Mozilla ouster a win for counter-speech

The reaction to Brendan Eich’s firing at Mozilla shows U.S. conservatives learned little from the “Duck Dynasty” controversy.

If you missed it, the prominent computer programmer Brendan Eich recently became (very briefly) the CEO of the Mozilla Corporation (which makes the Firefox web browser among other things). After much protest — including, notably, within the company at both employee and upper management levels — he was fired due to his contributions to the extremely hateful 2008 California Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage in the state, in line with a viewpoint he still holds today.

This immediately prompted outcry by many white, (mostly) male, cisgender, heterosexual Christian conservatives who are convinced that — after centuries of de facto rule over the United States — any time one of them faces consequences for expressing an objectionable opinion, the world is ending in a torrent of unendurable oppression against them (even though they still remain very powerful in a majority of states right now).

In this outcry defending Mr. Eich they were joined by a number of liberal apologists who seem to confuse market forces, both inside and outside the company, with “censorship.”

Of course, no one said he couldn’t express or hold the bigoted views that he holds. They just said there would be consequences to holding them as the CEO of that particular company.

Considering that, in many U.S. states right now, people can still be fired for being gay without legal recourse, it hardly seems unreasonable to apply pressure on a prominent executive who holds objectionable and damaging views.

But more importantly, as I said before with the Duck Dynasty blow-up — wherein the cable network (temporarily) suspended (before restoring) the show helmed by a raging racist and homophobe and his hateful legion fans cried foul — according to the American understanding of free-speech, this cycle is exactly how the system is supposed to work. Just as their beloved Founding Fathers and Constitutional Framers intended.

Let’s circle back to this excerpt from my popular December post “First Amendment refresher (Duck Dynasty edition)“:

In contrast [with Europe], the United States has developed a much more libertarian approach to freedom of speech, based on the 18th century ethos of the Framers. They believed in concepts like the marketplace of ideas, where viewpoints could be traded on a free exchange. Early concepts from Adam Smith’s late 18th century work on the study of economics and trade came to be seen as apt metaphors for how ideas circulate.

So just like competition allows some providers of goods & services to rise to the top in real markets, the libertarian view on speech says that the best solution to problems like hate speech is to let it compete freely with counter-speech — rather than government intervening as regulators — and the rationality and supremacy of less horrid counter-speech will prevail.

Thus, if the public responds angrily to some idiot’s hateful comments, this is not an infringement of free speech. It is the system “working” according to the American principles of how the intellectual free market is supposed to work.

So as you can see, Brendan Eich made a publicly reported political donation (free speech, according to the U.S. Supreme Court), and then his employees, board of directors, and customers expressed their “counter-speech.”

Their counter-speech prevailed in this instance, but it often doesn’t, which is actually why many communication theorists have suggested the American system of handling objectionable speech is pretty flawed in practice (especially compared to systems that intervene more aggressively against hate speech by members of the majority against those in the minority). Usually, the ruling group drowns out the objections of everyone else.

Funny how many conservative Republicans get up in arms when liberals use market pressure successfully to stop the expression of certain views…but it’s ok when they do it, for example, against the so-called “liberal media” when they don’t like a sit-com’s “agenda.”

As Markos Moulitsas put it, “Brandon Eich was a victim of market forces, conservatives should applaud”:

Of course this is intolerance. Would Sullivan rush to this guy’s defense if it turned out he was a Grand Wizard in the KKK? Of course not. We are allowed to be intolerant of people who operate outside the bounds of civil decency. This wasn’t governmental action infringing on any Constitutional rights. This was Mozilla developers saying they refused to do work with a bigot, private websites blocking access to the Firefox browser because they refused to do business with a bigot, and employees of the firm speaking up because they refused to work for a bigot.

In short, it was the free market expressing itself. Eich was perfectly within his rights to stay at Mozilla, but he would then face a hostile market and eventually faced the reality that he couldn’t do his job in that environment. The free market spoke, and a free market enterprise was forced to react.

Even these days, you don’t have to go far to find a Christian conservative telling you that it is their “right” to be “intolerant of immoral behavior” (an actual statement I’ve heard). So, apparently, it’s 100% acceptable for them to be avowedly “intolerant” of LGBT folks, but it’s in no way acceptable for other people to be intolerant of them in return?

