Freedom of speech, no-platforming, and the Nina Paley test.

New York City Subway, 14th Street Union Square platform curvature
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More and more of the political left (which is where I sit, at least by American standards) seems to be abandoning the idea of freedom of speech as an inherent good, let alone as the essential liberty on which all other liberties depend.

Recently, someone I know and respect called repeatedly for Donald Trump to be banned from Twitter. He’s not alone. A lot of people want this, and they don’t want just Trump banned, they want many speakers banned from many popular platforms.

This is a worrying trend. The left may be about to finally gain some measure of political power in the United States, depending on the results of the November election. Yet right at that moment we are limiting our ability to have necessary debates and to even hear what people say. I’ll focus on one particular example in this post, but the problem is a general one. This narrowing would be bad under any circumstances, but it becomes worse when attached to power.

I’m not talking here about state censorship. A few people call for that too, but most people still understand why the state needs to be especially constrained in its ability to interfere with speech. I’m talking about no-platforming and campaigns for blanket shunning: that is, urging private-sector platforms to ban certain speakers, and shaming other people and organizations into ostracizing those speakers as individuals under all circumstances, even circumstances that are unrelated to the allegedly objectionable speech.

Are there narrow, consistent criteria we could use to decide when it’s appropriate to advocate non-state suppression of speech?

I think there are, and I think we’d be better off if we stuck to those criteria instead of the increasingly broad and subjective criteria many are using right now, most of which are based on empathy for those who are hurt by harmful speech. Certainly, speech can be harmful: the argument for freedom of speech has never been that there is no such thing as harmful speech, but rather that suppressing speech almost always leads to worse harm down the road. There are two reasons why “someone felt deeply hurt” is not a good test: one, it treats the speech and the speaker inconsistently by looking to others’ reactions as a guide (reactions which will vary from listener to listener), and two, sometimes useful speech may also be hurtful to some people — these two things are not contradictory, much as we might wish otherwise.

We need a better test.

Last year I read a good post by Valerie Aurora entitled The Intolerable Speech Rule: the Paradox of Tolerance for tech companies. The post links to a presentation she gives that’s worth watching. It’s thoughtful, aware of the tradeoffs involved in any kind of permitted-speech policy, and careful to distinguish between private actors (such as social media platforms) and the state.

Here is Valerie Aurora’s formula, phrased as a guideline for online platforms:

If the content or the client is:

  • Advocating for the removal of human rights
  • From people based on an aspect of their identity
  • In the context of systemic oppression primarily harming that group
  • In a way that overall increases the danger to that group

Then don’t allow them to use your products.

It’s a very specific, circumscribed rule. If I ran an online service, I’d try to follow it — but as conservatively as possible, because:

What about someone who tries, sincerely and non-threateningly, to discuss what is and is not a human right in the first place?

A friend of mine, Nina Paley, has been repeatedly no-platformed for doing exactly this. Nina is blunt and direct, because she has strong feelings on the issue she’s speaking about. But she threatens no one, and never tries to silence or dehumanize. She’s happy to engage with opposing views, and argues her own in good faith.

I’ll state Nina’s view only briefly here — if you want to know more about it, you’re better off getting it from her, and most of what I’m saying here is not about the substance of her view. Put simply, Nina doesn’t accept the argument that transgender women are women. Nina would like women’s-only spaces to be for women who were born women (or, as Nina resolutely calls them, “women”). Some people call this “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism” and thus refer to Nina as a “TERF”. Nina prefers the term “gender-critical radical feminist”. At the very least, if you use the term “TERF”, be clear, as Nina always is, that the exclusion is from the set of human females, not from humanity itself. Half of humanity is already excluded from being female (so it’s clearly not dehumanizing). Nina’s argument is that if that half is making masculinity a toxic place to be, then the solution is to fix masculinity so people stop fleeing it.

I won’t go into detail about the substance of her argument; you should get it from Nina, not me. I’m sure you can come up with counter-arguments, too. I have done so with Nina, starting with the obvious: “Many trans people consistently report that they always felt that their body was the wrong sex — and they start expressing this when they’re young children, so it’s not just a retconned memory. There’s something real going on here.” Nina has interesting and probing responses to this, and you can ask her about them if you want; I was glad I did, because it led to an in-depth conversation.

But this post is not about the substance of Nina’s argument. It’s about freedom of speech: How can someone even have this conversation with Nina, or observe her having it with others, if platforms deny her the ability to speak?

