Elon Musk's censorship spree exposes the fundamental flaw in the right's definition of "free speech"

Liberals aren't secretly afraid white supremacist and anti-LGBTQ talking points will "challenge" us

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 19, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Tesla head Elon Musk (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
Tesla head Elon Musk (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

On Twitter itself, it practically begs for the "how it started/how it's going" meme: First photo: A screenshot of Tesla CEO Elon Musk claiming, with his purchase of Twitter, that he would turn it into a "digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated." Second photo: Headlines about Musk banning the accounts of journalists for daring to report on some of the shadier moves of the self-appointed champion of "free speech." 

After the outcry, Musk tried to justify his actions with a Twitter poll asking if he should reinstate the accounts, clearly hoping his legion of fanboys would tilt the results. Ordinary Twitter users caught wind of it, and voted for reinstatement. Pathetically, Musk tried again with a second poll, only to get the same result. So he reluctantly let most of the journalists back on. He was back at it again Saturday night, banning Washington Post tech columnist Taylor Lorenz for the high crime of asking for comment on a story. Then, in pure chaos mode, he caved again and reinstated her account. 

The simplest explanation for Musk's ever-more-hilarious self-contradictory behavior as the new boss of Twitter is that the man is a narcissist and a hypocrite. Like his right wing brethren (no, his politics are not "complicated"), Musk subscribes to a "free speech for me, but not for thee" philosophy, which of course means he never believed in free speech at all. 

But it's worth digging a little deeper, because this entire (extremely entertaining) debacle also helps reveal quite a bit about the right wing mythology around "free speech" that colonized Musk's mind. It goes further than plain old hypocrisy and into the psychology of the right, especially the self-serving tale of their own alleged victimhood. 

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Behind such right wing culture warrior catchphrases as "cancel culture" and "woke mobs" there is a very false, though very persistent mythology: That liberals pre-emptively reject right wing ideas, especially on "natural" human hierarchies, out of fear. That inside every liberal is a reactionary and bigot, which liberals only keep contained by carefully limiting their exposure to "different" ideas. In this fantasy, ideologies like white supremacy or homophobia are just so damn compelling that to encounter them at all is a sure path to conversion. To keep themselves from giving into temptation, the all-powerful liberal "elite" suppresses these "dangerous" ideas, to protect their own delicate minds from going to the dark side. 

This idea was captured in the slogan "In your heart, you know he's right" of the segregation-apologist GOP candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, who lost because Americans did not, in fact, secretly agree with him. Its modern manifestation comes courtesy of the overblown myth of "cancel culture.

It's a romantic and very old idea, of course — "forbidden knowledge" so persuasive the powerful will do whatever they can to conceal it. It's the story of the apple in the Garden of Eden and the fire handed down to humanity by Prometheus. It's not even that it's untrue. It's just that usually the forbidden knowledge is progressive or scientific in nature, and therefore anathema to the right.  Throughout history, authorities have tried to suppress information they know would open the minds of people they are trying to control, from church authorities locking up Galileo for arguing that the Earth orbits the sun to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signing a "don't say gay" law in Florida. 

The supposedly stifled right wing ideas are not hidden away at all. They are very old, very well-documented, and have been debated over centuries. The idea that white people are inherently superior to people of color, or that queer people are "unnatural," aren't notions locked away in some dusty tome, forgotten to time. On the contrary, they were the prevailing ideologies of many societies for centuries. They aren't under-debated. They have been debated at length, and often at great personal cost to those who challenged them. And that long history shows bigoted theories, one by one, losing the debate.

Musk's argument for letting neo-Nazis like Andrew Anglin back onto Twitter is that their ideas deserve a hearing, as if "what Nazis believe" is a wonderous mystery, like the contents of the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction." In truth, most schoolkids learn the basic parameters of Nazi ideology in history class. Same with the views of other right wing trash that's been reinstated on Twitter. No one sees someone arguing that white people are superior to Black people, or men are superior to women, or that straight people are superior to queer people, and thinks, "Wow, this is a novel argument! Please tell me more about a concept that has never before been on my radar." Far from it, in fact. Unfortunately for many of us, we grew up in communities where those ideas were the guiding assumptions.

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Bigots do not have anything illuminating to add to the "town square" any more than Flat Earthers enhance a discussion of astrophysics. Indeed, as I argued in my 2018 book "Troll Nation," right wingers themselves understand their views have already been rejected in the marketplace of ideas, which is why you rarely see them try to make rational arguments anymore. Instead, it's all bad faith, lies and trolling.

The far right figures reinstated by Musk weren't banned for reason-based debate about their ideas. They were sent packing for harassment or lies, or in the case of ex-president Donald Trump, for inciting violence. Indeed, it's the very indefensibility of their ideas that is fueling the current turn toward fascism on the American right. They can't persuade people through words. Instead, they turn to force. 

In one sense, Musk and other right wing culture warriors like DeSantis are being quite consistent in whining about "cancel culture" and then using their power to ban books and suppress legitimate journalism. The common thread is avoidance of debate and discourse. The vast majority of griping about "cancel culture" is a response not to actual censorship, but to the criticism of right wing views. That's how Dave Chappelle and Elon Musk can imagine they're somehow free speech martyrs when they're booed for their Marie Antoinette-style "humor" mocking the audience for not being as rich as they are. In reality, they are participating in a free exchange of ideas. Their ideas simply don't perform well in that marketplace. 

While it's a big pain to the journalists who have been unfairly banned from Twitter, in one sense, Musk has unintentionally done everyone a huge favor. He's proved what critics of the right's narrative of "free speech" have long been saying: That conservative claims of censorship are just psychological projection. In reality, it's left wing ideas that are suppressed out of a genuine fear of their persuasiveness. Books are banned from schools so kids won't learn that LGBTQ people are normal or that racism is wrong. Musk openly argues that the "woke mind virus" must be "defeated," which is to say that threateningly convincing ideas about human equality must be banished from the discourse, lest they win people over. This view is many things — authoritarian, fascist, fearful — but it's not free speech advocacy. That should have been obvious before. Now that Musk is banning journalists, it's becoming impossible to deny. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Dave Chappelle Elon Musk Free Speech Twitter