Members Only | December 8, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The gift of Ye
Showing us ways in which the right understands hate speech.
One of the easily understood and fun activities in a sociology class is the “breaching experiment.” The purpose of the breaching experiment, introduced by late sociologist Harold Garfinkel, is to illustrate the taken-for-granted informal rules that we live by in our daily lives.
You go into a store that gives free samples. There is no sign anywhere saying that samples are one per customer. Indeed, you see customers take a sample and come back a few minutes later to grab another. So you decide to stand there and eat all the samples. You may even talk with the server as you wait patiently for them to replace the ones you’ve just eaten.
What would happen in that scenario?
You’d get the side-eye by customers – even the same customers you just saw come back for seconds! You’d might be asked to stop eating samples, to which you could mention there’s no sign saying one per person. At some point, a manager would be called. You’d be asked to leave the store.
Why all the fuss? Who gives a damn about some free samples that are probably just overstocked items the store wants to move anyway.
Because you breached an unwritten rule governing how we interact. It feels wrong to the people who witness it. The task is to figure out what’s been breached, usually by getting people to explain why the breach feels wrong.
Kanye West, hereafter “Ye,” is a walking breaching experiment.
He’s an internationally known, independently wealthy megastar who is now spewing antisemitic rhetoric in public spaces. Whether public utterances are because he’s going through mental health issues is up for debate. Of interest here is his breaches and what his behavior means for others.
Ye has given us a gift. the Right frequently attacks progressives for their willingness to label many phrases and symbols as hate speech. Here is Ye doing something that, for people on the left and right, feels wrong.
If it hurts me and mine
The rapper tweeted recently a photo of a swastika inside the Star of David. The tweet was deleted, and Elon Musk – the new owner of Twitter – suspended Ye’s account. The suspension was not by way of a formal process of report and review but done ad-hoc. Musk simply chose to suspend the account. Musk said Ye “violated our rule against incitement to violence.”
So much about this did not make sense to me, initially.
For one thing, hate speech has gone up since Musk’s takeover. What makes this tweet worthy of Musk’s ordering Ye’s account suspended? What line did this tweet cross that other forms of hate speech do not? Are other images of a swastika inside the Star of David deleted from Twitter? I’d say no, as there are many copies of Ye’s tweet still on the platform.
More puzzling is a comment Musk made on Twitter Spaces about his decision: “I personally wanted to punch Kanye, so that was definitely inciting me to violence. That’s not cool.” Um, wait a minute!
I thought the whole “incitement to violence” justification was because the antisemitic violence was aimed at Jewish people – not Elon Musk.
It gets more confusing when we consider Musk’s handling of an equally polarizing figure, though much less famous, James Lindsay.
Lindsay popularized the phrase “OK groomer.” Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter deemed it hate speech. It links being queer to pedophilia. Lindsay’s continued use led to him being permanently banned. Musk reinstated Lindsay’s account, and Lindsay promptly continued using the phrase.
This is free speech now, I guess.
The only answer I can come to is that Musk sees hate speech not through the lens of a vulnerable group possibly being attacked because of the speech. Instead, he sees hate speech through a lens of personal grievance.
If the speech hurts him or someone he cares about, it’s hate speech. If the speech is directed elsewhere, no matter how vulnerable, it’s free speech.
Will I lose votes?
Recently Donald Trump invited Ye, along with nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes to his Mar-a-Lago estate for a pre-Thanksgiving meal.
The meeting was ripped by Republican darling and likely next Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting was “not merely unacceptable, it’s just wrong,” said Netanyahu recently on “Meet the Press.”.
Some members of the GOP spoke out. “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy,” said Mitch McConnell. “Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, is highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”
Few would disagree, but my next thought was not be how dining with someone spewing hate speech impacts a person’s career advancement. That would be farther down the line after thinking about what the dinner means for the group that the speech effects. You know, actual Jews.
For Republican lawmakers, hate speech is more about what a condemnation means politically than what it means for a vulnerable group. The “credit” of disavowing hate speech must be balanced alongside the “debit” of cozying up to the GOP’s most popular VIP or not alienating similarly minded voters.
PBS asked 57 GOP lawmakers if they condemn the dinner. The response was far from universal, with a surprising number either not responding or performing some type of political calculation. Consider this grammatically incorrect but illustrative response from Senator John Thune: “Well, that’s just a bad idea on every level. I don’t know who is — who’s advising him on his staff, but I hope that whoever that person was got fired.”
The right’s understanding
The gift of Ye, if we can call it that, is showing us ways in which the right understands hate speech and the calculation that goes into condemning it.
Ye put antisemitism out in the open, forcing people to put their down dog whistles and to stop with the obfuscatory deliberations on what free speech means for democracy. They had to make a choice in context.
Ye as breach experiment shows the right seeing hate speech through an individual, egocentric lens. That’s a subversion of what hate speech should be about: recognizing the link between words and violence and the need to protect vulnerable minorities by placing boundaries on that speech.
That is not how the right sees it.
For many people on the right, the decision of condemning hate speech begins and ends with their own personal interests.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.