For expressing this view, Nina was briefly banned by Facebook. Apparently, a bunch of people who disagree with her got together and reported her to Facebook as though she were spamming or in some way violating the site’s terms of service. That’s a straight-up dishonest tactic. That’s no-platforming.

Nina is a frequent and well-known speaker about art and copyright restrictions, but now is sometimes disinvited from speaking gigs because of her gender-critical radical feminism, even when that’s not the topic of the speech. She’s had a showing of her film canceled (her films are not about gender-critical radical feminism either). When a friend of hers tried to post screenshots of a Facebook thread showing the venue’s statement about the cancellation, plus the usual tons of debate in followup comments, those screenshots mysteriously vanished from imgur.com. So the person reposted the screenshots, and again they disappeared — again with no explanation or notice.

What the heck? Is someone working at imgur a secret censor?

I wanted to know more, so I asked Nina’s friend exactly what had happened and got this reply (you can skip the blow-by-blow if you want, but it’s worth reading it to feel what the experience of being no-platformed is like):

Timeline is this:

(1) Argument happens on the Arcadia cafe page. People are calling
for no-platforming, etc. It gets to hundreds of comments.

(2) Juicy drama of this sort often gets removed, so around 8:15 PM,
I decided to just take a bunch of screenshots. I have these on
my computer.

(3) Sure enough, later that evening (10 PM?) Arcadia removes the
event from their page, and with it all the comments.

(4) Nina asks me if I have screenshots, I tell her I do, and that
while they’re completely unedited (so non-anonymized or pasted
together) I can put it somewhere, I suggest imgur in an album,
which will be viewable if you know the exact URL but not
browsable from my name or anything (like all my other images,
same way).

(5) The next morning (day after the event) I put the images up in
the first album “Arcadia No-platforming.” Imgur interface is not
so friendly, to keep the images in order I have to upload them
one at a time. There are 64 images.

(6) The URL got shared on Facebook, I see some people viewed the
album. Next morning, I awake to find… all the images are GONE.
Completely gone from my account (not just taken out of the
album). The album is left, but it’s an empty shell, nothing in
it. I have NO notifications, no email, no nothing, just the
images are gone. I have the album still open from the previous
night with the image showing (cached in my browser) but if I try
to open, yep, it’s the usual standard “this image has been
removed or is no longer available” thing.

So I’m just… CURIOUS.

(7) I upload the images again (all 64 of them, again one at a time).
I put in a new album “Arcadia No-platforming Is Back.” I decided
that hey, let’s save this link to the completed new album to the
Internet Wayback Machine. I do this, and confirm that the images
are backed up over there (so they’re on the public internet now
in a place that isn’t imgur).

(8) Nina also takes the images from the new album, and puts on her
blog. So they’re available in a second place, that isn’t imgur.

(9) Overnight that night, the images are removed AGAIN. Once again,
the album is left as an empty shell, and all the images are
completely gone from my account. None of my other images (some
of which are waaaaayyyyyyyyyy more “offensive” than these
screenshots I might add, and which have been linked,
individually, on twitter by me) are disturbed at all. Just the
Arcadia facebook screenshots.

So yeah. CURIOUS.

(10) I get mad, and make the single image that just has the “stop
trying to censor this, the images are [elsewhere]” redirect
text on it. I upload that into both albums. Both albums have
been steadily getting views.

(11) That next night, someone removes the redirect image! Just wtf.
Again, it’s gone from my account, no notifications of any sort
to me AT ALL.

(12) I upload the single redirect image again, again put it in both
albums.

(13) Since yesterday, I check the albums periodically but whoever it
is has given up, the redirect image has stayed in there. Both
albums are getting views, still.

That’s about it. It’s just curious to me, because… I’ve never had
any images removed from my account before, and I have plenty of stuff
that anyone who can’t deal with “penis is male” would be far more
offended by.

I suspect that someone involved in the facebook comments thread got
upset and complained to imgur that their “personal data” was being
shared, or something.

Thing is, it was a public facebook page, public comments, open to the
entire world. Also, if I was officially violating a TOS, I’d expect
to get some sort of notification about it or a slap on the wrist or
some warning or something.

But yes, I suspect someone involved in the whole thing didn’t want
their comments put on display in a less than favorable light
(somewhere else that was linking to my album, since I didn’t post my
album anywhere myself) and sent a complaint, or something. But…
dunno.

