Let’s be clear: I’m not normally a fan of censorship. Many, many moons ago (as an underoccupied night security guard), I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and was deeply impressed by its justly famed Chapter II, “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.”
But recently, as both an activist writer and a commenter on articles in leading progressive news media, I’ve discovered the deeply pernicious flooding of articles – especially articles on humanity’s climate emergency – by trolls intent on pushing climate change denial. Extensive reflection has produced a rather compelling case why the trolls’ climate pseudoscience comments – if not the trolls themselves – should be banned from progressive media.
My arguments fall outside the umbrella of Mill’s case against censorship and are best summarized by what I call forum perversion. I’ll explain at length what forum perversion means in the upcoming sections.
Forum perversion: Normal trolling vs. hostile forum sabotage
For starters, readers should understand that Mill’s arguments against censorship apply chiefly to government and overall societal contexts. Mill never for one second denied that there were specialized forums, for which only certain specialized forms of discourse are appropriate. For example, Mill in his varied career worked as both an economist and an editor; wearing his editor’s cap, he never would have tolerated someone’s amateur vaporings about phrenology (not thoroughly understood in Mill’s day to be a pseudoscience) in an economics journal.
Editors of specialized publications – and this includes publications with special political biases – have enormous latitude in the types of content (and comments on content) they allow. None of this amounts to the type of government or societal censorship objected to by Mill. Presumably, there are enough specialized and general publications to go around – and enough publications with differing biases – that in a diverse society without active government censorship, all shades of opinion will somewhere get expressed.
Progressive/leftist publications for general readers are my subject here; in fact, my present thoughts took shape in connection with Truthdig, a progressive forum I’m quite fond of, associated with its star journalist Chris Hedges. But my thoughts apply as well to all progressive publications that allows reader comments under articles, thus meaning primarily online publications where readers can immediately post comments without screening or intervention by editors. Some other personally relevant examples (online progressive/leftist publications where I either comment or write articles) include The Intercept, OpEdNews, Nation of Change, Common Dreams, and The Greanville Post. (I exclude personal online favorites like CounterPunch and Dissident Voice because they don’t allow comments under articles.)
Needless to say, the editors of such progressive/leftist publications already exercise a certain amount of “censorship” by carefully choosing what content to publish. Of course this is their right as editors of publications with a particular character, and no one considers it real, unjustified censorship. Where tricky issues arise is in connection with reader comments, and openness to free speech being part and parcel of progressives’ commitment to democracy, free speech – even “troll” speech – is given pretty free reign. As it ought to be. Progressive publications that censor opinions hostile to their bias lose progressive “street creds.”
Defining ordinary, tolerable troll speech is important, for my argument depends on distinguishing it from climate-troll speech, which, as I’ll soon argue, amounts to forum perversion that deserves zero tolerance in progressive/leftist media. Now, ordinary trolls are defined as suggested above: by their hostility (reflected in article comments) to the bias of a publication, its writers, and its readers. And there’s nothing necessarily morally reprehensible about “playing the troll”; I as a left-progressive have done so on the Daily Kos site and in numerous Facebook groups. Inevitably, playing the troll attracts widespread hostility, deletion of one’s comments, and out rights bans, but if you can’t stand the troll heat, stay out of the troll kitchen. Most trolls have supernatural heat tolerance. And fittingly enough, climate-denying trolls could easily walk on the sun.
Now, in line with Mill’s principles on free speech, trolls can perform a valuable democratic service, informing readers not only about how their opponents think, but about the very nature and meaning of their own position on an issue. But sometimes it’s clear that individual trolls go much further in their hostility: they’d clearly like to take over, subvert, or destroy the forums in which they’re expressing their views. What prevents them from doing so is usually two things: 1) a lack of power, meaning that the ordinary means of troll suppression (ignoring and blocking) work just fine and 2) the various forums’ lack of commitment to Mill’s views on free speech, meaning that even harmless trolls not seeking to subvert whole forums get banned long before it’s objectively warranted.
Such is clearly not the case with the progressive forums I’m writing about. If anything, they take Mill’s commitment to democratic free speech too far. The poet Robert Frost memorably wrote, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” While the word liberal has fallen (or been driven) out of fashion, Frost’s stinging jibe applies often enough to the progressive forums I’m addressing here. To such extent that they let climate-troll comments – which should simply be banned – pervert the very functioning of their forums. To such extent that every political article mentioning humanity’s climate emergency risks degenerating into unqualified amateur debate over the merits of billionaire-sponsored climate pseudoscience.
Climate trolling as deliberate forum perversion
To illustrate my views on forum perversion, let me cite the precise article that incited me to develop those views: Chris Hedges’ recent Truthdig piece “Confronting the Cult of Death.”
Now, recalling the Truthdig is a left-progressive publication and Hedges a Pulitzer Prize journalist to the left of most Democrats, what might most Truthdig readers of the cited article reasonably want to discuss? Certainly Hedges’ style and sources, the merits or demerits of his analysis (whether, for example, it’s excessively gloomy), its political implications, and the political assumptions underlying it. Inevitably, seeing how controversial religion is among progressives/leftists, readers will want to discuss the role religion plays in Hedges’ analysis – a large one, given that Hedges is not merely a renowned journalist but an ordained Presbyterian minister. All these grounds for commenting are of course fair game and utterly uncontroversial.
