You Should be exposed to Extreme Content

Author: Dom Rottman

16 August 2021

Since July of this year I have been made aware that the lizard people er, Facebook has become more interested in tracking and tackling “extremist content.” Neo-McCarthyist flavored pop-ups are appearing to users warning that they “may have been exposed to extremist content.” In the interest of creating a userbase of isolated snitches and stoolies, other popups ask users if they are concerned that someone they know is “becoming an extremist.”

Generally though, Americans are not as concerned with communist treason and subversion as they were in the 1950’s, even if they are still just as much concerned with Russian treason and subversion. Rather, this campaign responds to the concerns of its liberal users, civil rights groups, and lawmakers–people indebted to the status quo–in the wake of January 6th and the 2020 election, as well as the criticism that Facebook is not being as aggressive on the right as it could and should be. Consequently the campaign, currently in its trial stage, is being received with cautious optimism.

Except this campaign isn’t claiming to hammer down on the right. At all. The messages specifically say extremist content, and do not call out groups such as QAnon or the KKK by name. Moreover I have been made aware of this campaign through my friends on the radical left. An attack on extremism is not about preventing violence, rather, it is about preserving the status quo.

Even if there are shortcomings with respect to the far right, Facebook has been, by and large, quite good at preserving the status quo. Many of you might be familiar with “Facebook jail,” where the user is prevented from posting or commenting for a certain period of time. A wide array of offenses against the present order can land one in jail. One friend found himself there for attacking a homophobe. Another was imprisoned for saying–quite correctly, I might add–that the clothing brand Vineyard Vines was “too white.” Given this history, a renewed effort against extremism is certainly a cause for concern if it wasn’t already, if it seems that the most basic and certainly non-violent criticisms are perceived as a potential threat.

Before I continue, I am moved to address my right-leaning readers which, although I imagine are few in number, need a disclaimer: you and your views are going to be perfectly fine.

I am aware that the right has been subject to “fact checking,” but the campaigns against misinformation and against “extremist content,” are, while related, different phenomena. Inasmuch as fact checking is used to present facts in service of the status quo by presenting them in a certain context, the reason why it seems that the right is targeted more than the left is because more of the claims produced by the right tend to lack more context than usual or are simply wrong. Sorry. Someone needs to debunk the outlandish claims of, for example, effects of the COVID-19 vaccine (5g towers, autism, and tracking chips, to name the more ridiculous ones). If the question then becomes why the nuttier stuff comes from the right, I suspect that it’s a result of the “team sports” mentality of American politics. Democrats tend to support the vaccine, so someone on the right will invariably conjure some claim that’s either stripped of context beyond recognition or just an abject lie. Since it’s the to “support the team,” it might get spread without a second thought. Combatting misinformation is simply a necessary thing, and especially so if we want to live in a political community without toxic mentalities like treating politics like a sports game. The worst thing one can do is double down by using fact checking itself as further proof that lies are truth, claiming that one is “under attack.” That doesn’t help anyone, especially the right itself. I do, however, encourage everyone to actually click on the fact checked post no matter what it is, as it will actually give you a breakdown of what was claimed and what’s incorrect about it–allowing one to have everything to make a judgment for themselves. This way, and only in this way, can one determine if something is being fact checked or “fact checked.” You actually have to take the time and think about what is going on. It’s not quick. It’s not fast. It’s not brainless. It’s the exact opposite type of activity than scrolling through social media.

The reason I bring up the misinformation/extremist content distinction in addressing the right is because if the right is targeted more frequently by the liberal social media entities and their contracted fact checkers, it would not be unreasonable for the right to initially believe that they will be unfairly targeted by a campaign against “extremist content,” as a euphemism for “things we don’t want to hear.” Yet I maintain that the right has no reason to fear for a simple reason: the principle of law and order.

Commitment to the principle of law and order is one of the defining traits of today’s conservative right, against not only those to its ideological left but also the neo-Nazis and QAnons of the world. Yes, I know the right isn’t disavowing them, although they should. Yes, I know they all voted for the orange man. Yes, I know Marjorie Taylor Greene is a part of our government. But if you can’t make a distinction between those kooks and a traditional conservative right then I don’t know what to tell you other than that you need to start practicing nuance. Furthermore, although challenging a conservative that they don’t actually live up to their commitments is a fair criticism, this is not something we can automatically assume a priori, especially with respect to the ordinary citizen. Even the most extreme leftist or the most self-righteous liberal must grant the benefit of the doubt in this regard if they hope for their own views to come to pass. This is not to say, though, that commitment to law and order makes one a conservative; many liberals, our current administration included, are also quite committed to the principle. It is not in spite of but precisely because this trait is shared that it is the one with which the right must concern itself and take comfort in here. There is hardly any other principle that screams anti-extremism and status quo than law and order.

