Berkeley Doesn't Have to Choose Between Social Justice and Free Speech

Framing the controversy in terms of “classic” trolling rhetoric allows us to talk about more than just free speech.

by Whitney Phillips
Sep 26 2017, 5:00pm

Image: Getty

When confronted by the kinds of free speech fires that threatened to engulf UC Berkeley this week (and still might), people in the US are often pressured to pledge allegiance to one of two seemingly conflicting principles: the First Amendment, or social justice.

If a person facing a crowd of screaming/tweeting Nazis chooses the First Amendment, they are open to charges of siding with those Nazis. If they choose social justice, demanding that the Nazis be silenced, they are open to charges of rejecting the First Amendment.

In the politically volatile Trump Era, the perceived binary between defending hateful speech and defending those besieged by hate is one of the main reasons that free speech discussions tend to go nowhere fast.

Another reason these discussions tend to crash and burn is that they often sidestep one of the most critical, and vexing, aspects of the issue. As epitomized by convenient free speech defender Milo Yiannopoulos ("convenient" in the sense that he defends free speech when he's the one talking), many fights over free speech don't just unfold on the internet, already a hotbed of rapid-fire, fetishized amplification. These fights are often run through the filter of the internet, and even more specifically, through the filter of trolling (in the above-linked interview with Bill Maher, Yiannopoulos directly refers to himself as a "virtuous troll" crusading for speech).

By focusing on the trollish strategies of free speech extremism, liberals (and really anyone looking to have a reasonable conversation) are afforded an expanded toolkit for critiquing hateful speech without automatically being labeled as anti-speech.

Calling attention to this filter helps explain how free speech clashes grow so unwieldy so quickly, particularly when those arguing for unrestricted speech have strong ties to antagonistic online communities. It also opens the conversation up to larger questions, ones that are infinitely more constructive than the limiting and frankly weird binary of: "Do you support Nazis, or do you hate the Constitution?"

More importantly, by focusing on the trollish strategies of free speech extremism, liberals (and really anyone looking to have a reasonable conversation) are afforded an expanded toolkit for critiquing hateful speech without automatically being labeled as anti-speech—an accusation that, in the United States, is often tantamount to being denounced as anti-American. In short, it preempts the free speech extremists' trump card, both literally and figuratively.

There are, of course, many problems with the term "troll," especially when it's used to defend dehumanizing, identity-based harassment. As I've argued over and over, not only does the term tend to minimize the impact of harassment ("stop being so sensitive, I was just trolling"), it employs victim-blaming logic ("if only you didn't let yourself get trolled by me"). It also tends to lump an absurdly broad spectrum of behaviors under an increasingly unwieldy descriptor. It may have made sense to talk about trolling as a specific thing during the "golden years" of subcultural formation circa 2003-2011, when participants self-identified as trolls and policed very clear boundaries of what and who qualified. In 2017, however, the term has lost its clear subcultural meaning, and because of its various ethical baggage, makes very little sense to toss around as an internet catch-all.

Still, the aesthetic and rhetorical strategies of subcultural trolling live on. These vestiges of a subculture well past its prime may not fit into any one tidy narrative, as my fellow trolling scholars Beyer, Coleman, and I note. They remain, however, critical to decoding behaviors that walk like a golden-age troll, and talk like a golden-age troll, but act like a Trump-Era fascist.

Subcultural trolls' traditional rhetorical strategies (honed over time within the community and passed on to new recruits through a process of socialization) are the most critical, and most enduring, of these points of continuity. These strategies, which I chronicle in my 2015 book on the subject, include the deliberate weaponization of existing cultural tensions, the active courting of public spectacle, and the sly sidestepping of any semblance of coherent argumentation in favor of brute antagonism.

For the subcultural trolls I studied, the goal of these efforts was to sow confusion, disrupt communication, and generate the strongest negative reactions possible, which participants somewhat jokingly quantified using the measurement of "lulz," laughter in the face of another person's distress.

It would be a mistake to draw a one-to-one line between these "classic" trolling strategies and the (again, highly convenient) free speech extremism propagated by Yiannopoulos and his far right ilk. It would also be a mistake to accuse those affiliated with Berkeley's "Free Speech Week," or anyone affiliated with future free speech events, of being trolls in any straightforward or subcultural sense. That said, whether or not they are doing so with a wistful eye to 4chan circa 2007, these extremists are employing classic trolling strategies. It therefore makes sense to describe, analyze, and critique their arguments on those grounds.

First, exploring how "free speech" defenders employ trolling rhetoric allows for a pointed discussion of media manipulation, and the ways far right actors and outlets are able to hijack mainstream narratives for their own ends. This is not a zero sum game; just because someone like Milo Yiannopoulos has, quite literally, built a brand off being as horrible as possible to as many protected groups as possible, doesn't mean there aren't speech issues to discuss. For example, at what point does dehumanizing speech create an environment truly inhospitable to learning? At what point do veiled marching orders to one's violently racist online army constitute incitement? At what point do calls for wholly unregulated speech result, ironically, in a net loss of speech?