Perhaps most importantly, activists (like me), who largely accept Hedges’ terrifying analysis of the facts on the ground (but not his political near-despair), are eager to propose and discuss political strategies for addressing those alarming facts. Granted, activists with strategy proposals are usually the smallest minority of commenters, but if any of us are right, we’re clearly by far the most important commenters – offering prospects for warding off unprecedented climate-based disasters or even human extinction itself. That’s why we’re the quickest to resent ill-intentioned, climate-denying trolls willfully perverting forums as promising for advocating solutions as Chris Hedges articles for their own vile aims. Especially when these trolls – unlike all the legitimate commenters I mentioned – contribute nothing of value to the discussion and have no discernible aim but to steal and pervert our political forum. And unlike individual trolls grinding their personal political axes, they clearly have the numbers, networks, and oligarch-funded pseudoscience resources (climate-denying “think tanks”) to do it.
Now, basing themselves on Mill, readers might object that climate-troll comments at least have the value of teaching us what our opponents think and help us better understand our own reasons for embracing the scientific theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), now usually called climate change – or, more properly, humanity’s climate crisis or climate emergency. In my view, readers who overextend Mill’s meaning in this way are woefully, self-defeatingly wrong about three things: 1) the nature of a complex scientific theory, 2) the perverse sophistication of billionaire-sponsored sabotage of that theory, 3) the nature of the forum provided by political articles about climate change.
I effectively summarized my views on all three points earlier by writing that “every political article mentioning humanity’s climate emergency risks degenerating into unqualified amateur debate over the merits of billionaire-sponsored climate pseudoscience.” Letting brainwashed or ill-intentioned – and possibly paid – climate trolls sabotage political forums for general, educated readers and warp them into barbarous amateur science hours is exactly what I mean by forum perversion. The comments under political articles about humanity’s climate crisis are simply not a proper forum for refuting the elaborate pseudoscience concocted in billionaire-funded think tanks. The task is endless (as the billionaires planned), most commenters (including the trolls themselves) utterly unqualified to debate sophisticated, specialized science, and the lost opportunities for fruitful discussion – above all, of political solutions – utterly tragic.
Simple common sense should show that climate trolls are not engaging in legitimate expressions of personal opinion. What normal, sane, well-intentioned person, untrained in specialized science, rushes to public forums to offer refutations of quantum theory, the germ theory of disease, or plate tectonics? Practically no scientifically untrained people have the motivation, and the few who might are likely deterred by the fact that their utter ignorance would expose them as ranting fools.
But climate pseudoscience – while equally dubious as legitimate science – differs radically from these hypothetical “refutations” in terms of both motivation and the protective cover it offers for foolhardy amateur trolls. For true believers in climate change denial, there are potent political motivations, as Naomi Klein brilliantly explained – especially since the political necessities of climate action threaten not only the wealth of the overly rich, but deeply held conservative worldviews that are part of people’s very identity. And oligarchs whose wealth is threatened are obvious glad to pay non-oligarch true believers to “play the troll” on behalf of their pseudoscience – adding a monetary incentive for people already strongly motivated by ideology.
And oligarchs don’t merely to pay their trolls; they spare them the humiliation of exposing obvious ignorance by funding think tanks and pseudoscience research that provide them with plausible arguments not at all obviously stupid to readers untrained in climate science. Even producing plausible bad science requires scientific training well beyond that of most educated general readers; the question is, why should such general readers, in the context of political articles, be faced with the on-the-spot task of refuting plausible bad science that corrupt or misguided researchers trained in science have spent years perfecting? The answer is that they shouldn’t; it’s a question of the wrong readers and the wrong forum. By allowing climate-troll comments to waste valuable space under political articles – and to appear victorious if sensibly ignored – progressive editors (too broadminded to take their own side in a life-or-death quarrel) are simply allowing sinister genocidal oligarchs undeserved cheap victories.
In closing, I’ll offer two important exceptions to my case. As I’ve argued, climate-troll comments under political articles that treat humanity’s climate crisis have no function other than forum sabotage and should be banned. I mean, of course, political articles appearing in progressive/leftist publications for general, educated readers. Should such publications decide to publish expert articles debunking climate pseudoscience – to take the bullshit by the horns, as Yogi Berra might have said – readers are forewarned, the forum is changed, and comments attacking mainstream climate science are clearly relevant and welcome. Ditto for progressive publications establishing a separate forum specifically for debating the merits of climate science. If they properly ban climate pseudoscience from political articles, they may to show that they have no fear whatsoever of such pseudoscience while giving general readers a choice about avoiding its worthless, juvenile rants. But clearly, without expert climatologist contributors, such a forum will bear the stigma of an amateur science “romper room.”
In my next piece, I’ll make the case that if progressive editors continue to allow climate-troll speech in political articles, they’ll have no legitimate grounds to exclude a flood of comments from the likes of the Flat Earth Society – even if such comments are intended (as climate-troll comments clearly are) as a time-wasting attempt at forum perversion.