Those who demand that adults be shielded from “offensive” and “traumatic” viewpoints are as craven and toxic as they are authoritarian.
CNN on Thursday afternoon fired its commentator, Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill, after right-wing defenders of Israel objected to a speech Professor Hill gave at the U.N. on Wednesday in defense of Palestinian rights. CNN announced the firing just twenty-four hours after Hill delivered his speech.
Hill’s firing from CNN is a major victory for the growing so-called “online call-out culture” in which people who express controversial political views are not merely critiqued but demonized online and then formally and institutionally punished after a mob consolidates in outrage, often targeting their employers with demands that they be terminated. Hill’s firing, conversely, is a major defeat for the right to advocate for Palestinian rights, to freely critique the Israeli government, and for the ability of journalism and public discourse in the U.S. generally to accommodate dissent.
Conservatives claimed to be offended, traumatized and hurt by Hill’s political views on Israel and Palestine, which they somehow construed as being anti-semitic, and demanded that CNN fire him as punishment for the expression of those opinions. CNN honored the demands of those claiming to be victimized by exposure to Hill’s viewpoints by firing him as a political analyst.
On Wednesday, Hill appeared at an event of the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, commemorating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. During his speech, he accused the Israeli Government of practicing “settler colonialism” and apartheid, supported the international boycott movement against Israel (modeled on the one that ended South African apartheid in the 1980s), and called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
The right-wing outrage machine sprung into immediate action. The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein accused Hill of a “long history of anti-Semitism,” adding: “The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ has been a rallying cry for Hamas and other terrorist groups seeking the elimination of Israel, as a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea would mean that Israel would be wiped off the map.”
Some on the pro-Israel right who agitated for Hill’s firing have previously mocked what they call “outrage culture,” in which people are fired for controversial comments. The Washington Examiner’s Executive Editor and fanatical Israel defender, Seth Mandel, has long denounced and ridiculed such “mobs,” angrily objecting, for instance, when Disney recently fired director James Gunn for provocative Twitter remarks about pedophilia. Mandel used similarly derisive language (“internet outrage machine”) to denounce the removal by Business Insider of a column by Daniella Greenbaum that many found to be hurtful and traumatizing because it was, they insisted, transphobic.
Yet the very same Seth Mandel who finds “outrage mobs” so offensive when they target people who have similar political views to his own helped lead his own “internet outrage mob” to have Hill fired. This Stalwart Champion of Free Expression posted a series of tweets directed at CNN claiming that Hill was an anti-Jewish bigot and an advocate of genocide, and then posted multiple childish tweets with gifs celebrating Hill’s firing.
There are few people more craven or contemptible than those who pretend to support free expression and oppose the attempts of “internet mobs” to have those they disagree with fired, only to instantly change positions when it comes to those whose views diverge from their own. Seth Mandel is the poster child for such principle-free, duplicitous frauds, but he is far from alone.
Our discourse, our newsrooms, and our academic institutions are now drowning with people who demand that any speech be banned and suppressed that they regard as “hurtful,” “offensive,” “traumatizing,” or fostering a feeling of being “unsafe.” But what they really mean is that they want speech suppressed that they and those who agree with them find “hurtful” and “traumatizing.” Speech that makes their political enemies feel offended, uncomfortable or unsafe is heralded as brave and provocative.
That double standard is unsustainable. It’s empty and depraved. It is certain to consume not just one’s political enemies but also one’s political allies, as CNN’s firing of Marc Lamont Hill just demonstrated.
As I’ve often noted, the most baffling and repellent trait of censorship advocates is that they somehow convince themselves that the censorship standards they champion will only be used against the ideas they hate, and that the ideas they like will somehow be protected. As Matt Taibbi has been repeatedly documenting, this is the warped self-delusion that led liberals to demand that Silicon Valley companies censor political speech only to now be shocked and angry that much of that online censorship is being directed at leftist and even liberal sites.