Either way, both albums keep getting views, to that single image.
Just… weeeeird.

That’s what no-platforming looks like. At its best, which is still pretty bad, the platform will at least admit to the censorship and describe how the decision was made. At its worst, as appears to be the case with imgur.com, it looks the way censorship regimes usually look: information disappears, and there’s no explanation nor even acknowledgement that it happened. Everyone please move along; nothing to see here.

Ostracism is not an answer either.

I mentioned that Nina has had speaking gigs and showings of her films canceled. Perhaps you’re thinking “Hey, that’s different. That’s not no-platforming. That’s just someone not wanting to be associated with Nina’s views. People have the right to disassociate themselves — in fact, isn’t that what ‘freedom of association’ is all about?”

Sure, in some literal sense, that’s true. But it’s best to use this “freedom to ostracize” sparingly. Most disagreements do not need to rise to the level of not being able to be seen with someone at all. There is no need for people to assume that when you engage someone in an unrelated discussion or presentation, you also endorse everything else that person believes.

Worse, there is a dangerous feedback loop here. The less often venues present people whose views diverge from the venue’s, the more we start to think that when a venue does present someone the venue tacitly endorses everything that person thinks. The eventual result of this process is monoculture and an arms race of virtue-signaling, which is exactly what’s happening in certain quarters of the political left.

Here’s the working principle I would use (and I’d appreciate constructive feedback on it in the comments section):

If you already thought a person is worth presenting — or engaging in discussion with, or showing the artwork of, etc — then do so, unless that person has some unrelated public stance that clearly and unambiguously advocates violence or violates the “Intolerable Speech Rule” (that’s the Valerie Aurora test given earlier).

Nina Paley is justly famous for her articulate and persuasive arguments against copyright restrictions. She’s also justly famous as a filmmaker. If you’re looking for a speaker on the topic of copyright, or if you’re a venue that shows art films, you don’t need any special excuse to choose Nina Paley — she’s already on the short list.

So, given that, don’t not choose her just because she has other views that you might disagree with. As long as those views don’t qualify as “intolerable speech”, which they certainly do not, you’re not responsible for them. You’re not inviting her to be your CEO or the chair of your board of directors or something — those would create a meaningful, leadership-related association between your organization and Nina, and people could reasonably assume an implicit endorsement of, or at least lack of objection to, her views. In the absence of such a connection people shouldn’t make those assumptions, and you are free to make that clear.

To shun Nina’s contributions and works out of fear — that is, fear of being tainted by association with something Nina thinks, of being punished by the mob because you failed to shun Nina — is to make it that much harder for others to openly tolerate dissenting views. It’s passing the buck.

It also causes people to think Nina’s views are something other than what they are. All over the Internet you can find people calling her “transphobic”. This is pure libel: she is not, never has been, and such an attitude would be foreign to her nature. Nothing she has actually written or said would support the conclusion, either. But people believe it anyway, because they’ve seen other people saying it about Nina, and because they’ve seen venues that, besieged by the lie, believe it too and cancel appearances based on it.

When a venue cancels an appearance by Nina in response to false cries of “transphobia” or “hate speech” (more on that later), or a platform bans her for the same reason, it becomes party to the libel. It’s now part of the problem. Other people see the action and assume there must be some truth to the accusation — after all, why else would the post or the event have been canceled?

Please don’t contribute to this kind of mess, not with Nina or anyone else. Exercising “freedom of association” is not a free pass to slowly corrode someone’s reputation through inaction and invitations canceled or foregone. If you admire someone’s work, support her in that work.

Privilege, platforms, and using misrepresentation to silence.

One response to my concerns might be “Look, this is all easy for you to say, from your position of privilege as a white, straight, cis-gendered male citizen of the United States.”

I’m the first to admit my comfortable position. I’ve got it easy, and wish I could share that privilege with everyone. If I were transgender, if I didn’t have my identity constantly being reinforced and encouraged by the culture around me, I can see that I might be genuinely hurt by Nina’s position — I’m not actually sure I would be, and in fact there are transgender people who aren’t hurt & who speak out in support of Nina’s position, but I’ll certainly grant the possibility that I might be hurt.

