s always trying to get professors fired, and get women out of video games? The far right no more believe in free speech than they do equality, evolution, or climate change. Free speech for me, and not for thee.
NPR fell for this trick, as countless liberal professionals have, since the 1960s.
All of us believe in speech. I sure as hell do. But it’s odd. With the exception of the Second Amendment, defending alt-right speech is the favorite hobby of white dudes on the Internet. You can tell because it’s literally the only right they believe in. Not economic equality, not freedom from fear, not security of person or respect. White Internet Reactionaries already have those rights, have them in abundance. The one right they don’t have of is the ability to use slurs whenever they want, without consequences.
Free speech is holy, but on Reddit, free speech is more important to them than any other human right. We can invade other countries, tell a kid with MS to go die in a hospice, and drive millions of families into medical bankruptcy, but God forbid you tell a twenty-something engineer from Arizona that he can’t call people names when he’s playing Fortnite.
NPR’s weird brand of performative, civil whiteness was just the dressed-up, graduate-school version of Serious Reddit Concerns.
Free speech is an absolute right, and we are in constant danger of losing it. What it is not is a blank check to say what you want without consequences. And it is not the only right.
Refusing to platform someone is not a violation of free speech.
Shaming and naming is not a violation of free speech.
Marginalizing the poisonous is not a violation of free speech.
When you give a platform to Jason Kessler and to Charles Murray, you are not embodying some high-minded Platonic ideal of free speech. Murray and Kessler have, and should have, free speech. That’s not in dispute. What you are doing is giving them a platform, and that is what is objectionable. Giving a platform to murderous, racist ideologies creates false equality. Because time is scarce and space is limited, what you give to them is denied to others. It is an economic decision you are making. It is one thing to speak, and another to magnify. We are owed a voice, but not a hearing.