As I reported late last year, liberal demands that Facebook remove content that supposedly incites violence resulted, predictably, in the removal of thousands of Palestinian pages at the demands of the Israel government, while very few Israeli pages suffered similar repression. Censorship advocates reap what they sow, and it usually ends up consuming them and their own allies. It may be karmic justice, but it does massive damage to the ability to have free discourse, the right of dissent, and the flow of unpopular views.
Obviously, as a private corporation, CNN has the legal right to fire Hill – just as Google had the right to fire James Damore, Facebook has the legal right to ban Palestinians, Twitter had the legal right to ban various right-wing polemicists, and ABC had the legal right to fire Roseanne Barr. The question is not one of legality but politics and ethics: what are the consequences from demanding that adults be shielded from offensive ideas even in places where offense, upset and so-called “trauma” are inevitable?
The accusations launched against Hill – that his comments are anti-semitic and constitute advocacy of genocide – are so disingenuous and blatantly false that one is reluctant even to dignify them with a substantive critique. But the damage done to Hill’s reputation by this pro-Israel, pro-censorship internet mob requires that it be done.
Hill defended himself quite adeptly in a series of tweets explaining his speech. In sum, this shameful and cowardly action by CNN demonstrates two vital truths about free speech that have been proven over and over yet are so often ignored:
(1) Israeli citizens have greater liberty to criticize the Israel government than U.S. citizens have to criticize the Israeli government; in other words, criticisms of Israel that are common and mainstream in Israel are banned and punished in the U.S.; and
(2) the greatest threat to free speech in the west, and the most frequent and common form of censorship on college campuses, is aimed at those who criticize Israel and defend Palestinians, to the point where advocating for the boycott is a criminal offense; the firing of Professor Hill is just the latest data point proving his.
It is a requirement in U.S. discourse about Israel and Palestine that an absolute lie be affirmed: namely, that it’s still possible for a viable “two-state solution” to be created, where Palestine and Israel live side-by-side as sovereign states. The undeniable reality – that is now widely recognized in both Israel and Palestine, even as it’s forbidden to be acknowledge in mainstream U.S. precincts (CNN) – is that illegal Israeli settlements have grown so rapidly and have eaten up so much Palestinian land in the West Bank that such a solution is now essentially impossible, a fact even the U.N. acknowledges:
That leaves only two realistic choices: either (a) a single state “from the river to the sea” in which Israelis as a minority have full political rights while Palestinians are segregated and treated and repressed as second-class citizens, the very definition of “apartheid,” or (b) a single state “from the river to the sea” in which both Israelis and Palestinians share full and equal political rights.
Professor Hill, like all morally decent people, opposes apartheid. Therefore, he advocates a single state in which both Palestinians and Israelis have equal political rights. What is actually offensive is not Professor Hill’s comments but rather the suggestion that it is “anti-semitic” or constitutes advocacy of “genocide” to support equal political rights for all human beings, including Palestinians.
Indeed, Israel’s own former Prime Minister and Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, has repeatedly warned that Israelis will be a full-fledged “apartheid” state if it continues to exercise dominion over Palestinians. There is no doubt that Israel is well down that path. Professor Hill opposes that path – because it’s classic apartheid and repression, and it’s nothing short of reprehensible to accuse him of being a Jew-hater for his advocacy of basic principles of human rights and self-determination.
Moreover, Hill’s argument that it has long been viewed as acceptable for repressed and occupied groups to resist their occupiers, including through the use of violence, is indisputably true as a historical matter. Does anyone believe that if the Chinese Army invaded and occupied U.S. soil tomorrow that it would be immoral for Americans to resist by all means, including violence?
