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Gavin McInnes, Thought Catalog, and Our Gross Misunderstanding of “Freedom of Speech”

Poor Gavin McInnes, out of a job again for being an asshole. The Vice co-founder has only himself to blame — he was fired from Rooster, the agency he helped found, for publishing his already notorious “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural” column on Thought Catalog last week. McInnes has long been insufferable, and it’s a measure of how far his standing has fallen that he’s been reduced to publishing his rants on a website whose entire premise for existence is that it’ll publish any old shit. Oh, yes, and on Thought Catalog, too! Anyway, predictably enough, McInnes’ defenders have wheeled out arguments about free speech, as if it’s poor old Gav who’s being oppressed here.

He’s not. If I said anything a tenth as offensive as what McInnes said, I’d be fired, and so would you. So would pretty much anyone else in this brave new world of free enterprise, where employment law is nonexistent and companies can fire workers at the drop of a hat. There’s a certain rich irony in the fact that McInnes has fallen afoul of policies that, as a rabid right-wing free marketeer, he’d presumably support. But anyway, fuck Gavin McInnes. The more interesting line of thought here is what this whole sorry episode says about the failings of the Internet.

Thought Catalog is a site that mirrors the best and worst of the Internet — it’s founded on the premise that “every thought is relevant,” and as its own FAQs point out, it “works for the same reason that the Internet works: We’re an open and non-hierarchical platform. Anyone can use Thought Catalog to articulate their ideas and stories to the world. No one is excluded from the conversation.”

There’s something disingenuous about the entire premise: one has to wonder why, if it really believes “every thought is relevant,” TC doesn’t just provide a free platform for every lunatic on the Internet to publish theories about chemtrails or reflections on the behavior of cats and be done with it. As it stands at the moment, the site is a weird hybrid — a “platisher,” as Jezebel put it in an excellent article earlier this week — where there’s clearly some measure of editorial oversight, or at least a suggestion that there might be, even if that apparently doesn’t extend to actually reading a piece called “Why Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural” before publishing it.

And in any case, if TC works for the same reason that the Internet works, it also doesn’t work for the same reason that the Internet doesn’t work: that any measure of sensible discussion soon gets drowned in the noise made by assholes like Gavin McInnes. On the Internet, it is generally the people who shout loudest who get heard, and it’s exactly those people for whom TC works most effectively as a platform. The site’s entire raison d’être is flawed, because it’s based on a line of thinking that has plenty of currency on the Internet, i.e. that everyone has a worthwhile opinion and is entitled to ample space to express it.

As I’ve written here before, this has been the great lie of Web 2.0, with its comment sections and utopian ideas of inclusive discussion: clearly, the opinion of someone who has no fucking idea what they are talking about is less relevant than the opinion of someone who does. And, sadly, it’s often those who have no fucking idea what they’re talking about who tend to be the most strident about expressing their views.

At best, all this means is that the views being expressed on any given topic risk being swamped by the ill-informed and/or stupid — people who insist on weighing in on various subjects to claim that they “just know” that they’re right, evidence be damned. But at worst, uninformed opinions can be actively destructive. You need look no further than, say, climate change or vaccination to see the danger of pseudoscience and gut feelings. Every thought is allowed, sure, but if you think that despite all the evidence to the contrary, global warming is a conspiracy of the New World Order or that vaccination is unnecessary, your thoughts are most certainly not relevant. It was for exactly this reason that Popular Science canned its comment section last year — in explaining the decision, content director Suzanne LaBarre wrote:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

This is entirely correct, and the phenomenon that LaBarre is discussing stems directly from ideas like those that drive Thought Catalog’s entire existence. It’s interesting reading TC’s FAQs and Terms of Service — apart from dictating that contributors indemnify the site against any legal action for the content they publish so blithely, they justify their entire existence in a way that’ll be all too familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on Reddit or in your average comment section. “What is Thought Catalog’s mission?” asks the very first FAQ, and the answer is as follows: “We want to support freedom of speech, empower writers and readers on their own terms, and make Thought Catalog an online magazine that represents the worldviews and rhetorical styles of as many people as possible.”

A cynic might suggest that a more accurate TC mission statement would be something along the lines of, “We want to drive lots of clicks with irresponsibly inflammatory content, not pay our writers anything, and pocket as much advertising cash as possible.” But even if you accept the mission statement at face value, it’s worth noting that its very first reference is to “freedom of speech.” Americans, bless them, are fond of citing the First Amendment, more often than not on Internet forums when someone’s just told them that they’re making an ass of themselves.

There are a few things to say about this. The first is that Thought Catalog is, like any other website, entirely free to publish whatever it chooses, so long as that doesn’t run up against one of the various exceptions to First Amendment protections that have been established in case law over the centuries. (And, let’s be honest, Gavin McInnes came pretty damn close.) They are also free not to publish whatever they want, as is any other publisher. McInnes is lucky enough to live in a country where the only consequences to his being an obnoxious, bigoted asshole are eventually getting fired from every company he founds. (Meanwhile, actual trans people suffer disproportionately high levels of violence, discrimination and unemployment.) But nobody has any obligation to publish his views, and refusing to do so has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which deals specifically with government passing legislation to restrict free speech.

And speaking of which, if you want to know what violation of the right to free speech really looks like, you need look no further than Ferguson, Missouri, where for the last two weeks the local police force has trampled all over the First Amendment in pretty much every way imaginable. The provisions of the First Amendment explicitly state that Congress “shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” and since the police have done every one of those things with gusto over the last week, they are, by definition, acting illegally. Huzzah!

If people are going to get hot under the collar about free speech, this is what they should be angry about, not a bigoted, ignorant, rich, white fuckwit getting ridiculed for being a bigoted, ignorant, rich, white fuckwit. No one is restricting Gavin McInnes’ right to free speech. No one ever has. And he’s made a career out of abusing that privilege. Don’t cry for him. And if you’re going to cry for freedom of speech, at least know what the fuck you’re talking about.

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