A common view is that the mainstream media loves censorship. Mainstream commentators smear people as bigots, mainstream social media platforms close their accounts and mainstream politicians applaud their efforts. Alternative tendencies like the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ have emerged to oppose censorship. But is the alternative media free of its own censorious trends?
One of the more memorable episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience involved the comedian cum commentator-cum-podcaster Mr Rogan sitting down with his friends, the comedian Bryan Callen and the UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub. Schaub had just come off a loss by technical knockout and expected to discuss the bout in a collegial fashion. He was blindsided by a classic exercise in tough love as Rogan broke down his stylistic deficiencies in agonizing detail and suggested that he should hang up his gloves before he took a lot more serious of damage to his brain. Schaub resisted at first, but came to see the wisdom of his friend’s advice as a he embraced a safer and more lucrative career in podcasting and stand-up comedy.
All’s well that ends well? Not quite. In breaking down Schaub as a martial artist, Rogan had built him up as a comedian. Schaub has a lot of charm and energy, but his comedic career sky-rocketed on Rogan’s coattails. He had barely begun developing his stand-up act before he was gifted a Showtime special, which soon acquired a hideous IMDB rating of 2.5. So unloved was Schaub’s performance that the CBD oil company that he is partnered with was offering discounts on their products for ‘the kind of review Brendan deserves.’ This is what we call a ‘bribe’.
None of this would be worth writing about if it was not for an obscure event that followed the special. YouTube documentarian ‘Beige Frequency’ had been deriding Schaub’s comedic efforts, pointing out, for example, that in his special he had attributed a farcically stereotypical Chinese accent to an Asian American UFC doctor who is in fact considerably better spoken than he is. Beige Frequency created a satirical documentary about Mr Schaub’s various mishaps which was promptly taken down from YouTube after an unfair, opportunistic copyright claim from ‘Bent Pixels’, a digital media company that counts among its partners a certain Joe Rogan.
Mr Frequency’s film was certainly insulting. I am sure that the opinions it expressed are contentious. But the clips of other people’s content that it used were short and employed only to illustrate his criticisms. Copyright claims were morally and legally unjustifiable, and served as a underhanded act of censorship. As a commentator who has all but built his brand on opposing censorship and upholding the right to free expression, it is hypocritical – if he is aware of it – for Rogan to accept the censorious actions of his partners.
Sadly, it is not especially unusual for figures in the alternative media to use the power of law to silence criticism. Now I think that libel is prohibited for good reasons. If someone calls you a criminal or a Nazi I think that you should have the right to seek legal redress. Still, it was absurd when lawyers representing Jordan Peterson sent a legal threat to the philosopher Kate Manne for saying, for example, that Peterson expresses ‘really eyebrow-raising, authoritarian-sounding, and even cruel things’, and that his ‘skepticism about objective facts arises when it’s conveniently anti-feminist’. I doubt that I agree with Professor Manne on much. In fact, if she said it was raining I would go to the beach. But these are clearly legitimate opinions to hold and not within the realms of prohibitable smears.
Figures in the alternative media sometimes display an excess of sensitivity towards criticism. When the liberal commentator Cathy Young criticized violent threats against an event hosted by ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ interviewer Dave Rubin, who she had previously argued is an enabler of bigoted people, Rubin said:
‘Save it Cathy, this is the shit you helped create. Congrats.’
Again, I agree with Ms Young on very little. But it is preposterous to claim that reasonable criticisms naturally ‘create’ violent threats, and the suggestion that they do encourages a chilling effect inasmuch as it proposes a natural route from criticism to crime.
Now, in fairness I am not a free speech absolutist, but I hope I am at least morally consistent. If I was a publisher I would not host a Nazi but nor would I host a revolutionary communist. I do not think these people, in these cases, have met this standard. Would Joe Rogan have criticized someone taking down a clip that made fun of his comedy bête noir Carlos Mencia? Would Jordan Peterson have criticized a socialist who sent a legal threat to someone for calling them authoritarian-sounding and biased? Would Dave Rubin have criticized someone who claimed that harshly criticizing the ‘regressive left’ means you ‘create’ violent threats against them? In all cases I believe that the answer is ‘yes’, and this inconsistency deserves a measure of reflection. Alternative media figures do not have the power to inhibit free expression that mainstream platforms wield but they still have power and should exercise it responsibly.