Yesterday, the Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis wrote an ominous letter to the CEO of Google. For the second time, the Chair is leaning on Google to police and remove “dangerous climate misinformation” on YouTube. The letter doesn’t threaten direct legal action against Google, but it nonetheless raises serious concern because it runs so counter to the free speech tradition and the value of a robust internet.
According to the Chair, “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation videos every day, a shocking revelation that runs contrary to Google’s important missions of fighting misinformation and promoting climate action.” The Chair states her own unequivocal commitment to “promoting ambitious federal policy that will … eliminate barriers to action, including those as pervasive and harmful as climate denial and climate misinformation.” It’s hard not to see the veiled threat here.
Note the letter’s subtle casting of the consumers of information as passive actors that must be protected, rather than rational actors who choose what information to consume, a choice they’re entitled to make. She says “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation” and that Google should “correct the record for millions of users who have been exposed to climate misinformation.” This language strips accountability and action from the viewers, as if they are a captive audience held down and forced to view climate denial videos with eyelid clamps like a scene from A Clockwork Orange. But if that content is promoted and viewed, that’s because there’s a consumer demand for it. The passive language used in the letter exemplifies the paternalism that often lurks behind censorship: for their own welfare, we must protect the public from information they wish to consume.
Note also the absolutism woven into the letter. Google cannot both be committed to climate action and committed to an open culture of public discourse. In the war for humanity’s survival, one priority must dominate above all others.
The letter also relies on the tired tactic of impugning speakers’ motives. Anyone who expresses “climate misinformation” on YouTube just wants “to protect polluters and their profits at the expense of the American people.” It’s impossible for an absolutist to consider that views opposed to her own might be sincerely held. Plus, research has shown that political views frequently do not line up with individual self-interest. Only a shallow thinker or someone with an agenda assumes a political viewpoint is rooted in a selfish motive.
As for the constitutional implications of the letter, there is no question that the federal government cannot impose on Google the duty to remove “climate misinformation” or “climate denial” content. False speech is not exiled from the sanctuary of First Amendment protection. Of course, some false speech can be penalized, such as libel, slander, or fraud. But these are circumstances where there’s some other legally cognizable harm associated with the false statement for which recovery is warranted. There is no general rule that false speech is unprotected.
Government should never be in the position of arbitrating truth. Particularly in the context of hotly debated political controversies, allowing government to label one side as gospel and penalize dissidents opens the door to legally enshrined orthodoxy. As Justice Robert Jackson said 80 years ago: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” That’s what the power to ban “climate misinformation” entails.
Indeed, government refereeing of truth will almost always shade toward discrimination against disfavored viewpoints. For example, there is “misinformation” out there on both sides of the climate debate. Those who peddle wild doomsday predictions are just as unhinged as those denying the realities of climate change. Yet the Chair does not propose to censor such misinformation.
When I see such zealous effort to shut someone up, I can’t help but ask myself why the censor is so afraid. The targeting of this speech is likely only draw attention to it. Why worry about the hacks? I’ve always believed what John Milton expressed centuries ago in the Areopagitica: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Of course, that doesn’t mean that falsehoods lack convincing power, but truth in the end has the edge. Rather than pick the winner in advance, we do much better by letting truth emerge through open debate, bloodied but victorious.
- “To speak on everything in the world, including everyone’s elections” Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- Foucault on the courageous practice of speaking truth to power Deborah Clark, Footnotes to Plato
- The idea of Global Britain ignores reality (and an imperial past) Robert Saunders, New Statesman
- “No nation in Europe today is as good at self-deprecation as the Slovaks” Donald Rayfield, Literary Review
A channel to counter Islamophobia
On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are supposed to have discussed the idea of setting up of a television channel to counter ‘Islamophobia’. In a tweet, the Pakistan PM said that it was decided that the three countries would set up a BBC type channel which will raise Muslim issues and also counter Islamophobia.
The role of Sikh public figures, in the UK and Canada, in countering Islamophobia
It would be pertinent to point out that prominent Sikh public figures in Canada and the UK have played a pivotal role in countering hate towards Muslims. This includes the first turbaned Sikh Member of Parliament (MP) in British Parliament, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Labour MP from Slough), who criticised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for highly offensive remarks Johnson had made, in an opinion piece written for The Telegraph in 2018, against Muslim women wearing burqas.
Johnson had stated that Muslim women wearing burqas look like ‘letter boxes and bank robbers’. Dhesi sought an unequivocal apology from the British PM for his remarks.
The Labour MP from Slough stated that if anyone decides to wear religious symbols, it gives no one the right to make ‘derogatory and derisive’ remarks. Dhesi also invoked the experiences of immigrants like himself, and those hailing from other countries, and the racist slurs which they had to contend with.
The leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada, Jagmeet Singh, has also repeatedly spoken against ‘Islamophobia’. In 2017, when Singh was still a candidate for the NDP leadership, he was accosted by a heckler, who confused Singh’s religious identity and mistook him for a Muslim. The woman accused Jagmeet Singh of being in favor of imposing the Shariah (Islamic law defined by the Quran) and a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a tweet, Singh had then clarified his stance, saying:
Many people have commented that I could have just said I’m not Muslim. In fact many have clarified that I’m actually Sikh. While I’m proud of who I am, I purposely didn’t go down that road because it suggests their hate would be ok if I was Muslim
On September 1, 2019, Jagmeet Singh’s brother, Gurratan Singh, a legislator from Brampton East, was accosted after speaking at a Muslim Fest in Mississauga and accused by Stephen Garvey, leader of the National Citizens Alliance (NCA), of adopting a ‘politically correct approach’ towards issues like ‘Shariah’ and ‘Political Islam’. Gurratan responded calmly, stating that Canada could do without racism. In a tweet later on, Gurratan, like his brother, said that he would never respond to Islamophobia by pointing out that he was not Muslim. Jagmeet Singh also praised his brother for his reaction.
Guru Nanak’s 550th anniversary
That these Sikh politicians in the diaspora are standing up against Islamophobia at a time when Sikhs are preparing to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib, the founder of the Sikh faith, is important. Guru Nanak Sahib was truly a multi-faceted personality – social crusader, traveler, poet, and even ambassador of peace and harmony in South Asia and outside. The first Guru of the Sikhs always stood up for the oppressed, be it against Mughal oppression or social ills prevalent during the time.
Today, Sikhs in the UK, Canada, and the US who have attained success in various spheres are trying to carry forward the message of tolerance, compassion, and standing up for the weak. While being clear about its distinct identity, the Sikh diaspora also realizes the importance of finding common cause with members of other immigrants and minority communities and standing up for their rights. This emphasis on co-existence and interfaith harmony has helped in creating awareness about the faith.
A good example of the growing respect of the Sikh community is not just the number of tributes (including from senior officials in Texas as well as the Federal Government) which have poured in after the brutal murder of a Sikh police officer, Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal, in Houston, Texas (Dhaliwal happened to be the first Sikh in the Harris County Sheriff’s office), but also a recognition of the true values of the Sikh faith, which include compassion, sacrifice, and commitment to duty. While Sikhs still have been victims of numerous hate crimes, in recent years there is an increasing awareness with regard to not just Sikh symbols, but also the philosophical and moral underpinning of this faith.
While countering Islamophobia is important, it can not be done in silos. It is important for minority communities to find common cause and be empathetic to each other’s needs. Setting up a TV channel may be an important symbolic gesture, but it’s overall efficacy is doubtful unless there is a genuine effort towards interfaith globally.
- Was Hitler driven by a fear of Anglo-American capitalism? Robert Gerwarth, Financial Times
- Hong Kong’s long struggle against Beijing Melvin Barnes Jr, Origins
- My mother, the ex-Communist Arnold Kling, askblog
- Hizballah’s puzzling quiet Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists