Hate Speech Part 2 Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Mar 18

Hate Speech Part 2 Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

Taryn Ward  Hi, I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones  I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed: Social Media: Beyond the Headlines,

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SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the freedom of expression or free speech, as it's sometimes known to better understand social media's role in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  Last episode, we started our in-depth discussion of hate speech. This episode will look at the House hearing on the handling of antisemitism at Harvard at the University of Pennsylvania and MIT.

SJ.  Just a quick reminder that these episodes are rated 18+ because we'll be discussing some specific examples of hate speech, which may not be appropriate for all audiences.

TW.  Yes, then first, before we before we dive in, I think it's really important just to say that I don't yet have the words to fully express my feelings about what happened on the seventh of October, and I think a lot of people really don't, I'm just barely able to find some of the words some of the time for what happened on 9/11. So, I realise I'm slower than most people. It's not because I don't care. It's because I care a lot, and I think words are important. I think it should go without saying that this was horrible and inexcusable, and nothing we say from here on no takes away from any of that. It doesn't take away from the seriousness of what happened or the repercussions afterwards, and nothing we say is is meant to diminish anything that was experienced that day are, the days that followed, or the very real antisemitism that is still very much present around the world.

SJ.  No, thank you. Thank you for that. I think I can't agree more. It's inconceivable, really, for most people to to imagine the horror, and I think that because it was so dreadful, most attempts to express how horrible it was and how devastating for the individuals' families and, you know, the whole country of Israel. They just sound trite because there aren't normal words in everyday language to encapsulate the sort of the terribleness of what went what happened. But this has become a serious issue around free speech, and I think it's important that we actually talk about it because a lot of this is played out in the worst possible venues, which is online on social media.

TW.  Yes! Yes, that seems to be a running theme. Unfortunately, you know, take a very bad thing and make it worse, and that's, I think, really what we want to talk about today. We'll leave it to people who are more qualified to talk about some of the other the other elements of what's happening, but we can certainly talk about the free speech/free expression and the social media side. So, if you were lucky or unlucky enough to watch the three-ring circus that was the congressional hearings about how Harvard, Penn and MIT are handling antisemitism and free expression, or if you've read any of the numerous articles or tweet storms about them, or the subsequent resignation of Harvard's president, Dr. Claudine Gay, you probably already have a sense of how big of an issue this has become.

TW.  In fact, I would say that unless you've been living under something of a rock for the past few months, this topic is at least flickered across your radar. The hearing itself was more than three hours long. So, we don't blame you if you stuck to the highlight reel. We watched the whole thing, so you don't have to. We'll talk through it and pick some things out. I would say it's worth watching Rep Stefanik's questioning of Dr. Gay for yourself.

TW.  Since the hearing, I've had a number of conversations with family and friends and colleagues, who I respect very much, all of them, but they saw this questioning, this part of the questioning, and came away with very different feelings about who was right who was wrong in the main issue, really what happened in general.

TW.  So, to put it slightly differently, if I had a conversation with someone with one perspective, this part of the hearing was presented one way, and in a conversation with someone who has different feelings, this part of the hearing was presented in a completely different way so that it could seem like they were actually talking about two entirely different interactions. Whenever something like this happens, I just think it's worth watching it for yourself. Don't take our word for it. Don't take anyone's word for it. Just go back and watch, watch the clip and see see what you think about it.

TW.  I see different perspectives that Steve, you know, I really mean different political positions. This is really nothing new. It makes sense, you know, depending on one's own political viewpoint, they might want different types of speech more or less protected. That's normal, it's been going on long before the First Amendment was even written. But it's also what the First Amendment and other initiatives were designed to prevent. So, free expression doesn't mean we only protect the speech we like. It can't or doesn't mean anything.

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, that that is, of course, the crux of the issue, and I mean, we can talk about the questioning of Professor Gay, and I would love to get into that as a former senior administrator of a university think there's a lot to unpack there. But this is this is the federal government interrogating the leader, a private institution telling them to suppress free speech on campus, which seems to be all of the other issues aside, and as we've said, they're complicated. But that seems to be exactly in contravention of the First Amendment, which is, you know, important. It's first. So, how, how is it that this Congresswoman, feels that she, as a representative of the government can't actually stop students or anyone else? Having free speech?

TW.  Yeah, it's a really interesting, it's really interesting to think about, especially when you break it down that way. I think it's, you know, it's it's hard to make sense of, and it's one of these things where I think all of these issues become so complicated, and they layer on top of each other, and so sometimes you miss opportunities to really just break this down, and I think what you said just now is really important and helpful.

TW.  What what was this hearing? Really, it was the head of a private institution, being interrogated by members of the Federal Government, some of whom were were supportive and saying, yes, you're doing good work, or at least, we appreciate that the work you're doing is really difficult, and you're doing your best, and then we had some who are saying, absolutely not, you need to do a better job of restricting free speech, and that's a really unusual thing, especially for a Republican, I'm not that old, whatever my children say. But even in my lifetime, and even in my adult lifetime, I've seen some of these, back and forths, between the political parties in the US. So, you know, which political party is the party of free speech? It's not like with the Second Amendment, you know, the right to bear arms were throughout my lifetime, at least that's clearly belong to Republicans.

TW.  The First Amendment is a lot more complicated, even if we just take the free speech clause and look at that. So, you know, we can think back to Senator McCarthy, which was before my time, thank you very much, and the Red Scare and we can think back more recently to what happened after 9/11. When, you know, it might then be surprising to see this this recent focus on free expression from the Republican Party. But we can also think about Justice Harlan, Justice Kennedy, Justice Souter, and many others who are often thought of as amongst the justices, most protective or free speech, and we can open Twitter on any day that ends in "Y" or watch these congressional hearings and get a very different picture.

TW.  So, it's not it's not always really clear, obvious how these things are due, and I think, you know, even justices who aren't typically thought of as being particularly pro-free speech, have sometimes really surprised people with their opinions and votes, and I think when we really break down why that is, we come back to context, and I know, this is a dirty word, and it comes up again, and again, and again, I'm not really sure where that started, but it's certainly in full swing now. But none of that changes at the fact that this is a, if not, the central question, in every free speech case in the United States, in the United States in free expression inquiries throughout the world.

SJ.  Oh, my, I mean, context. We talked about this last time, and, you know, I think we're gonna talk about it ad nauseam for our listeners, but I think it is extremely important. You know, the context of that interview will bring it back to that was that historically, or at least in the recent past, there have been a number of times in American universities where right-wing or far-right-wing speakers have been made to feel unwelcome, or told to stay away by the, made to feel unwelcome by the students or told to stay away by the staff and Faculty because there was going to be trouble.

SJ.  This felt like payback, and it was not really fair, because academics quite rightly understand words are important and want to express thoughts clearly, and understand the context and wanted it to be accurate, or do what she said to be accurate, and the Congresswoman understood that people care about feelings that actually the context wasn't important, and she wasn't trying to establish any, and I think that was the that was the difference between those two in that interrogation. One didn't care about context, and one only cared about the context and the difficult nuance that was there and wasn't able to articulate what she needed to say, because, you know, let's be honest, she was being badgered.

SJ.  I felt there. I actually felt really cross watching it. I wanted to say, you know, if I'd been there, I'd be like, if you can ask me a question. Let me answer the damn question. Or I can go you know, this is ridiculous, and I think all three of these women would have been much better off to do that. But I think, you know, let's be honest, it was probably much more likely that men would have done that, then then the women, it's not surprising that they they pick these three women leaders to skewer in this way. 

TW.  Yeah, I think there's a lot a lot to say about that. It was really, it was really uncomfortable to watch, and very difficult, and I think your point is really important, because context was at the centre of what a lot of the answers from these leaders tried to convey, and it was there wasn't a lot of room in the way these questions were asked to allow for that, and it is complicated, and I do understand that, and I know you understand it, too, because that's our whole careers have been built around complicated questions and issues like that. 

TW.  But, you know, it does sound like a bit of a contradiction, because on the one hand, I'm saying the reason the First Amendment works, and the reason free expression is protected is because we have clear rules about what's protected and what's not, and then on the other hand, I introducing this squishy term like context, in saying everything hinges on that, and it's not really a comfortable space to be in, and it's hard to hold two things in our minds at the same time, and it seems like this is getting harder to do every day for all of us.

TW.  But we really have to be able to do it, especially if we're going to talk about free expression, you know, was Law School worth the literal and figurative price tag, I'm still undecided this many years later, but it did encourage development of that skill, and it's not the only degree that does that. But I think, you know, some of these, these programmes really do push you to be able to hold on to things, we can like the outcome of a case and disagree with the reasoning, we can agree with the reasoning and dislike the outcome that doesn't make us disloyal to a political party, or even to a position and makes us critical thinkers. 

TW.  Now, Steve, you know, you know better than I do, that these university policies are not made by one person. They are carefully crafted by teams of lawyers, much smarter than I am with specific experience drafting and defending policies, like the ones they discussed during this hearing. They work with other university officials to ensure that these policies allow the university to function according to their own values and the values of its larger community, and these policies, like many pieces of legislation, have this difficult task of setting out bright line rules, so students and Faculty can adhere to and enforce them to allow this predictability, but also allowing for an appropriate level of flexibility and judgement, for Faculty and administration. This is really not an easy balance to strike, and I'm not here to argue that they're perfect or shouldn't be subject to scrutiny, they absolutely should be only to say that it's really not an easy task, and we have to be careful what we ask for.

SJ.  Yeah, I think, you know, it's an extraordinarily difficult task. We want surely students at universities, particularly, you know, our best institutions to be passionate about something to care deeply about their fellow human beings. God forbid, they would have all of the advantages that you get from a Harvard education and not care about their fellow human beings. We also this is a place where people that people go to university to 18, and you know, I thought that I was pretty damn good when I was 18. But that was because I didn't understand the vast amount of stuff that I just didn't know, and that is the same for all of these kids.

SJ.  You can chant slogans, and with knowledge, you can understand that they are offensive, that they imply certain things. I don't even know that even at Harvard, let's face it, that many of those students would be able to name the “River or the Sea” involved in the chance that they were they were shouting, or what have you applied for the State of Israel. 

SJ.  What they were doing was protesting bombs being dropped, and, you know, let's face it, there's a long history of American students protesting bombs, they just normally protest their own government doing it. This time, it happened to be a little different, and we are in, as you rightly say, there is an increasing tide of antisemitism, which is a massive problem. But these committees write these policies, they are as liberal as they possibly can be. You want students to be able to express themselves, you want Faculty to be able to express themselves without government constraint, and, you know, where do you draw that line? In America is very clear. Right? You were very clear last week. There are very specific examples where legally you can say, you know, this is this is definitely not okay, if you're the federal government, and it doesn't seem reasonable if you're the head of an academic institution to apply a higher standard than the federal government is capable of applying, and the students weren't calling as far as I know, for the death of specific Jews, or even you know, all the Jews or any Jews. They were shot Announcing slogans which were referred to mean that, and that doesn't mean the bar that you explained when we talked about hate speech last time in the US, and that may not be true in Europe, and it isn't necessarily true that I agree with that position, as you made clear at the beginning, you know, what we think and what we're talking about are different things. But abhorrent speech is still protected, and God knows people have made abhorrent speech. 

SJ.  So, I don't know, the the, it is not easy to stop protests, it causes a huge amount of disruption. You know, if you do this badly, and I think it could only have gone badly, because the feeling that the amount of feeling was so, so high, letting students you know, release a bit of steam, and trying to educate them and and steer this in the right direction is what institutions had to do we have to help them learn, and sometimes you screw up as you're learning, and, you know, it's not really, I think, for the federal government to to stop people learning, although I imagine that that Congresswoman would quite like to.

