When YouTube banned the account of progressive advocacy group Right Wing Watch, you could hear the clink of champagne glasses among conservatives and reactionaries. ‘Epic backfire,’ scoffed the right-wing YouTuber TheQuartering. ‘Hahahahahahahahahaha!’, typed the noted documentarian Dinesh D’Souza, ‘isn’t it fun when you get a dose of your own suppository?’ ‘Congratulations once again to all the liberals and leftists — led by their journalists,’ wrote Glenn Greenwald, in more measured tones, ‘who urged censorship of political speech by Silicon Valley monopolists based in the belief that it would only be used to silence your adversaries and enemies but never your allies.’
‘“Right Wing Watch’s YouTube channel was mistakenly suspended, but upon further review, has now been reinstated,” a YouTube spokesperson told the Daily Beast on Monday afternoon. The social-media site also suggested that the issue was a mistake due to high volume of content and that they attempted to move quickly to undo the ban.’
I can understand why people laughed. I had laughed as well — if mainly because the banning of Right Wing Watch made it so clear that YouTube algorithms, in the words of tech reporter Allum Bokhari, are ‘trained to indiscriminately hunt right-wing content’. The footage that Right Wing Watch uploaded for the purposes of research and criticism seemed, to these soulless technological mechanisms, to entail the promotion of the content itself — much as a computer might imagine that a judge who quotes a libel is committing it himself. But it was quite predictable that once the group kicked up a stink, their channel would be reinstated. Howls of right-wing mirth spluttered out like fireworks in rain.
Critics of left-wing authoritarianism and ‘woke’ tendencies have a habit of framing their criticism by appealing to their ideological opponents’ self-interest. I am not saying you are wrong, such arguments go, but you may be unwise.
This is a good example. Don’t censor me, or someone else will censor you. It can be true, of course. Think of the ban-happy feminists who ended up incurring the wrath of social media censors over their belief that trans women were not women. But is it some iron law of censorship that its perpetrators end up being its victims? It’s certainly true that the rhetorical and ideological standards of political correctness are always evolving — but a lot of people are quite happy to evolve with them. (Besides, was Torquemada burnt at the stake? Was Stalin purged?)
Another common example of right-wing attempts to own the libs by appealing to the libs’ own self-interest is the idea that if more or less mainstream conservatives and reactionaries are suppressed, their audiences will drift to more extreme outlets. This month the conservative YouTuber Steven Crowder suggested:
‘If #YouTube removes us permanently, you’ll radicalize people more because they’ll go to alternative sources to get other points of view and they’ll go down rabbit holes.’
Will they? I’m sure it can be true but is it true en masse? Large swathes of the ‘alt lite’, such as Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos, were kicked off mainstream social media platforms during the Trump years — and I remember no related spike in the audiences of the ‘alt right’. There might have been some who drifted rightwards and whitewards — but a lot of people presumably found other interests. Besides, there is something rather limp about this hypothesis. Leave me alone because I’m not as scary as this other guy. It’s not a winning message.
Among the idlest non-arguments of the right is the mantra ‘go woke, go broke’, which is often quoted unreflectively as if repetition makes it true. Advancing cultural egalitarianism in politics and business, the logic goes, secures your electoral or financial demise.
Again, it can be true. Every now and then Hollywood plops out a film which is ‘woke’ without being anything else — like the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot or the 2019 Charlie’s Angels revival — and it bombs. But if I add half a bag of salt to a pasta dish and no one wants to eat it, that doesn’t mean ‘add salt, diners revolt’. Their problem is the excess of salt and not the inclusion. So it is with ‘woke’ messaging. If ‘go woke, go broke’ was true then corporations from Netflix to Nike would have collapsed. There are — and I say this with sadness — few signs of this happening.
The problem with all of these non-arguments is that they challenge progressive tactics without challenging progressive ideas — and they do not even challenge them in a systematic or institutional sense. (For a more effective approach, look at how Christopher Rufo has been scrutinizing the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in schools). Instead these efforts just appeal to comforting assumptions about the dynamics of media and discourse which allow the right to maintain a foothold in society without accomplishing anything — or even having to try.