However, the possibility of hurt feelings is not a reason to ban speech or ostracize the speaker. There is inevitably going to be disagreement about things that people take personally — for example, the question of whether others regarding you and treating you as the gender of your choice is a human right or not. The disagreements that matter are, by definition, the ones people care about. If we prohibit or shun speech that touches anything people are deeply invested in, we’ll all be left discussing the latest trends in shopping-mall interior decoration.

More importantly, once speech starts being restricted, it’s not the privileged who pay the price. As my friend Jeff Ubois put it: “It may not be possible think clearly about inclusion or freedom of association without freedom of expression. But freedom of expression is what some advocates for vulnerable people want to limit.”

Look again at Valerie Aurora’s formula (by the way, I don’t know whether Valerie herself would agree with any of this — these are my interpretations of her formula, not necessarily her interpretations):

If the content or the client is:

  • Advocating for the removal of human rights
  • From people based on an aspect of their identity
  • In the context of systemic oppression primarily harming that group
  • In a way that overall increases the danger to that group

Then don’t allow them to use your products.

Nina does none of the above, unless you think that declining to treat another person in the way that person wants to be treated is inherently a human rights violation. I do not. One might choose to treat certain people in the ways that they prefer, but someone else who does not make the same choice is not thereby guilty of violence or dehumanization. I can think of myself however I wish to think of myself, but I can’t dictate how others think of me, even if I am hurt when they don’t see me as I see myself.

Separate from the issue of ownership of identity, there’s also a fundamental issue of honesty here:

When people band together to get someone no-platformed, there’s usually fraud involved. The complainants have to falsely claim a violation of the platform’s terms of service, knowing that the site’s overworked staff won’t actually have time to look deeply into the matter and make a reasoned decision. When people demand that a venue cancel an event on the grounds that someone who is clearly not transphobic is transphobic, that’s a misrepresentation.

The no-platformers are not seeking honest debate; they’re seeking to remove a voice. It’s silencing.

Social media platforms, at least, could help solve this problem by improving their ban systems. Right now there is no cost to someone who fraudulently requests that another person be banned, or who even makes repeated ban requests against many targets. For the no-platformers, it’s all upside and no downside. Until the platforms introduce some downside risk to those who would silence others, some penalty for bad-faith ban requests, the censorship will continue. Yes, this would require the platforms to make some judgement calls, but after all those companies are already exercising judgement when they ban — they’re just doing it poorly.

The dangers of speech are not imaginary, of course. As much as I want to be a free-speech absolutist, even I can agree that some restrictions are necessary. Actual threats of violence, for example, justify restriction even by the state.

But private-sector venues and online platforms make their own terms, and they should try to live up to the free-speech principles they almost always claim to support. That includes measures to prevent coordinated no-platforming attacks from users bent on substituting their own speech code for the site’s terms of service. If it’s not a threat and it’s not seeking to endanger anyone through dehumanization, then let it stand. Real-world venues should err on the side of liberality and diversity. (And no, that doesn’t mean inviting Steve Bannon to headline your festival, but the reason not to invite him is because he’s a poor exponent of the ideas he claims to champion. A brief proximity to power is no reason to put a sloppy thinker on your short list in the first place.)

That friend who posted the screenshots also wrote: “… ‘hate speech’ codes only ever serve to protect the powerful”. I think that’s correct in the long run. Speech codes may give temporary comfort to some, but in the end systems of censorship will inevitably be turned against the weak by the strong.

My friend Smiljana, when we were discussing Nina’s no-platforming, said:

“We talk about identity so we don’t have to talk about class.”.

So true.

10 Comments on "Freedom of speech, no-platforming, and the Nina Paley test."


  1. It is very, very hard to get people to understand that you can be fully supportive of a group while criticizing one of that group’s ideologies. Just as you can support Jews while criticizing modern Zionism, you can support transfolk and criticize the identitarian take on being trans. What’s saddest about the ideologues is they pretend their take is the only take–if you only talk to them, you would conclude all Jews are Zionists and all transwomen believe there are no valid differences between people who are born in female bodies and people who believe they were born in the wrong bodies.

    Diversity should mean embracing differences, not demanding their erasure.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Will and Louai.

    Will, responding to your point: as it happens Nina has always been supportive of transfolk, but even in an alternate universe where she weren’t she still shouldn’t be deplatformed. As I hope the post makes clear, this isn’t so much about the substance of Nina’s (or anyone’s) views as it is about not silencing people just because they say something one disagrees with.

