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August 22, 2017
The eyes of the world have been on Charlottesville, Virginia since the recent white nationalist rallies broke out and turned violent, culminating in 19 injuries and the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who had been there as a counter-demonstrator.
A lot has been said about, well, just about every aspect of that day and who or what is to blame for the rally but I’d like to look at something that has happened as a consequence of the events of that day: the removal of the Daily Stormer website.
For those who don’t know, the Daily Stormer was a website founded in 2013. It has been known for its antisemitism and all-around white nationalist agenda. It called itself “The World’s Most Visited Alt-Right Website,” and featured pages with titles like “The Jew Problem” and “Race War.” The platform was the primary means by which Charlottsville’s alt-right rally was organized.
After the rally, many websites finally decided to act against the Daily Stormer. Facebook banned all attempts to share an article on the site that spoke of Heyer in abusive terms, Twitter has suspended several accounts linked to the site and its users, and – most importantly - GoDaddy and Google announced that they would no longer support the website, saying it had broken their terms of service. Despite attempts to move to both Russian and Chinese servers, the site has been forced to move to the dark web. That can be viewed as a victory for the anti-hate movement, now that far fewer people will know how to access the site.
Except that it’s not a victory at all, given that it took the death of an innocent woman to finally persuade the companies to act.
How long have critics of the alt-right called for better monitoring of these kinds of sites that do nothing but promote hate? How many people have been shaking their heads, wondering how GoDaddy didn’t realize that by allowing the site to stay up – in the name of ‘freedom of speech’ – they are allowing these ideas to spread and fester and boil over into what happened in Charlottsville?
It’s exactly that, that favourite defence of antisemites and white nationalists: freedom of speech. Social media sites don’t want to risk being accused of violating any person’s right to free speech, so allow things to go too far.
Frankly, I argue that in today’s world of instant access to everyone’s opinions and ideas, and of ever-growing globalization, it’s time to rethink the idea of near-absolute freedom of speech. It’s time to start thinking about making the lines of what is acceptable and what is not a bit clearer.
Let’s consider this in a Canadian context. Our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows for “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression,” while maintaining that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof” (my emphasis).
If websites like The Daily Stormer have proven anything, it’s that these two rights no longer compliment each other, but in fact are often in direct conflict.
When members of the alt-right are free to discuss “The Jew Problem” and talk about ways to “solve” it, they’re practicing their own freedom of opinion, but at the expense of the Jewish community’s right to security of the person. When a group of white people walks down the street carrying torches and chanting pro-white calls, it's practicing its own freedom of expression, but at the expense of the sense of security of every black person in the United States who sees it and is reminded of the lynch mobs of the 19th and 20th centuries.
There are, of course, other arguments in favour of putting limits on freedom of speech and expression. In 1945, philosopher Karl Popper laid out the paradox of tolerance. According to Popper, if a society has unlimited tolerance for everyone and everything, including intolerance like that shown by neo-nazis, eventually the tolerant people of society will be destroyed or overrun by the intolerant. Therefore, argues Popper, for a tolerant society to remain so, it must be intolerant of intolerance.
I think we’re still a long way away from having this happen – I’ve been greatly encouraged by the sheer number of people around the world fighting back against the violence and hate – but the point remains that sites like Facebook and Twitter, and ultimately governments, need to decide which right is more important to uphold.
So far, the inaction of nearly everyone involved has shown that white supremacists' freedom of speech – and their intolerance – has been more important than any minority’s right to feel secure in their own home. Here in Canada, our governments go out of their way to try to demonstrate that Canada is a tolerant country that welcomes people of all races, religions, colours, or sexualities, yet they allow the hatred and vitriol to continue.
When will it end? It took the death of a woman for social media sites to act against a known white supremacist website. How many deaths will it take before western governments realize they need to take a more hardline stance against racism and neo-nazism to uphold the tolerant society we all claim to support?
Sara McCleary has written extensively on a wide range of topics while working as a news reporter and freelancer. She has also completed a master's degree in history, and further graduate work in interdisciplinary humanities.