If a conservative is committed to law and order, there is no conservative thought that can be classified as “extreme” by definition in the sort of manner with which Facebook is concerned. This is of course because any change or proposal, however unpopular, outlandish, or even foolhardy, must come about within the confines of the established order. Bills must be passed, taxes must be paid (or cut), votes must be cast, and laws, policies, and ordinances must be enforced by a monopoly on violence in order for change to be affected. Again, this is no less true for a liberal than a conservative–which is why we still use the term “liberalism” to describe the current political order, to encompass the political thought of “both sides.” But if we were to grant today’s right a point that the liberal left seems more tolerant of “dissent” when they point to, for example, 2020’s racial protests, rife with destruction and anti-police sentiment, and that therefore it is only the right who is truly committed to upholding the law, it reflects a doubling down of that commitment that the last thing your racist uncle on Facebook or climate-change skeptic or third cousin you met at the other week’s cookout is going to do is take out their 2nd amendment protected pistols and hunting rifles and overturn the established order and that, believe it or not, most Republican voters don’t want the capitol to burn down. In complete fairness, however, as much as I hate to invoke the tired “both sides” trope, the left liberals and conservatives are both working in similar, but not entirely identical, political dishonesty. As content as the left liberal may seem to let disorder to play out, although a Democrat-led city may not crack down as hard as a Republican-led one, at the end of the day law and order will prevail because the ordinary citizen cannot be permitted to affect change on her own. Everything else was let go because the liberals were “listening.” Waiting for a fine moment for them to say that enough is enough and it’s time to get back to “business as usual,” where the most modest and most token of legislation might be passed, just enough for them to say that “the system works!” while not even a day goes by as the same child goes hungry as the same parent gets his head bashed in by a cop. It happened in the 60’s, it happened in the 90’s, and it happens today. By the same token, the conservatives are happy to let the neo-Nazis and QAnons go without a principle of law and order, spouting the only extremist and violent beliefs anyone should be worried about. As long as the conservatives keep mum, as long as they restrict both praise and condemnation, they are happy to live by that draconian mantra, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Yet the liberal left and Facebook should thank the conservatives for this tactical neglect, for without Nazism, without QAnon, and without January 6th, there would be no excuse for renewed efforts of suppression against all who oppose their own interests, justified by the simultaneous suppression of the genuinely dangerous.

This may have seemed like a rather long digression, but it’s quite useful because in addressing the right’s concerns we are better able to discuss the type of extremism I’m talking about, and why it seems that all of a sudden everyone is concerned with it. I would like to mention again that the suppression of extremism we are seeing today is a renewed effort, which is to say that it’s not a phenomenon that hasn’t happened before. It has merely adapted to our present age, where the agents are more frequently private media entities and less the FBI. If it is said that private entities can do as they please because they are private entities and that the first amendment does not protect the individual against them, then we should still remember that such entities have just as much of an interest of protecting the established order as the state does. Indeed, it is precisely because they are private entities and have the “freedom” to act as they do that they are particularly effective at repressing and suppressing ideas and words deemed extreme.

Therefore, now, I think what I mean by extremism is fairly obvious and straightforward: that which goes against the established order. Perhaps that makes a few people clutch their pearls, at which point the word would warrant no further examination. Perhaps, though you might think, “well that doesn’t sound so extreme.” Yet when it comes to the established order there can be nothing more extreme than its total negation and the threat thereof. We should recognize that the adjective “extreme” is used, primarily, as a comparative adjective, and is therefore relative to a specific point of reference. If, then, you think that something which goes against the established order is not so extreme, then you are not deeply ingrained or in any way attached to it–which is a good thing. In fact, the capacity to at the very least humor and hear out the allegedly extreme is itself a liberal principle. John Stuart Mill, one of the foremost liberal political philosophers of his time, argues that all beliefs, even those absurd or held to be untrue, should be heard out in discussion. This is based on two general principles: human fallibility and the power of truth. With respect to the first, Mill reminds us of our basic humanity; his first point about listening to all opinions is that any belief, no matter how long it is believed to be true or by how many believe it to be true, can still end up being wrong. Secondly, and perhaps more commonly, even untrue or less than true opinions have a kernel of truth or goodness that would certainly benefit from being heard. With respect to the power of truth, Mill argues that the truth cannot be strong simply by virtue of being true. Thus his third point is that if the truth, including true opinions, is not regularly argued and exposed against even the most deranged opinion, people cease to understand the rationality behind such truth which would then itself become meaningless and powerless.

