The left needs to reject authoritarianism and censorship

The German Interior Ministry has shut down anti-capitalist and anti-fascist website linksunten.indymedia.org and raided the houses of several members and supporters of the site in the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg.

According to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s English-language international broadcaster, interior minister Thomas de Maizière accused linksunten.indymedia of “left-wing extremist hate speech”. “The call for violence against police officers and their description as ‘pigs’ and ‘murderers’ is supposed to legitimise violence against policemen. It is the expression of an attitude that tramples on human dignity”, he said. The move follows the banning of Salafist group “The True Religion” and far right website “Altermedia” last year.

The German crackdown comes after Google systems engineer James Damore was fired in the US for violating the company Code of Conduct “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes”. Damore in August circulated a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, in which he argued that “men and women biologically differ in many ways” and that men are more suited to computer coding jobs while “women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas”.

The memo was full of vacuous claims, pseudo-science and unexceptional petty prejudices about men being driven and women being neurotic – the sort of stereotypes dished up in comedic tone on drive-time radio to guffaws as the presenters relay the latest story about what irks them about their partners. But this was not some supremacist manifesto, just bog-standard conservative claptrap and an exhortation that all people be treated as individuals.

Google has also, in the name of countering “fake news”, altered its search algorithm and contracted 10,000 “quality raters” who review search results and are instructed to flag websites that contain “upsetting or offensive results for queries which are not obviously seeking upsetting or offensive content” or “types of content which users in your locale would find extremely upsetting or offensive”. The aim is to manipulate search rankings so that only “high quality” content appears on the initial page(s) of a Google search. But exactly what constitutes an authoritative site is left in the hands of the contractors and the corporation. The result has been dramatically reduced traffic to left wing sites.

Further to these examples, Fairfax media in Australia is reporting that, at the University of Melbourne, “Staff who make controversial or unwelcome public comments could be dismissed without notice under a proposed new workplace agreement”.

These acts of censorship should be (yet another) wake-up call for sections of the progressive left to drop the reflexive appeals to authorities (university administrators, governments, federal agencies) to police offensive utterances and ban speakers we don’t agree with.

The left’s celebration of victimhood, obsession with being “wounded”, equation of words with “violence” and broadening of the concept of malicious intent to include insensitivity or even ignorance in social interactions in a catalogue of aggressive acts (“microaggressions”) has bred a toxic outrage culture that is inimical to comradely argument and has all the hallmarks of the right wing politics that we claim to be against.

More than that, it has become abundantly clear that the left has handed the far right an issue on which to campaign – free speech – and given the state and large corporations a broadly accepted narrative framework to use against our side.

Leftist writer and academic Freddie deBoer recently noted of the liberal left in the US, “The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analysed for any possible offense”. This “woke world” is easily appropriated and has become part of mainstream, corporate and institutional clampdowns on “hurtful” and “harmful” speech and can only serve the interests of already ubiquitous corporate and police-state surveillance.

That’s not to say that there should be no judgments. The left has to consciously discipline our own ranks – challenge bigotry and the embedded prejudices that come with growing up within an oppressive and exploitative system that does everything it can to divide workers and turn us against each other.

But we have to balance the “calling out” in our own ranks with patience and an understanding, first, that people can change for the better and, second, that there is no such thing as purity of character under this warped system. Anyone demanding it will find themselves bitter and alone in their hyper-critical, hypocritical organisation of one. We will all be the weaker for it.

And while the impulse to stop hate speech should always be nurtured, rather than turned to dull acceptance in the name of someone else’s “freedom”, we have to resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance. When we are not strong enough to counter the right, we should be extremely hesitant to appeal to the ruling institutions – the state, the bosses, faceless and unaccountable moderators – to use their authority to silence or exclude the right.

Doing so only augments their already expansive powers and increases their legitimacy in the eyes of progressive people. Already, 40 percent of people aged 18-34 in the US, and around half of all people in the EU, believe that governments should be able to prevent people from saying things that are offensive to minority groups, according to US-based polling company Pew Research.

These numbers no doubt reflect good intentions. But as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with those. The pleas for protection and the censoring of language are leading to real censorship, the real curtailing of free speech and the strengthening of the powers of the state and the corporate world to act, in the name of civility and tolerance, to silence the left.