Artillery Row

Liberal paradise lost

Elon Musk has freed Twitter from the “anti-hate” lobby –– and they’ve never forgiven him

In the exchange between Elon Musk and BBC tech reporter James Clayton, the only thing missing was the narration of Sir David Attenborough. First, the Twitter titan toyed with his prey, asking the hapless hack:

“You use Twitter, do you see a rise in hate speech?”

Forgetting the first rule of interviewing, not to be drawn by questions, Clayton rolled over and showed his belly, answering:

“I see more content I would describe as hateful … content that will solicit a reaction … something that is slightly racist or slightly sexist, those kinds of things … ”

Flashing just a hint of claw, Musk asked:

“Do you think if something is slightly sexist, it should be banned?”

Clayton squirmed. Spluttering, he mumbled about “hate” again in the forlorn hope that his opponent would be distracted. Musk doggedly followed the scent, asking the BBC journalist to give a single example of “hate”. He was unable to do so. With cold precision, Musk then struck at the unfortunate Clayton’s jugular:

The BBC, like most self-regarding legacy institutions, loves a hate story

“I say, sir, that you don’t know what you are talking about … because you cannot give me a single example of hateful content, not even one tweet. You claimed that hateful content is high. That is false, you just lied … that is absurd.”

As a journalist it was impossible to not feel a flutter of sympathy for Musk’s victim; we all know the pain of a smartarse interviewee. Still the scene was delicious; the unacknowledged bias of BBC groupthink was pulled into public view with a few simple questions. From that point on, Clayton seemed like a wounded pup, and the interview limped toward a painful end.

This exchange showed that the BBC, like most self-regarding legacy institutions, loves a hate story. Whether reporting on crime or the threat of the far right, journalists like Clayton feed from the idea that if left to our own devices, people will descend into fascistic savagery. Such fear mongering is not limited to the UK; it is every bit as global as Twitter.

Take the recent Australasian tour with women’s rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen. Progressive news outlet Independent Australia sounded the alarm with the headline “Hate should never be given a powerful platform”. Not to be outdone, the New Zealand Herald blared “Posie Parker visit: Spike in online hate toward trans community-researchers”. A slew of otherwise serious politicians slammed Keen as a threat to public safety and made baseless claims that she was aligned with the far right. 

There was a race to condemn the activist before she even set foot on Australian soil, with a campaign to deny her a visa. Yet, when the footage emerged of the 5’1” ashen-faced mother of four in New Zealand, surrounded by a feral mob, ordinary people began to wonder which side was really hateful. They began to ponder why her message, that “woman” is an “adult human female”, should spark such controversy. As inadvertently demonstrated by Clayton, since Musk’s take-over, Twitter is now one of few places where such questions may be asked without the silencing accusation of “hate”. 

Decline in violence has led to an increase in anxiety about hate

Perhaps part of the reason is that there’s money in hate, or more precisely, in claiming to challenge it. From the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, referenced by Clayton in his discussion with Musk, to organisations like Hope Not Hate, an entire industry is predicated on the idea that should we leave an off-colour joke unchecked, humanity will be condemned to hell. We are warned that our collective future depends upon rituals to exorcise the spectre of hate, so unconscious bias training is rolled out in workplaces and drag queens are shoved into kids’ libraries. Ironically, the inevitable backlash is then held-up as evidence as to why “anti-hate” is necessary.

Despite the gloomy claims of the hate industry, violence has in fact gone down. (Whether “hatred” has, it is impossible to tell, as conveniently that variable is too subjective to measure.) As Stephen Pinker so compellingly observes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, when looked at with a wider lens, violence has decreased overall. Moreover, a revolution in human rights mean that there is “a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals”.

Arguably, this decline in violence has led to an increase in anxiety about hate. The mathematics of human psychology makes it hard to resist. 2018 paper by Levari, Gilbert et al published in the journal Science describes the phenomenon of “perception and judgement creep” to explain why progressives eat themselves. The authors explain how “when the “signal” a person is searching for becomes rare, the person naturally responds by broadening his or her definition of the signal — and therefore continues to find it even when it is not there”. Consequently, as grisly phenomena have declined, like white male gangs beating people perceived to be Pakistani and horrors like “gay bashing”, the perception of racism and homophobia has not lessened to the same degree.

Today the morally and financially inflated “anti-hate” lobby keeps us hyper vigilant. Their neurotic rhetoric fills the column inches of the supine press. Believing themselves to be acting in our best interests, smug journalists like Clayton point to Twitter as a cesspit of bigotry and ignorance. By dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies”, the groups and individuals who claim to combat hate are themselves suppressing nuance and understanding. With their simplistic and dangerously polarising narrative, journalists like Clayton feed on outrage every bit as much as social media’s supervillain, Musk.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover