Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Father’s Day

This Father’s Day came and went. Inspired by Mohamed Omar, I set out to write about my dad, but I found myself at a loss for words. Instead, frustrated by all of the Father’s Day commercialism on social media, I went to Tierpark, the zoo of former East Germany, and relaxed with a beer and a friend and watched elephants play.

It doesn’t get easier as time goes on, and my feelings have only become more complicated over time. What would my father think of Donald Trump? About Edward Snowden? Why didn’t I ask him about X, Y, or Z when I still had the chance? Would he be annoyed or proud to know I donated money to MSF in his name? The unanswerability of this questions eats at me sometimes.

And then sometimes I’m fine. Far away from my childhood home, my relationship with my mother happy and stable though at a distance, I often feel secure in my new normal. Having reached total self-sufficiency just shortly before I lost my father, it’s as if this phase were an inevitability. I’ve relished that independence, and am proud of my accomplishments.

I was 29 when my father died. I was a pretty awful teenager, but by the time I returned to the Boston area in 2007—the only time in my adult life we lived close by—we were on good footing. When I was in college, he would come visit, and always leave a 12-pack of beer. One time I completely ran out of cash on a snowy drive home and he met me at the Hampton tollbooth, forty-five minutes from home. We bonded on trips to Morocco and Amsterdam, and on visits home in the summer, when we’d get up at the crack of dawn to trawl rich people’s yard sales.

He was proud of me; I know so because he told his nurses. In the end, as his thoughts became more and more delusional (a side effect of his disease), he would tell them about my work and my travels. One time, they asked my mother whether I was really in Tunisia, or if my father had made that up. I was, we laughed through the tears.

A lot of my friends have lost a parent in the past few years. Inevitably, our friends will start to go, too. The brevity of the life cycle and all that. It can make one feel rather…useless.

But here’s what I’ve come to realize: Whether you are optimistic or hopeless about the state of the world, whether you want to throw yourself into trying to change it or sit back to watch it burn, you have to take care of yourself. I don’t mean that an individualistic, each one for their self sort of way. What I mean is, that when it’s tempting to work yourself to the bone or let yourself whither away in front of the television, don’t. Do something nice for yourself, or if you can’t manage that, for someone you care about. Reach out to someone who, for whatever reason (barring egregious harm), you’ve lost touch with. If you have parents you love, call them. If not, call someone else who fits the bill. If you need help, seek it out. And don’t feel guilty for enjoying your time.

I often fall into the latter camp, for what it’s worth. Despite, or sometimes because of my work, I lose hope. But the biggest waste of life, I think, is to spend it angry.

On Facebook’s “suppression” of conservative news

The headlines this week are about Facebook’s “suppression” or “censorship” of conservative news. As Snopes points out, there are two separate things that former employees are (anonymously) accusing Facebook of: The first is the suppression of conservative news topics which, if true, is indeed troubling. If there’s breaking news about say, Ted Cruz, and a Facebook employee “blacklists” or suppresses that information, that calls into question the very premise of Facebook as a source for news, nevermind an unbiased one.

The second accusation is that Facebook is suppressing conservative media. A set of Facebook employees apparently have been hand-selecting trending topics and sources, possibly to train the algorithms to take over later on. In doing so, they have apparently disregarded some sources:

Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.

Kelly McBride at Poynter has written a solid piece about the ethics around Facebook’s editorializing of the news.  And editorializing is what we should call it. Putting aside for a moment the important fact that Facebook has been completely opaque about its methods here (and in other areas), ultimately I think we want some editorializing. To some degree, we do want Facebook selecting the sources from which we receive information carefully, otherwise what’s to stop Stormfront from becoming a trending news source? Google also picks and chooses what shows up as news sources, although its big tent includes everything from Snopes.com to the New York Times, Electronic Intifada to The Blaze.

Facebook could do that, or it could be transparent about its methods, and editorialize with reliance on multiple or mainstream coverage of events. Personally, with such transparency, I don’t have a problem with Facebook picking and choosing which sources it relies upon. Such lines have to be drawn somewhere. And just look at how some of the top conservative media have covered this scandal:

 

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These are publications that some people think we should rely on for news. In my view, this is not journalism, this is screeching propaganda. I would stop using Facebook if I saw these headlines start showing up. They’re simply not truthful.

Now, does the so-called liberal media, or even the left media, do the same things sometimes? I won’t deny that. Journalists are human and frankly, objectivity is bullshit. But sites like The Blaze, The Rebel, Fox, and even the New York Post have no interest in truth, and the sooner we muster up the courage to say that out loud, the better.

 

The Trouble(s) With Advocating for Free Speech

I was sorely tempted to call this post “I’m a free speech advocate, everyone is an idiot.” After reading it, you’ll understand why, though ultimately that sentence is more of a reflection of my mood at the moment than of what’s going on.

What’s going on, you see, is that suddenly, full-grown adults seem confused as to why a free speech advocate would not be thrilled with Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric. They’re confused as to why, in Germany (and everywhere), I align myself with the Antifa. They’re absolutely fucking perplexed as to how I could possibly suggest that Breitbart is closer to Stormfront than to the New York Times. Yesterday, an actual journalist suggested that a joke I made (see below) was somehow a violation of the First Amendment.

This person calls himself a journalist.

This person calls himself a journalist.

Mr. Raile has the misfortune of being scapegoated here, but I want to be clear: He’s only the most recent in a long, long line of grown-ass adults who have, in recent months, suggested that a free speech advocate cannot also rage against the machine, or what have you. So let’s use this as a teachable moment and talk about why that’s so, so wrong.

Not all speech is created equal

One constant and often vile misconception is the “principle” that all speech is equally valuable. Mark Zuckerberg himself has suggested this recently; fighting back last year against the German state’s attempts to more carefully regulate anti-refugee speech on Facebook, Zuckerberg said that platforms shouldn’t be made to decide what constitutes “legitimate debate.” The content that Germany wanted taken down, however, was not what I would call “legitimate debate” but vile, racist, and hateful speech that sometimes veered into incitement.

That said, I agree with Zuckerberg that a platform as a large as Facebook should not be a gatekeeper. The problem with what he said isn’t that Facebook shouldn’t regulate speech, but that the speech taking place there is inherently “legitimate debate.” Zuckerberg could just as easily have said that Facebook can’t effectively regulate speech on scale, or that he doesn’t believe that powerful entities (be they states or corporations) should be in the business of doing so. Had he done that, he would have effectively toed the line between protecting free speech and condemning hate.

This selective free speech advocate sees my criticism of her as incompatible with principles of free speech (because of course she does).

This selective free speech advocate sees my criticism of her as incompatible with principles of free speech.

The good folks who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights understood this. Yes, they included the right of states to put some limitations on harmful speech (limitations the U.S. does not implement), but more importantly, they included the right to freedom of thought and expression while also protecting individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention (ahem, Trump), discrimination (ahem, Republican queer/transphobes), and to the right of movement (ahem, Europe).

Criticism is not censorship

This one goes out to Mr. Raile.

Yesterday, I made a common Twitter joke, saying “Delete your account” in response to something stupid that someone else said. In this case, that someone else was The Next Web (TNW), a French publication that often publishes very techno-utopian ideas. They’ve also taken to favoring national security over the fundamental rights to free expression and privacy, which I find troubling (but not surprising given France’s moves over the past decade). Therefore, when they published a piece condemning Twitter for not wanting intelligence agencies using their API, I shorthanded my criticism to “delete your account,” a very common phrase on Twitter, for the sake of 140 characters.

But let’s say that I had meant that precisely, and that my desire was for TNW to shut down. That still wouldn’t be out of line with my principles as a free speech advocate. You see, I’m a person. I’m not the state. I’m not even Facebook or Twitter, social media entities with state-like capacities for speech regulation. I’m an individual, and if I tell someone or something to shut up, that is not censorship.

Perhaps Mr. Raile understands that, though, and simply thinks that my criticizing a publication is out of line with the spirit of my job or my self-styled identity of “free speech advocate.” He’d still be dead wrong, and frankly, it’s pretty creepy to suggest that a person can’t contain multitudes, or should act robotically toward all speech because of what they do for a living.

The truth is, I am sometimes deeply torn about free speech. Like when Donald Trump suggests putting Muslims in camps, or when Pamela Geller defends Radovan Karadzic. Which brings me to my last point…

I am a free speech advocate because…

I am a free speech advocate primarily because I do not believe that it is possible to institute fair gatekeepers. I am a free speech advocate because I am fundamentally opposed to the concept of centralized power.

In my dream world, there wouldn’t be any hate speech. In an ideal world, we would use our words to build each other up, not tear each other down. But that world is impossible, I know, because in order to eradicate hate speech, those in power would have to fine people, or lock them up, censor them, “disappear” the leaders and scare their followers into submission. These are horrible things, things that authoritarians do. And I am, at my core, against authoritarianism.

There are some on the left who suggest that censoring, or censuring those who promote hate speech is worth the cost. The collateral damage, they claim, is minimal, and anyone toeing the gray area probably deserves what’s coming to them. I can’t agree. I’ve seen what happens when borderline speech is punished, when states are given absolute authority to decide who is or isn’t a terrorist, based on speech and not actions. I’ve seen what happens when states pick and choose which speech is worthy of defending. It isn’t pretty.

And frankly, look at the world. Hillary Clinton can make pithy jokes about her government’s involvement in the murder of a head of state, but a citizen of her government goes to prison for seventeen years just for translating the texts of the enemy.

We are not equal. We are created so, but power has divided us, and supporting that power to man the gates of expression will only divide us further. That is why I’m a free speech advocate.

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