One of George Carlin’s most famous comedy “monologues” was titled, The Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on TV It was brilliant. It was daring. Everyone knew immediately what he was talking about. Because everyone chafed under the restrictions without challenging them, because they seemed inviolate and immutable.
No one was ever conscious enough of it to make a comedy sketch about it. Yet after he delivered it, if felt like a revelation. That he’d broken a taboo. Everyone realized that he’d said something no one else had said–at least publicly. And that helped break down the code of censorship. Not all at once. And not even necessarily on TV. But it broke down barriers for anyone who’d felt there were such barriers.
In Carlin’s day, TV was virtually the only form of interactive expression in which people communicated with you directly and in real time. That’s why the words you could or couldn’t say were so important. TV has lost that monopoly. Now of course, media is a free-for-all of expression. It comes at us from everywhere, in every aspect of life in which we permit it.
But there is still censorship. And it is still imposed upon us by a similar coterie of censors. But the censorship is slippery. Sometimes a word is forbidden. Sometimes it is permitted, even encouraged. It’s up to us to determine when, or if we can use the word or express the thought. In one context we might be able to do it. In another, the censor might come down hard on us.
In New York, California or Washington, where I live, we can talk about Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and drag queens. If “woke” hadn’t become such a dirty word, we could call us that. But it has become one of those dirty words.
In Missouri, Texas or Florida, we would find ourselves in a “whole heap of trouble.” In New York, California, or Washington you’ll find the majority takes COVID, and science in general, seriously. It believes in climate change and a government ruled not just by a Constitution, but in particular by a Bill of Rights (and beyond just the Second Amendment). But in many of those Red states majorities doubt and dismiss, even vehemently, many of these ideas.
So each one of us has to judge where we are, who we are with, and what may be wrong to say, and what may be right. We have to judge whether we can say something we believe, which may disturb or trouble. But if we say it in the right way and use the right words, then others may listen and even be challenged in their prejudices. Or we may make a mistake and say the wrong thing in the wrong way.
In this case, I’m speaking in particular of social media. Users stand on shifting sands. If you only post cat pictures or Tik Tok fashion videos, you’re unlikely to step on toes. But if you address big, controversial social or political issues, you are on quicksand. You might get away with saying something in flat, unchallenging terms.
But many of us speak of these subjects so often that we cannot say the same thing in the same words, repeatedly. Not to mention that events change from day to day; sometimes from second to second. So we need to have a strong and wide vocabulary to express thoughts and emotions. That’s where it gets complicated.
If I speak with passion, if I convey my horror, if I convey my rage at the injustice of, to use but one example, the Palestine-Israel conflict, I will find an audience that not only appreciates a sympathetic voice. But on the other hand I will, in turn, enrage others. They will censor my words. They will demand others do so as well. They will do so vociferously; with a vengeance. They will move heaven and earth to stop my speech.
Sometimes they will fail. It often depends on the vagaries of algorithms or the whims of human moderators. But oftentimes they will prevail. The censor will win. And ideas will lose.
That was a long introduction to a fairly mundane event: Twitter suspended me yesterday. They censor thousands daily. Some suffer the ultimate penalty. Palestinian accounts by the thousands are not just censored, in many cases they are disappeared. These platforms do to them what the world has done to actual Palestinians.
In my case, Twitter accused me of “abuse and harassment” for two tweets I published a few weeks ago. One linked to a story about Judeo-thug settlers who beat a 70-year-old female Israeli peace activist, Hagar Gefen, so badly she had to be hospitalized. They beat her mercilessly with clubs. They beat her to the ground and stood above her and continued pummeling her.
In my tweet, I called them one of the worst words one can call an Orthodox Jew (which these monsters pretend to be): “pig.” I chose that word deliberately in order to deny them their Jewishness. Because I wanted to make a point that just as pigs are treif, so it the violence these thugs used to beat a fellow Jew.
Ah, but in Twitter 2.0, without any human content moderation, algorithms reign. And they don’t understand nuance or context. They don’t connect the heinousness of the act itself with the word used to condemn it. They see that word and it’s in their database as prohibited, and I get a Black mark for using it.
The second tweet addressed a Bibi Netanyahu’s bad-boy son, Yair, who called for the state prosecutors trying his dad on corruption charges, to be hung. To most of us, this is shocking, transgressive language. Words that should never be spoken, let alone thought. But in this day and age, the unthinkable is not only thinkable it is doable. Language that once was transgressive is now normalized. Evil acts are normalized as well. Evil people who would do evil things. Our language must express our revulsion and oppose them with vehemence. But while evil deeds are not punished, in the above case the attackers are well-known to police who’ve refused to arrest them, our words often are.
As the extremist right has adopted increasingly rage-filled rhetoric, it’s only natural that we who oppose it should escalate our own rhetoric. If our language doesn’t adapt to this rhetorical violence, then we have ceded the political ground to them.
But social media platforms are far more likely to penalize speech that condemns violence, than they are to condemn actual violence. When we condemn right-wing violence, it’s often our own rhetoric that is deemed violent or abusive. These platforms lack the nuance to understand that language condemning actual violence should not itself be penalized as violent. In other words, there is no sense of proportionality. Even worse, there are far more than seven dirty words. There may be a thousand…or ten thousand. And we may not know which they are. And when and how we can use them.
One of the ways to combat evil is to mock it. To demean it. To cut it down to size with derision or irony. That’s why I tweeted that Yair should consider a more Biblical punishment like stoning. Another dirty word. Twitter’s algorithm doesn’t connect the words hanging and stoning. Further, I bet that if Yair used “hanging” in his own social media account it would not be flagged because his name is Netanyahu. But when a left-wing activist-journalist ridicules the idea of stoning officers of the court employed by the state to uphold the law, that apparently is a bridge too far.
You can see screenshots of both tweets and the alleged violations the machines found. I’ll let you be the judge.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.