    Paul Graham has this fascinating passage in his splendidly-written essay What You Can’t Say from 2004:

    “To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. … I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That’s where you’ll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.”

    When I read “It is very, very hard to get people to understand that you can be fully supportive of a group while criticizing one of that group’s ideologies. Just as you can support Jews while criticizing modern Zionism, you can…”, I think “There are plenty of Jews who aren’t Zionists, so how does this count as one of that group’s ideologies in the first place?” You point this out later in your comment too, so I guess I’m just saying there’s an interesting and subtle contradiction between the first part of your paragraph and the later part.

    Identitarians assume that membership in a group must imply some particular ideological position. But unless the group is actually defined by that position (e.g., you have to actually oppose the death penalty to be a member of the group “death penalty opponents”) the two shouldn’t be conflated. There’s no reason to assume, when seeing someone argue a position, that that person is either representing or failing to represent some identity group. If someone wants to argue for or against Zionism, then they can do so — if they are Jewish, it doesn’t affect their identity as a Jew either way.

    (FWIW, I make a similar point in Freedom of conscience applies to Kenyan immigrants too.)


  3. Karl, I have to admit I’m confused. I’ve read Paley’s main post. You claim she is not transphobic. But in that case, what counts as transphobic? If telling trans women that they shouldn’t be allowed to safely use the women’s bathroom in public is somehow below the bar of transphobia, then what isn’t? Does one have to literally call for the death or imprisonment of trans people to count as transphobic? Because the sorts of beliefs she has are cookie cutter transphobia that, as you acknowledge, cause genuine harm (real physical violence, not just hurt feelings) to trans folks.

    I mean, if you want to have a debate over “should we no-platform transphobes from events where they aren’t discussing their anti-trans feelings”, sure, that’s one thing. But your friend’s claims to not be transphobic are belied by literally every other sentence in her article. I would love to understand what positions she considers to be “true” transphobia!


  4. Hey, David. Good to hear from you! You know, I wrote a whole long comment answering this in detail, and then deleted it because it’s not the heart of the matter (which is about freedom of speech). I didn’t want to create more surface area for debating the substance of Nina’s views here, since that’s not what my post is about.

    So my question for you is: is there any way for a person like Nina to debate the question of whether rules about what sexes have access to what spaces should be based on physical rather than felt qualities, without her meeting your (apparently broader) definition of “transphobic”? In other words, with your best and most generous Socratic hat on, how is Nina to even discuss this question, if discussing it automatically gets her labeled as “transphobic”? Is the topic simply off limits? Or is there some bit you could remove from what Nina has written that would leave her points intact and yet relieve her of the charge of “transphobia”? Because then that bit would be the transphobic part. I don’t see it, however.

    I guess I could answer your direct question though: I assumed it would mean discouraging people from being trans, treating them worse relative to how one treats other people, etc. In a literal sense it would mean “fear of trans people”, with the implied desire to reduce or eliminate whatever the threat is that one fears. But Nina has no desire for anyone to stop being trans. She isn’t doing anything that meets this definition. Maybe you should tell me your definition of it, though; possibly it’s not the same.

    Update (2018-10-21):

    After I wrote the above response, I realized there’s a much better answer to your question. A “transphobe” would be someone who thinks a trans person should be fired from being a schoolteacher just for being trans (this example is not made up, I’m sorry to say), who wouldn’t want a trans carpool partner, trans babysitter, trans employee, trans boss, etc. In other words, someone who thinks that trans people should be barred from some or all the activities and relationships normally open to human beings (well, to all human beings who haven’t been arrested or convicted for a crime, anyway, but this isn’t a post about the unjust scale of mass incarceration and criminal punishment in certain countries — let’s save that for another time, sigh).

    That’s what “transphobia” means. Nina has zero of that.

    That’s the definition I use, anyway, and I think it matches what people usually mean by that word.


  5. We live in a political context where (some* people will label you “transphobic” if you question any of the trans activist claims. But Nina isn’t that, Nina is a biting, satirical artist/commentator. She writes provocative little songs and pushes social limits. She’s clearly gone beyond just questioning trans stuff and gone toward provocation specifically to spite the no-platformers.

    I think she became a stronger version of a “TERF” because she was so offended at the anti-free-speech and other aggressive tactics against her and against other gender-critical folks.

