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The keynote speech Sacha Baron Cohen gave at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Never Is Now conference showed that he is in favour of not only censoring others but unwittingly censoring himself. Cohen has been a funny, irreverent, offensive comic for some time. His entire brand is based on saying the wrong thing to the right people. Yet this man, who has made his name and his money pushing the limits of tolerable speech, wants to silence the social media speech of those he doesn’t agree with. Doesn’t he know that when free speech rights are curtailed, no one’s voice is spared?
At issue for Cohen is the political landscape of Facebook. While Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has curbed political ads on his network, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has refused to do so. Cohen blames the way people communicate for the evils in the world, but the methods of speech are not the problem. The problem is the same as its always been: bad actors who use whatever means necessary to spread lies and misinformation.
“Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear,” Cohen said. “It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news because studies show that lies spread faster than truth.”
We didn’t need studies to tell us this. Lies have been spreading faster than truth even before the Mark Twain saying about how a lie can get around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on. Hell, it’s even a lie that Mark Twain said it! Lies and propaganda are not new. Prior to Facebook, Google, and Twitter, there were newspapers, magazines, and television news, which were also susceptible to falsehoods.
While Cohen is concerned that Hitler could hypothetically buy a 30-second ad on Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Ashe Schow of The Daily Wire points out that Cohen fails to address the fact that Hitler was given a platform by none other than The New York Times in 1941. The New York Times Magazine ran excerpts from “Mein Kampf,” headlining it “The Art of Propaganda.” And they ran articles both in favour of and against intervention.
The rise of anti-Semitism is one of the most pressing threats to our civil society. It is tempting to say that this alone is a reason to block, ban, or censure. But it is not that easy, that simple, or that solvable. Cohen’s call for regulation and censorship will not curtail hate—it will just cause it to flourish in darker, more radical places. The internet is boundless, and we cannot monitor it all. His proposed solution—to grant power to a select few arbiters of right-speak who would attempt to monitor it—would make things worse.
The ADL has long provided leadership in the essential fight against anti-Semitism, but it has not been without its own stumbles along the way in recent years. Critics have argued that the ADL has “betrayed its mandate” by taking a hard-left turn and focusing on the much more amorphous issue of “hate.” Take, for example, their recent labelling of the children’s “bowl haircut” and the classic “OK symbol” as “official hate symbol.”
Even the great Stephen Fry, who has dedicated considerable effort to combatting anti-Semitism on a global scale, was quick to point out how counterproductive and preposterous such an overreach was:
Another flaw in Cohen’s thinking is in his assumptions that the fact-checkers he is calling for will be non-ideological. One need look no further than the current incarnations of Wikipedia or Snopes to see that deploying a team of fact-checkers does not solve the problem of partisanship. Most fact-checkers have a left-wing bias, and this ideological creep has led to Wikipedia blacklisting many conservative news sources and Snopes embarrassingly “fact-checking” satirical articles.
Which brings us to Cohen’s own work. Cohen had been an effective satirist for so long because he played the role of a trickster who eventually told on his subjects’ and society’s own biases. Through characters like Ali G and Borat, he exposed the preposterous assumptions, values and beliefs that surround us. It was never great comedy, but it certainly achieved the effect he was going for.
In his unscripted Showtime series Who Is America, he duped Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Ted Koppel, Senator Bernie Sanders. He posed as an interviewer, asked them questions in order to reveal their flaws, and made them look foolish. Is posing as a reporter in order to access and exploit information for entertainment a reasonable thing to do? The answer should be yes, sure, why not, all’s fair in love and comedy.
But those who favour Cohen’s style might find themselves less on board with a guy like Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe, who posed as a pimp in order to expose, Acorn, a government home mortgage lending scheme. O’Keefe’s methods were roundly criticized by the left at the time as disingenuous. But perhaps that’s just the kind of work that Cohen would like to see disallowed from the platform, the kind that’s so like his own.
The greatest satirists in the current cultural age are ones like Titania McGrath who dupes an unsuspecting public into believing her identity-based personae is real. Titania taunts her audience with inconceivable calls to action in the name of wokeness, blurring the already blurry line between reality and mockery. That’s what good satire does.
It’s no surprise that Titania has been twice suspended on social media based on the misunderstanding of her satirical project. This is what Cohen is unintentionally advocating for—the silencing of satirists, comedians, and provocateurs.
The truth is Cohen’s own work would not survive the censorious cull he is calling for. It would be removed for reasons of “hate speech”—almost all of it. And the messages or lessons Cohen has hoped to convey with his work would be gone too.
It’s been said many times that the solution to bad speech is more speech. It’s disconcerting and depressing as hell to see that in 2019, those who made their careers by living this truth are now abandoning it.