Of late it seems that those who are benefitting the most from liberalism are scorning this deeply liberal principle because of its potential threat. In this way liberalism is debased from whom its theories and principles were designed for–free, right-bearing individuals–and instead becomes an authoritarian political order for the elite. Consequently a deeply harmful justification follows: the extreme is bad not because of its content, but merely because it is extreme.

Only a currently occupying order can claim that extremism as such is bad because anything extreme relative to its own point of reference could destabilize it. A similar phenomenon happens in Vanguardist nations where the vanguard party, as the bearer of the only legitimate “revolution,” denounces “counterrevolutionary” activity. An established order is able to cover itself on all sides in one fell swoop by demonizing extremism itself. If unabashedly protectionist, perhaps this is not so surprising. But Mill makes his argument for a reason, as it has more sinister epistemological consequences.

Even if it’s clear to us that a denunciation of extremism is with reference only to the powers that be, that’s not what’s being communicated to us. If extremism is itself a vice, then we are deliberately being told to be more closed-minded from our own point of reference, regardless of how closely we align with the present order. If Mill is anything to go by, then such a message is, ironically, making us worse liberals. Again, you might not even flinch at the idea of going against the present order, but if I mean going against the order by seizing the means of production and abolishing the state, you might react a little differently. That said, “extreme” is definitely not a word I want to denounce or shy away from. Rather, what I want to make sure of is that we’re living up to Mill’s point, that what we feel or think of as extreme should be humored and heard out. The most positive reason for this is, again, because of the potential good in the extreme. This is especially compelling when “extreme” has a bar as low as opposing the present order. It frequently turns out that the present order is less than stellar.

If the objection to this is something to the effect of “well okay, but the Nazis (or fascists or QAnon or whatever) were still also extreme, should we hear them out every time!?” then we have an excellent segue into the next epistemological consequence of demonizing the extreme, and enter into an examination of the perplexities involved in Mill’s third and fourth points. If extremism is itself bad or even morally heinous, as the present order claims, then anything that is deemed extreme is bad because it is extreme. There would be nothing more asinine than to say that the Nazi Party was bad not because it sought to conquer Europe, not because it established one of the most authoritarian states on the planet, not because it started a world war, not because it committed genocide, but merely because it was extreme. When extremism itself is denounced, we lose not just the good or potential of extreme ideas but our own critical ability to judge ideas. We know that Nazism is bad. But it’s just as important to know how we know that Nazism is bad so that we can truly know why it is bad. If Nazism is denounced because it is out of our purview, thrown out to the extreme, we fail to recognize its moral horrors.

It’s really not that hard. We don’t have to humor Nazis and white supremacists not because they’re extreme, but because they’re genocidal, and genocide is bad. On a significantly smaller point, we don’t have to tolerate racism in dialogue not because racism is extreme, but because it’s bad to be racist. If this rationale is obvious, it can’t be taken for granted since it seems our critical faculties, the very means we use to get to these important moral conclusions, are constantly under attack. Without the exercise and employment of such faculties we weaken ourselves to genuinely dangerous ideas. A tactic of blind and indiscriminate suppression like the one employed against extremism may offer short term protection but will in the long run ultimately make dangerous ideas more and more pervasive. For one, the Nazis and white supremacists will scream about persecution and we’ll all get really irritated because they won’t actually bug off. But most importantly, and most dangerously, they’ll gather more misguided followers who have never exercised the critical capacity to believe otherwise.

Yet we must confront fully the discomfort of Mill’s claim. If the exercise of such critical faculties is necessary for our defense it might be the case that, much indeed to our discomfort, to say the least, we may have to indeed listen to the words–and words only–of Nazis and racists. According to Mill it is not even enough to simply be taught the reasons behind a belief even if it is true, even if it’s something as obvious as genocide being wrong. Rather, truth, which is to say true and good opinions and beliefs, must still be actively be defended for our own understanding of it and the truth’s own strength. Unless the true and the good are “vigorously and earnestly contested, it will…be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.” He continues, “the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good[.]” What is true is true, yes, but not only is it the case that one can’t be committed to truth without understanding, the truth itself is not compelling if it is merely held to be true. As Hannah Arendt writes, most relevantly to our discussion, “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.” Already this is the case with scientific and historical truths. Science–every process, every experiment, every context–in order to justify the explanatory power it claims, needs to be explained, exposed and examined as an object itself no less than its own objects. History must be told, retold, and passed down through generations for it to be remembered in significance, If such efforts and lengths must be taken in order to preserve the strength of these so-called “hard” truths, moral truths and the like must be reinforced with all the more aggressive and persistent argumentation against any and all other exposed opinions.

