Viewed in our recent past as the great redeemer from Silicon Valley’s ever-expanding dominion over our digital discourse, erstwhile Twitter titan turned X CEO, Elon Musk, may be walking back his commitment to free speech.
Musk has threatened to suspend users on his social media platform for use of the phrase “from the river to the sea” and the term “decolonization” when applied to the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza. According to Musk, these words, and their “similar euphemisms,” are now deemed verboten, as they imply genocide.
This incendiary chant, which got Auckland Central Green MP Chloe Swarbrick in tepid water with our sympathetic media, undoubtedly calls for the replacement of Israel with Palestine, promising the complete transformation of the geopolitical and demographic landscape: for context, we are discussing a region where most countries were actively cleansed of their Jews, remember. If there was ever a truly benign interpretation it was forever retired after Oct 7th when a fascist death cult who had long used the slogan slaughtered 1500 Jewish civilians. Anyone prepared to chant it now, regardless of what they tell you, knows exactly what they are saying.
But should it be banned?
American jurisprudence has long operated under the assumption that dangerous rhetoric must bear the weight of explicit calls to criminal action. This foundational premise, rooted in the bedrock of the First Amendment, constitutes a crucial linchpin in the delicate balance between preserving individual liberties and maintaining societal order.
At first glance, former U.S. president Donald Trump, after whipping up a crowd with false narratives of election fraud and telling the crowd to “Fight like Hell”, convinced many there was a case to be made against him. However, the legal standard for incitement as set forth in the Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) held that speech can be prohibited as incitement only if it meets the following two criteria:
- The speech must explicitly or implicitly encourage imminent lawless action.
- The speaker must intend for the speech to produce such action.
Neither Trump nor those using the ‘river’ slogan on social media or in public, reach anywhere near the threshold. Lower the bar and Netanyahu’s invocation of Amalek (the meaning of which has been grossly misrepresented by many anti-Israel commentators), even calls to “finish the job” could follow.
The latest Musk episode does expose one of the absurdities of censorship, in its seeming certainty that key words and phrases ignite passions almost with the power of an incantation.
In truth, the most damaging speech often isn’t so explicit, but slowly corrodes and eats away at the body of society with the patience of rust.
Many on the anti-modernist Left, who want strong speech laws, would view the charge of apartheid leveled at Israel to be protected speech and viewed as legitimate criticism of the Jewish state, despite apartheid South Africa being animated by a horror of race-mixing (the book ‘Black Beauty’ was banned because it placed the words “Black’ and ‘Beauty’ together on a cover) which is worlds away from the conflict in question.
The persistent use of this Soviet-deployed propaganda term was designed to redefine Zionism, and, importantly, the majority of Jewish supporters of a Jewish homeland. Its decades of use have undoubtedly had a dehumanising effect on diaspora communities that we’re seeing the fruits of in protests around the world now: if you support state violence (apartheid) you should expect violence to be visited upon you.
And yet how could a liberal state ban a false analogy?
Anti-democratic activist Shaneel Lal – constantly accusing others of dehumanising language, referred to Zionists as feral in a post in which Lal wilfully misrepresented a crime at an Auckland rally in order to incriminate the pro-Israel side.
In the dock, Lal would likely claim Zionism encompasses anyone who supports a Jewish state and not exclusively Jews, but, again, the overwhelming number of Jews who support self-determination, means his rhetoric cannot but contribute to our dehumanisation. As an aside it is curious how the term Zionist, while we’re told is distinct from Jewish, has been loaded up with all the long-established racist traits of the Jewish character: dishonesty, greed, bloodlust, the secret puppeteering of governments. And yet with Zionism being a political project, it must be open to criticism. All this is to say that, despite the corrosive power of Lal’s disinformation, no judge would find Lal guilty. Nor should they.
Musk also marked out “decolonization” as a term that could potentially lose you an account, which strikes one as ironic considering Zionism itself is a decolonisation project.
As understood by the anti-modernist Left, the term is a call to violence, but post Oct 7th this reactionary movement, and its influence in the academy, is now under the spotlight. To silence those who use it will make its intellectual dismantlement that much harder. And, like the term identity politics (and unlike ‘river to the sea’) there is both a reactionary and a progressive interpretation. Who will survive the ban, and who won’t?
Since announcing the potential bans, many who use the terms have reacted predictably, seeking rather to amplify their messaging. Massey University’s Mohan Dutta, who is – quite incredibly – a board member of a group seeking to reintroduce abandoned hate speech laws (despite publicly proclaiming solidarity with the butchers of Oct 7th), reacted by doubling down on anti-Jewish rhetoric. This may’ve been done expressly to draw X’s attention to get banned and thereafter claim martyr status a ploy frequently used by the Hard-Right. Who knows? Dutta is in possession of a head that I try not to inhabit for too long.
After being a free speech advocate for so long, Musk has fallen into the same traps the anti-modernist Left tumble into and clearly misunderstands speech in exactly the same way as they do.
The truth is, we all live with harmful rhetoric every day – the type that is slow and corrosive and would prove impervious to any hate speech law or private censorship – and that goes for most if not all groups. But thankfully, being in liberal societies means we also have access to deradicalizing speech. We survive and thrive because the latter normally outweighs the former, though the anti-modernist Left’s de-facto speech laws have compromised the scales somewhat, which is why we’re seeing acute divisions.