Can Ideas Be Suppressed? Probably

The article You Can’t Censor Away Extremism (or Any Other Problem) went hugely viral.

He writes:

Germany has arguably the most aggressive anti-hate speech etc. laws in the world, or at least outside of those authoritarian countries that already significantly restrict speech in general. The concept is called Volksverhetzung, or incitement to hatred, and it has been broadly interpreted for decades, resulting in aggressive government action against perceived bigotry. The country is home to the expansive and frequently-evolving Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, which is the legal framework that outlaws overt Nazi symbols and literature in the country and which renders Holocaust denial illegal. Federal prosecutors and the Ministry of the Interior regularly move against organizations deemed far-right or hate groups. Does all of that aggressive government posture actually prevent those groups from flourishing?

Conservatives and liberal alike can agree and relate that trying to censor ‘extremism’ is futile, and can even backfire by drawing more attention to it. Both sides can agree that the left is increasingly intolerant of views that fall outside of narrowly-accepted worldview. The left are like the scalds of yesteryear who equated DND with satanism, but now misgendering, Trump, Covid ‘misinformation’, and heteronormativity are the new demons that need to be purged.

But is the premise of the article correct? The example he gives of Germany’s anti-hate laws being evaded does not disprove that such laws work, in part because although such laws are extant, the consequences are pretty lenient, as compared to, for example, Sharia law, which for Islamic countries seems to be a pretty effective as a deterrent for suppressing certain views.

An elderly German women got 14 months for Holocaust denial, which was a major story on Reuters and elsewhere, suggesting it is not that common of an occurrence or else it would not be newsworthy. This suggests such laws are possibly effective given how infrequent such arrests are. But 6-14 months is still a small punishment compared to being stoned or sent to labor camp for rest of your life.

The far-right thrives in Germany because there is a large, receptive audience, and parliamentary representation, and although penalties exist for certain speech, they are small and selectively enforced (for example, only Holocaust denial is punishable by prison time). The US has the opposite problem , in that despite the 1st Amendment protecting ‘hate speech’, social media censorship and de-platforming notwithstanding, the audience is smaller and not as enthusiastic, and also the winner-take-all (‘first past the post’) electoral system precludes any meaningful representation of any third party, not just far-right ones.

…there was ever a time when censorship could be effective at actually squelching extremism, it certainly isn’t now, the era of the internet. “You can’t kill an idea” is, again, a truth statement, not a values statement. It is literally true, whether it should be true or not.

Except although you cannot kill an idea, you can make the consequences of expressing said idea so awful, that few would dare do so. Try proselytizing Christianity in Saudi Arabia and see how far that gets you. Same for North Korea. Or even China. To say ideas cannot be successfully suppressed, is wrong, provided the cost is high enough.

Even social media censorship works in modifying people’s behavior (or by corralling users and views to quarantined part of the internet, such as gab or tor, where they are hidden from a general audience) even if such views cannot be stamped out completely. “Am I going to be suspended for posting this?” is a question every Twitter user has to contend with when contemplating whether or not to share that ‘hot take’, that may be interpreted as hurtful to some ‘marginalized group’ or whoever is easily offended and happens to read it. Twitter and Facebook know that by being capricious but unforgiving, everyone is on edge and has to be on good behavior. I joke, that Twitter gives users an unequal amount of rope from which to hang themselves from, but it’s always a finite amount.

1 comment

  1. Censorship is one thing, while depriving dissidents of work, banking and other financial services and normal means of communication of a non-political nature is something else and generally far more repressive.

    P.S. My impression was that the case of the elderly German woman gained much publicity primarily due to her very advanced age and also to some extent because of her gender/sex.

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