It’s almost as if the “free market” and “free speech” were only awesome when they were able to keep the ethnic minorities, gays, and women from participating. The moment it actually starts to become genuinely freer and slightly more balanced, then they’re suddenly being oppressed.

Guns, symbols, sectionalism, and political communication

Paul M. Barrett last week in Bloomberg Businessweek discussed the state of the (once again) failed “gun debate” following Newtown. He zeroes in on what might be termed the ‘narrative gap’ in the country’s divided political communication over this issue, which has prevented gun control policy advocates from achieving much in recent years.

This particular line from Barrett jumped out at me, in light of the research presented in my own book on divided interpretations of rhetorical symbols surrounding the American Dream:

For better or worse, gun ownership has come to symbolize a range of deeply felt ideas about culture and government authority.

This is definitely going to become a recurring theme, I sense. It’s partly a communication issue and partly a sectionalism issue, in the vein of the country’s original cultural-historical sections identified by authors such as Colin Woodard in “A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America”. (Full disclosure: Though I own a copy of that book, I have not yet had a chance to read it. I have, however, read some of his interviews and extended essays drawn from the book, which I highly recommend.)

Essentially, some regions of the country don’t have much need for guns in a practical sense anymore — and historically never held the views about government that make some regions use guns as “emblems of liberty and traditional values,” as Barrett puts it.

To many people in the former places, which always tended to support strong central government, opposition to gun control — or more properly the concept of gun rights at all — is genuinely baffling because the two are basically viewed as unrelated.

To many people in the latter regions, which have always opposed or questioned strong central government (witness early nullification challenges in Kentucky, or South Carolina), support for gun control is genuinely viewed as tyrannical. Even if one doesn’t literally believe that gun owners would successfully repel a totalitarian government, many see gun control policies as a metaphor of other perceived overreaches. And the gun is a symbolic resistance against that.

So the real question is going to be how to bridge that chasm dating back centuries. A total failure to communicate means no policy change but increasing bitterness on all sides.

We’re going to have to figure out an alternative route that allows us to speak the same language on this issue rather than just staring blankly or angrily at each other. As Barrett says, it’s not going to work to just keep repeating facts and figures over and over while condemning the “liberty” arguments as paranoid and unrealistic. I’ll admit I’m guilty of that approach, but I can also see it’s not working.


When old-school propaganda meets the internet age

The irony of the internet age and the rise of social media under autocratic states is that it not only hasn’t brought an end to traditional replacement-of-reality-with-alternate-reality propaganda (à la the Soviet Union’s totalitarian media) and toppled all the dictators, but it has actually provided new opportunities for some of the propagandists. Propaganda is not just co-existing but flourishing, at the moment, even in places with ample internet access.

Person of the Year

Case in point: Egyptian government propagandists on state-run and pro-coup television were so eager to promote their new dictator, General Sisi, that they convinced everyone that Egyptians could control the outcome of TIME magazine’s person of the year selection and ordered them all to vote for him in the magazine’s online reader poll — which has no affect on the final choice for the magazine (which the editors pick). More Egyptians voted in the global internet poll, open to anyone, than the number of Americans or Indians who voted. Then when General Sisi won that reader poll, Egyptian media produced a fake cover of TIME and reported (falsely of course) that he had been officially chosen by the magazine as Person of the Year.


Obviously, given their easy access to outside media, most internet-using Egyptians are probably well aware of the distinction, whether or not they voted for him in the poll. It’s worth remembering, however, that a lot of Egyptians still get their news from television media and, unlike their Twitter-savvy brethren, aren’t necessarily exposed to alternate sources of information. So if the TV says TIME magazine picked their nation’s leader as the global Person of the Year, and shows a cover to prove it, then they might not know otherwise.

American TV News

Television is by nature an authoritative, one-way medium that many viewers can’t contradict or fact-check easily (and tend not to, even if they can). Thus, propagandists can exert a heavy influence without much to challenge them. And in the modern era, they can couple it with the power of the internet rather than being undermined by it.