TW.  Yeah, I think there are two, two really good, good points there. I think the first one about university campuses traditionally being a place of protest in the US and about bombs in particular, and, you know, you're right, usually, it's about the bombs that the US is dropping. But you know, all of that is familiar, and even the saying offensive things and doing really offensive things, by the standards of the times, that's all consistent. Really the part that's different here is the argument that what is being said, as hate speech, and I think depending on where you are in the world, it does qualify as hate speech in the US, that doesn't really matter, and this is where we get to your second point, which is that, you know, these university policies in the US largely track what the US Supreme Court has said about hate speech.

TW.  Even for private universities where there may not be state action, this makes a lot of sense, because it keeps things really clear and consistent with the larger community, in this case, the entire legal system of the country, and because it gives them some cover legally. So, if you want to complain about it, you're not just taking aim at a single university, but at the position the entire court system has taken in this position just to come full circle, again, requires consideration of context. So, whichever way you slice this, whichever approach you like, you have to look at the context of the situation and exactly what's happening.

TW.  During and after the hearing, a lot of the discussions were around different hypotheticals. So, commentators pushed various these various hypotheticals forward to make their point. The formulation always went something like, "Okay, you won't say from the river to the sea is hate speech. What about XXX? Is XXX hate speech?"; and the responses very often it depends, and this made people very, very angry, and I think, you know, this is where we were starting to get something a little deeper. I think it made people angry for a number of reasons, and some of these have nothing to do with free speech or free expression. Do people really believe that these university presidents are antisemitic? Do they really believe that they want Jewish students or any student to feel unwelcome or unsafe on their campuses? I don't know. But there's something deeper I think going on here.

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, I, I, in each of these cases, I think the answer is a resounding no. Of course, they don't want students to feel unsafe, of course, they’re abhorred, if they if Jewish students, or any 100 students, it feels unwelcome or unsafe on campus, and I don't think any of these women is in any way, antisemitic, and I think that was a convenient narrative that was used to beat these liberal institutions, and indeed, these, you know, liberal, elite, academic women, for all sorts of political reasons. You know, and I think that's what was playing out. This was politics. It was not I had, I had no confidence that the Congresswoman had actually genuinely cared about this issue at all, other than it, providing a platform for grandstand for the for the TV, and I thought the I think the President Sorry, I just thought the Presidents actually did care about the issue, and that's, that's the problem. They really cared me in a meaningful way.

TW.  Well, I think that's a really interesting point. I think it I think one of the things we saw is, and we see this again and again, in in real life, unfortunately, is that the person who cares more is at a disadvantage in situations like this. This kind of confrontation makes it really hard for people who care deeply about something and who have a lot to say about it, to have the opportunity to say it, and instead the short, punchy, angry sort of, you know, abusive, even approach wins the day, and I think that's something we really need to think about, as as a society, and whether whether that's what we want our lives to look like.

TW.  Just to bring it back to the free speech, because I think some of this is about free speech, it can be hard to understand why statements that feel so offensive, and some of these statements, I mean, at a gut level, feel really offensive, and can even cause an actual physical reaction, why these can quickly or easily be categorised as restricted speech, you know, I'm rapidly approaching 20 years of thinking about these issues and grappling with fact patterns that cause very strong feelings, and it would for any human person that's not unique to me, and thinking about how the law applies to them, or in some ways how the law stacks up to them, and although I've had all this time, and all this experience doing that some of these fact patterns still get me, and you know, that's all to say that I get it. There are a lot of big feelings around hate speech and around hate speech that really touches you or your life or somebody that you love. But these universities aren't alone in struggling to make sense of how to deal with us in a way that is fair and protects people and also protects free speech and free expression.

TW.  Next episode we're going to do, we're going to do just that, really, we're going to look at seven real cases that were decided by the United States Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights. We'll think about which facts were important to the outcome and what might happen if we adjusted the facts slightly, and even speculate a bit about what the other court might say if the same case came before it. 

TW.  In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website.

SJ.  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward. 

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed: Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

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