But this underscores a crucial point I’ve long noted: all forms of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation are deemed immoral in U.S. discourse. If Palestinians attack Israeli soldiers occupying their land, that’s called “terrorism.” If they advocate non-violent protest moments such as boycotts, that’s called “anti-semitism,” and is even criminalized in many places in the west, and punished on U.S. college campuses. If they hold peaceful protests on the border in their open-air prison in Gaza and have their own teenagers gunned down by Israeli snipers, that’s cheered as Israeli self-defense.
The only permissible position in U.S. discourse is the demand that Palestinians meekly submit to Israeli occupation. Any proffered justifications for Palestinian resistance are not just condemned but punished, as Professor Hill just learned.
This is not the first time CNN has fired one of its journalists for expressing views deemed “offensive” and “hurtful” by Israel defenders: recall that in 2010, CNN ended the 20-year career of Octavia Nasr, its Atlanta-based Senior Middle East News Editor, for the crime of expressing condolences and admiration upon the death of one of the Shiite world’s most beloved religious figures, highly controversial due to his affiliation with Hezbollah.
All that said, it is undeniably true that are many people – Jews and others – who felt genuinely offended, hurt, unsafe and even traumatized by Hill’s remarks. I know people in my own family, and life-long friends, who insist, with great credibility and sincerity, to experience all of those negative emotions when they hear someone advocating a one-state solution or a boycott of Israel as Professor Hill did this week.
Their offense, their hurt, their trauma, are real, at least in the very loose and sloppy ways those terms are now commonly used in the Age of Millennials to indicate negative reactions to political views one dislikes. It’s now quite common even in the places where ideas are meant to flow most freely – such as newsrooms and academic institutions – to demand that content be suppressed or punished if its expression “traumatizes” someone or makes them feel offended and “unsafe.” Though this self-protective mentality is often attributed to liberal millennials, it is in fact widely invoked across ideologies and generations to justify censorship.
Recall that in 2014, the University of Illinois rescinded its teaching offer to Palestinian-American Professor Steven Salaita after he posted tweets harshly criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Israel’s horrific, civilian-slaughtering attack on Gaza. That happened because pro-Israel donors, trustees and students claimed that they felt “traumatized” and offended by Salaita’s political views. Here’s how the New York Times explained Salaita’s punishment:
“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” Ms. Wise wrote last month, “are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
“It’s about feeling safe on campus,” Noah Feingold, a member of a pro-Israel student group, told The Forward. “This is a professor who tweeted that if you support Israel, you’re an awful person.”
This demand – used to justify Salatia’s effective firing as a scholar – that, even as an adult, one has the right at all times to feel “safe” from the expression of offensive ideas was the same one used by the right-wing movement during the Bush 43 years to try to have pro-Arab professors fired at Columbia University (a movement which newfound free expression activist Bari Weiss not only defended but helped to lead), on the ground that Jewish students felt “unsafe” and “traumatized” by the ideas they expressed:
If you’re someone who demands that speech be suppressed or punished if it’s “hurtful” or “offensive,” or that adults have the right to be shielded from “traumatizing” ideas that make them feel “unsafe,” you should congratulate yourself – regardless of your ideology – for your great victory in having Hill fired from CNN. There really is no doubt that the opinions he expressed, just as was true for Salaita and Nasr, were hurtful, traumatic and offensive to many.
But that’s the nature of having free thought and vibrant debate among adults: ideas that are offensive will sometimes be aired; adults will sometimes feel negative emotions from hearing the viewpoints of others; traumatizing events and thoughts will sometimes be discussed; journalism and political expression will sometimes be upsetting.
Nobody gets to create a standard where ideas that are “hurtful” and “traumatizing” to them are barred, whereas ideas that have the same effect on their political adversaries are permitted or celebrated. You either support a standard in which one has the right to engage in free political expression without punishment or you recognize that you are one who is laying the groundwork for this never-ending bickering, in which various online mobs relentlessly, and with increasing success, ensure that anyone expressing views they find upsetting are fired.
A petition has been created by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim demanding that CNN reverse its decision to fire Professor Hill. You can sign it here.