    So, it’s troubling that people take deep offense at someone merely saying “gender-critical” as though there even *exists* a viewpoint of any validity there. But we can’t deny that Nina and others have taken an antagonistic approach to social media as a way to express their frustration about the censorship. They refuse to be shut-down, so they push back harder.

    We need better ways to have neither this excessive censorship *nor* these divisive escalations.


  6. Her manner of expression is blunt and sometimes sarcastic or biting, yes; I think she is responding to antagonism she has received — especially including the no-platforming and the false accusations of phobias she does not hold. And of course some people feel she has antagonized them merely by having the position she has.

    In these circumstances, a mutual escalation, in terms of style of expression, is to be expected. We might deplore the pattern, but it’s probably unavoidable. In any case, showing annoyance is not (or should not be) a violation of a site’s terms of service, nor is it a good reason to try to shame others into ostracizing and shunning someone.

    I mean, my gosh, if I got kicked off every site where I’ve ever shown annoyance — for example, at copyright maximalists who want to impose drastic restrictions on everyone’s ability to share culture, to pick a different issue and coincidentally one on which Nina and I agree — there’d be no sites left where I could post except maybe this blog :-), and that’s only because I run it myself instead of using a commercial WordPress hosting site.


  7. Trans rights are a contested space right now: there is news literally today about the Trump administration wanting to enforce what seem to be some of Nina’s views in laws, which (if it happens) may mean that friends of mine will have to have the wrong gender listed on their passports, may be in danger every time they use a public bathroom.

    So I have a pretty strong immediate emotional response to this issue! Including how this blog posts talks about the immediate power danger being what will happen to Nina when/if the left fights back Trumpism: I’m a lot less worried about that than about what’s the people in power right now are doing. But, trying to set that aside, I have a few other responses:

    1) You say that Nina wants to exclude trans women from the category of women, not from humanity.

    But what that looks to me in concrete terms is that trans people who don’t 100% pass (or, for that matter, cis people who don’t 100% pass) may be told they need to pull down their pants to verify their legitimacy when going to a bathroom that somebody else thinks is the wrong bathroom for them. And, if that happened to me, my first reaction wouldn’t be “well, at least that person is willing to still put me in the category of human”, it would be more along the long lines of “this is really dehumanizing behavior”. This question about humanity isn’t some sort of abstract Linnean taxonomy question, it’s a question of what it means to be accepted as your self.

    2) I think there’s an Overton Window-like thing going on here.

    I’m not super comfortable giving concrete examples here, because the best ones I can think of are talking about painful experiences from minorities that I’m not part of. But, basically, I think there are a few possible stages of antagonistic behavior towards minorities:

    A: Antagonistic behavior that society at large agrees is normal and correct. (E.g. lots of laws against various forms of behavior.)
    B: Antagonistic behavior that starts to get contested: people start arguing that it’s wrong to treat that group in that way, but most people disagree with them, and the law also disagrees with them.
    C: Actively contested behavior: it’s an active source of argument, with significant numbers of people starting to flip, some laws starting to flip, but with most laws lagging behind.
    D: Laws are flipping broadly, as are most people’s beliefs, but there are significant numbers of people arguing for the old behavior.
    E: Society in general sees the old behavior as obviously wrong and the new, welcoming behavior as obviously correct, but there are pockets who hold out for the old opinions, and memories of the old behavior are very raw.
    F: The whole argument is academic, this is something you read about in history books and have a hard time imagining.

    Opening up discussion in A / B is essential, even though it goes strongly against societal norms – it’s the only way to make progress. When you’re in D/E, the harm of the discussion starts to be pretty clear – most people see the harm of the old behavior, and that harm hasn’t gone away, so normalizing the old behavior actively hurts people. (As per Valerie’s rules.) When you’re in C, the harm of the antagonistic behavior in question is starting to become pretty clear, but there are still lots of people with the view that the antagonistic behavior is good; so we won’t be able to shut down that behavior in relatively broad spaces even if we wanted to (if we could do that, then society would already be in stage E, probably), but there are going to be lots of people who want to carve out spaces friendly to the minority in question, and who want to work actively towards that safe space. And when you’re in D and, especially E, expressing support for that sort of antagonistic behavior starts to get you shunned in a lot of spaces, so that support shifts towards coded, dog whistle behavior. (Those dog whistles are still actively dangerous, though, both in terms of their ability to lead to concrete damage to real live people and in their ability to start shifting society back to earlier stages.)

    Right now, I would say that trans acceptance is in category C, gay marriage is in category D, the right of black people to vote in the US is probably in category E (and, unfortunately, we’re seeing the active harm arising right now from those dog whistles), the right of women to vote in the US is mostly in category F.

    Your argument seems to be neutral about which of these classes the minority right in question is about. So I’m curious if you think that no-platforming / ostracism is bad in all of these situations, or only bad in classes A-D or what? And, assuming you do think it’s bad in all of these situations, I think talking/thinking about the details in classes D/E might be helpful in a way that thinking about the details in class C wouldn’t be.

    E.g., switching to class D, personally, I think that it’s fine to ostracize people (e.g. not inviting them as speakers to tech conferences, not having them as the CEO of a company) who are vocal about their belief that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry. On a purely pragmatic level, I imagine that, if Brendon Eich had remained as the CEO of Mozilla, then it would have been harder for Mozilla to hire and retain gay or gay-friendly employees, and that’s bad for the business, and (to the extent that those people are more likely to leave tech because of such opinions) bad for software development as a whole. And, as ostracisms like that spread, society starts to behave as a whole in a way that’s welcoming towards gay people (treating them as fully human, to return to that concept), and people’s minds really do start to change. (I am 100% convinced that there are millions of people in the US who really do believe at a fundamental level that gay marriage is totally fine but who also believed two decades ago that gay marriage was wrong.) Or, switching examples, it’s why we say “n-word” on the rare occasions when we need to refer to that word instead of saying the word itself: we’re recognizing that the word is still an active symbol of harm, that that harm isn’t nearly as buried in history as we would like, so non-black people saying that word are behaving like assholes, and if somebody is enough of an asshole, then yeah, ostracize away.

    Class C is, I think, always going to be the toughest case in practice, because figuring out whether behavior is deserved ostracism or inappropriate censorship depends on figuring out whether you’re on the right side of history; good luck to people who want to try that! So I think broad platforms are in general going to lean in a permissive direction in such cases. But I also think that local ostracism is an important tool in moving society from class C to class D.

    And I also think that our current broad internet platforms are in general designed in an actively harmful way because of their ability to amplify attacks in a way that wasn’t available in general in pre-internet contexts. And, for that latter point, I actually feel that way about attacks from both sides – I’m not a fan of dogpiling on non-powerful people even when I agree that those people are behaving badly, in those situations I’d prefer the criticism that I agree with to come from more localized sources. So I really do think that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube all have some pretty serious design flaws in that regard. I wouldn’t, for example, tweet at Nina calling her a TERF, I don’t know her at all; but I also wouldn’t want to attend a conference where she was a speaker, because I’m sure my trans friends wouldn’t be comfortable at a conference like that, and I prefer to be part of communities where my trans friends would feel welcome than communities where they wouldn’t.


  8. Hi, David. I agree with you that an Overton Window shift is going on; Nina is trying to slow down that shift or at least make it not go as far as it would otherwise go.

    I don’t feel like I’ll add much information by adopting the categories you gave (which are somewhat fluid anyway, of course). I’m arguing in the post for much less shunning, and basically zero no-platforming except for people who are clearly advocating violence or its obvious precursors, which Nina is not doing. (Some people have said, paraphrased, “If Nina says transwomen should have to use men’s bathrooms, then she is advocating violence!”. I don’t think those people are arguing in bad faith, but it’s still nothing to do with advocating violence, and anyway she addresses it herself in her writings.) I discussed the Brendan Eich situation when I wrote that inviting someone to your conference is not the same as making them your CEO, and that those two situations can and should be treated differently: one involves a leadership role in the organization, the other does not.

    And I confess I’m a little tired. On the one hand, I’m really delighted that everyone who’s commented on this post (here or elsewhere) has honored the difference between the meta-argument of advocating for someone’s freedom of speech and making a first-order argument for the speech itself. I expected much flamage, and it never came; my faith in people’s ability to make this distinction is strengthened (or, to be honest with myself, maybe it’s just a sign that not all that many people read the post!) But still, there have been a few complex comments here, and a bunch of private threads in email and Twitter DMs, that I have taken the time to respond to because these were people I know and of whom I felt it important that they get the clearest explanation I could muster as to why Nina is not transphobic, what it means that she comes at this from a radical feminist perspective, etc.

    So I’m going to take a break for a while.

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