It's not a question of whether or not he can speak, in other words. It's a question of whether or not he should.

Simultaneously, by highlighting the ways Yiannopoulos has weaponized existing cultural tensions, actively courted public spectacle, and slyly sidestepped any semblance of coherent argumentation in favor of brute antagonism, one is able to rebuke Yiannopoulos without having to declare oneself king of censorship mountain. This argument might go something like this: Milo Yiannopoulos shouldn't be given a public platform to spread hatefulness not because his speech isn't protected by the Constitution, it is. And not just because it makes the world an uglier place, although it does. But because his speech is so poisoned by cynicism and nihilistic self-involvement that the only person, and only cause, it could possibly benefit is Milo Yiannopoulos. It's not a question of whether or not he can speak, in other words. It's a question of whether or not he should.

Second, focusing on how self-proclaimed "free speech" crusaders utilize trolling rhetoric helps hold their arguments up to the same level of scrutiny as protesters' arguments. Far right groups, and individuals like Milo Yiannopoulos in particular, have of course been widely criticized. But questions about the soundness or overall sincerity of these arguments hasn't been a major talking point, certainly not compared to the many thought pieces devoted to analyzing just what in god's name would motivate these college students to be anti-speech.

Regarding Berkeley's "Free Speech Week," this point is illustrated by the admission, buried at the bottom of this NPR article published the day before the event was cancelled, that the Berkeley Patriots (the student group sponsoring the event) "are the first to acknowledge that there is no academic value" to bringing Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. This point gestures towards, but ultimately sidesteps, the question of just what in god's name would motivate these college students to bring someone to campus whose entire purpose was to dehumanize protected groups and generally cause a scene, on the grounds speech. I mean I guess.

The relationship "free speech" crusaders have (or don't have) with their own arguments about free speech matter. If they—along with Milo Yiannopoulos, whose political justifications for his actions can best be summarized by the teen boy lament "don't ever tell me what to do"—can't provide evidence, in the form of coherent argumentation, that they give two shits about civic discourse, or deliberative democracy, separate from any attention-seeking behaviors, then people need to stop affording them that all-important trump card. Make an argument that's real, or be quiet so that others can.

Third, explorations of "classic" trolling rhetoric allows for the possibility that "free speech" crusaders, and the people they torment, are actually in agreement about free speech extremism. This connection can be traced to the ways subcultural trolls would gleefully deploy hateful, often explicitly racist language. They spewed this bile on forums and Facebook pages, emails and YouTube comments, not because they didn't realize their speech was symbolically violent, or because they didn't think it would generate a ferocious response.

Like Milo Yiannopoulos grinning in his American Flag hoodie and posing for selfies, they did it because they knew full well it was symbolically violent, and that it most certainly would inspire a ferocious response. That was the entire point; that was the game. For Yiannopoulos, that's the entire branding strategy, one that would fall apart the second people stopped showing up to scream at him.

What this overlap suggests is that "free speech" defenders and campus protesters agree on one critical point: that events like Berkeley's "Free Speech Week" are worth angrily protesting over. If this is the case, if the "free speech" defenders implicitly concede the protesters' point, then the fact that the protestors have a point cannot, must not, be sneered away on grounds of snowflakiness.

Considering "free speech" issues through the lens of trolling rhetoric doesn't, of course, minimize the seriousness of our current ideological crossroads. Even if every single Berkeley Patriot is currently lolling their ass off, even if Milo Yiannopoulos hasn't meant a word he's said since 2011, changes in information flows, in political institutions, in the ways we relate to each other as national and global citizens (or don't relate to each other at all) has resulted in a frenzied, deeply confusing media landscape where pluralism, inclusiveness, and public participation are as much a gift as they are a curse to democracy.

What do you do, for example, when calls for freedom of expression undermine the objective of cultivating free expression, particularly when considering explicitly racist, misogynist, and other bigoted forms of expression, which silence or at least attempt to pathologize historically marginalized perspectives? Who gets to draw the line between democratically healthy and democratically toxic speech? Who gets to decide who speaks?

These are big questions, demanding careful, good faith conversations. They are also precisely the conversations that tend to be foreclosed when presented with the false dichotomy between defending hatefulness and defending the First Amendment. Calling attention to the other kinds of discussions we can have helps create a bit more space, not just for liberals but for conservatives as well, and all those of good will who fall somewhere in between.

Opening up new discursive avenues also breaks up those narratives that have, until now, tended to benefit only the destructive few. It's time to engage with questions about speech, about diversity and inclusiveness, about respect for the lives of different others, in ways that actually encourage more speech, not less. This is a point that even the staunchest free speech advocates couldn't possibly object to, if what they're actually interested in is, in fact, free speech. And if it isn't, well, all the better reason to make sure they're not setting the narrative agenda.

Whitney Phillips is a digital media folklorist and Assistant Professor at Mercer University. She is the author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture and the co-author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online with Ryan M. Milner.