Let me be clear. I’m not so deranged as to think that the second world war was won by strongly worded letters. Indeed, when armed men begin goose-stepping in the streets in a manner of haunting them with terror, an omen for war crimes, one should be prepared to respond in kind. But this discussion is about discourse and dialogue, so it should stand to reason that I’m speaking only with respect to discourse and dialogue. And when it comes to discourse and dialogue, to listen to someone’s words is no protection. This is not about “giving them a platform” or “protecting their rights” or anything like that. On the contrary, appearing before people and speaking is one of the most vulnerable and dangerous actions an individual can do to themself. In appearing before people as a doer of deeds and a speaker of words, the individual necessarily answers the question: Who are you? A person exposes themselves whenever they speak before others, thus leaving themselves open to a manner of attack. The absolute freedom of discourse does not equate to the absolute protection of the speaker; rather, the freedom of discourse is a freedom to be vulnerable. It is no accident that after his chapter on freedom of discourse Mill immediately starts the next chapter with the link between words and actions. “[E]ven opinions lose their immunity,” Mill writes, “when the circumstances in which they are expressed are…a positive instigation to some mischievous act.” He continues: “Acts, of whatever kind which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind.” We might say then that exposure of all ideas is what a good discourse aspires to. Exposure of ideas does mean that yes, in a manner of speaking, ideas are represented, but simply as a matter of course; no “protections” of any kind are at play here. Rather, the exposure of ideas, or to expose ideas, is to leave them open in their strongest and most complete form precisely so that they can be attacked and critically deconstructed or even destroyed. Nazism and its ilk, with the constitution of a house of cards, collapses every time it is exposed, blown over by the slightest breeze.

It is only through our critical faculties that we are able to determine what is true and good. Not only is it how dangerous ideas are destroyed; it is how the wheat is separated from the chaff. Decent ideas are made better, good ideas become better, and even the most terrible of ideas sometimes has something of value to offer us. That the denunciation of extremism inhibits our critical faculties makes it therefore exceptionally useful for the present order which would fancy itself totally resistant from criticism and change. In claiming to defend us from Nazism and like horrors such an order cultivates good will. At the same time, it is also a protection of its own interests both from without and within. If what is marked as extreme is considered an external threat, the internal threat is the potential for those comfortably within the influence of the present order to critically digest the extreme. The most effective way to prevent this is to make sure the critical faculty is never used at all. This is particularly important for the preservation of the present order because not only is it likely that, at some point in a person’s life, they will encounter someone with ideas well outside the established order, it is also the case that the present order itself tends to produce things and ideas that are detrimental to itself. The culture industry, for example, still produces culture critical of itself and the present order. In a similar vein Mill’s commitment to open discourse leaves not only any established opinion up to contest but even the very foundation of such discourse and a free political life. Who is establishing discourse, on what grounds, and–the heart of the matter–are they, the grounds of discourse themselves, right or good? And with reference to what? If we turn back to what motivated this discussion in the first place–social media–I think I am far from alone in being perplexed with respect to such questions. Whether it would be his own or Mark Zuckerberg’s, I should think that Mill would have no qualms about the bounds of discussion itself being discussed lest his own argument be self-defeating. Liberalism, it seems, is not immune from itself–but that is no weakness.

I would be remiss to think that our political situation has lost all recent tension. What is most unfortunate is not that this tension remains, but rather that this tension cannot be used productively. For several months we have been unable to exercise the basic political faculty: appearing before each other, physically, and speaking. Consequently, tension cannot be used as the productive force it can and should be. Rather, it seems to have had nothing but a straining impact on our relationships on account of the channels of communication we are limited to, social media prominent among them. I bring this up because I do not doubt that for some an advocacy for conversation will ring hollow or even naïve. Let us remember though, that, as we examined here, the critical faculty requires exercise, particularly in conversation and argument. The critical faculty has undergone a period of extreme atrophy. Adding to this social media vomiting contests continue to become more and more exercises in bad faith; in a time of crisis where they become a more dominant form of communication, they have taken the dress of genuine conversation with the most ill of fits. Thus actual conversation has suffered doubly in recent times and our critical faculties are nearly too weak to stand even the small discomforts we must overcome to make it effective. And then further, we mistake weakness for total inefficacy and conversation suffers a third time as we push it towards a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. But It’s never too late, weak though you may feel, faithless though your words may sound, hopeless though the endeavor may seem. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Strength comes through repetition. At any rate, it can’t possibly make things worse. What won’t stand, however, are these meaningless proclamations that the “other side” won’t listen or are beyond help or are too depraved, etc. If you insist that those who need to listen won’t listen, then shut the hell up. That is bad faith of the highest order.