The Egypt story might seem provincial and irrelevant to us in the United States, but let’s not forget that a majority of Americans — particularly from the older generations — still get their news from television each day. The influence of TV news producers, while substantially more open to challenge in the United States than in Egyptian state media, is still a powerful force with a rigid narrative.

Viewers receive a narrow (partly by nature of the time-restricted format) and often repetitive message and are strongly encouraged to put their trust in the networks — local, national, or cable — that they are being told The Truth. Network brands are marketed like other products through heavy promotion. The promos urge people to maintain high brand loyalty to a particular delivery service of what is (theoretically) open information that should — if it’s really The Truth, as advertised — be more or less the same across brands.

The Fox Delusion

Fox News Channel, of course has taken this philosophy much further. They brag that they are the highest-rated cable news network … after years of convincing viewers — who skew older and count on television to be factually accurate — that the news world outside (except for right-wing talk radio, of course) is filled with lies and treachery, and that only Fox News Channel and its hosts’ radio shows are able to bring you The Truth. So everyone on the conservative end of the spectrum jumped on the bandwagon long ago and stayed put, resulting in its rise to the number one spot (while liberals split over a range of sources). For a regular viewer, adjusting that dial away from Fox News means being exposed to the “liberal media” conspiracy beyond.

Fox News Channel broadcasts are riddled with demonstrable errors — not just in analysis, but in basic statements of empirical, encyclopedic facts — as many a media fact-checking website has shown every day. Its viewers know better by now than to check outside the channel or its partners for the facts, though, so there is little danger they will be exposed to reality. When they go to vote in U.S. elections, they are doing so based on information received almost entirely if not solely from one news universe that has built all its analysis upon totally fabricated underlying facts. It’s not just skewed interpretations being delivered to viewers, but even foundational “facts” lacking in truth.

All this holds true even in an age of easy access to a literal world of factual information, via the internet. The internet, for a Fox viewer, instead of a source of contradicting reality, becomes a network of websites affiliated with Fox News or run by other devotees and like-minded ideologues.

Thus, as I have discussed extensively before, Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and the conservative blogosphere have established an entire unchallenged, closed-loop parallel universe of news “reality,” much in the way a totalitarian government’s state media would. And just as with Egyptian TV’s fake TIME magazine Person of the Year cover, Fox News Channel is able to propagate its elaborate fiction through traditional means, with help from the internet, rather than being genuinely subverted and exposed by the internet, as we might have expected.

What does the future hold?

The internet, social media, and freer access to information around the world will undoubtedly play a major role in opening societies and exposing fictions presented as news — and certainly the U.S. internet community has already been ripping apart fraudulent news stories in the traditional media for many years and forcing corrections (from outlets that aren’t trying to create a parallel reality).

But for the moment, at least, the rise of the internet is not the cure-all for propaganda, whether on U.S. cable or on authoritarian governments’ TV stations. The meeting of the internet and propaganda isn’t like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West. The narratives and fictional worlds of propagandists don’t dissolve instantly in the presence of access to information. But eventually, they will crumble.

The interim period will not be without consequences. How do people, including Egyptians or Fox News fans, react when confronted by the harsh light outside the cave? Ultimately this confrontation will inevitably occur, as it always has, despite the propagandists’ efforts to steer people to favorable sources. Whether the clash with reality occurs in the form of the loss of U.S. election if you were under the false impression that everyone agreed with the worldview Fox News nurtured in you, or in the form of realizing at newsstands in a few weeks that TIME magazine hasn’t put Dear Leader on the cover after all, people seem react in two ways.

The first reaction is turning in anger to wild conspiracy theories that explain the disjunction — i.e. that inscrutable minority forces must be controlling outcomes — and encourage extreme responses to “correct” the conspiracy — i.e. that the opposing faction must be destroyed. The second reaction is accepting that the propagandists have misled their audience about The Truth outside.

Sadly, many people find discovering themselves massively wrong or realizing they have been to duped to be extremely embarrassing or humiliating. (Being manipulated is something that happens to other people.) And so these people generally resist accepting they have been conned at all costs, even if it means embracing the extreme conspiracy theories and doubling down on their misguided beliefs. And that’s when the politics in a country get really scary.