“I disavow” has become almost a joke these days. In internet circles — and YouTube in particular — sometimes the “I” is dropped and the speaker simply says “disavow,” after some story is told of people committing acts of dubious legality.
This trend on YouTube is only treated as a joke because of the obvious absurdity of their policies. Talking about a subject is not the same as agreeing with either position, but algorithms and similarly linguistically-challenged individual often can’t tell the difference. We know from Christine Brophy’s research that those most inclined to censor tend to be people with great trouble understanding what is being said. A depiction of something is treated as advocacy.
To date, this is why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is among the most banned books in America for — of all things — racism.
…racist, coarse, trashy, inelegant, irreligious, obsolete, inaccurate, and mindless.Public Commissioners of Concord, MA on Huckleberry Finn, (1885)
This is like banning 1984 for advocating totalitarianism. And the cost is obvious to anyone who knows anything about literature.
All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.Ernest Hemmingway
But this is where we find ourselves.
In the last four years, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other major platforms have regularly demonetized or completely deleted posts and accounts which go against their ever-changing Terms of Service. Often, there is no appeal or recourse.
Anyone with any decent-sized audience must say that they disavow violence, that they disavow this or that group, or condemn a particular behavior. If they do not, they risk excommunication, ostracism, and expulsion from “polite society.”
This online trend mirrors the way in which journalists in TV-land ask politicians to “condemn” things. Trump has famously condemned white supremacists upwards of thirty times in public. Joe Biden received much flak from the right for refusing to condemn — or even really acknowledge — Antifa. It seems that before any debate begin, everyone attempts to arrange the board in advance by pushing certain conclusions and behaviors off the table. “Disavowed.” “Condemned.”
The meaning of “condemning” and “disavowing” is not just to disagree with something. In the modern political landscape, disavowal and condemnation is more akin to condemnation of a building: it is to declare it unfit for occupation.
Disavowing and condemning a position is not to reject the idea after entertaining it, but to reject it as unfit for entertainment.
This is the sort of standard one would expect from people who have to see things in black-and-white. But reality is not black-and-white. At least, it isn’t only black-and-white. A depiction of something is not always an endorsement. And those who cannot make that distinction are in an even worse position to pass judgment on what is right or wrong in the first place.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance
Condemnation and denunciation don’t help anyone come closer to the truth. Even if the idea being denounced is wrong, denunciation doesn’t help kill it. If the speaker does not understand the idea, then the denunciation only maintains his ignorance; if the speaker does understand the idea, then his denunciation is superfluous, and weaker than an actual argument.
One might even reasonably argue that “condemnation” and “disagreement” are mutually exclusive, since disagreement implies an understanding of the matter in question, whereas condemnation precludes ever coming to understand the subject. Denunciation and condemnation are required in order to divorce the speaker from the condemned position, so taking the time to fully grasp an idea such that one can meaningfully “disagree” necessarily requires one to fail to condemn in the first place.
Only cowards and idiots demand that others condemn and disavow ideas that they disagree with.
But condemnation and disavowal make cowards and idiots of us all.
If you want to really go after an idea, to really destroy it, here’s how you do it: don’t condemn, but connect.
I offer the following example.
Daryl Davis is a black man and a blues musician.
He is also a “Member in Good Standing” of the Ku Klux Klan.
This is, of course, not to imply that Davis is in any way a believer in the Klan’s ideology (this would be the natural and ridiculous presumption of a black-and-white thinker). Far from it. Davis is probably the most effective enemy of the KKK’s ideology alive and operating today.
Does he condemn the KKK?
He certainly doesn’t condemn its members. Instead, he befriends them.
Davis can give a better and more accurate summary of the beliefs and ideology of Klan-members than 99% of Americans can. He doesn’t “condemn” or “disavow” the Klan because he doesn’t have to. As a matter of courage and intellectual development, his method — hearing what KKK members have to say — is far more effective as a means for combating their ideology than blithe statements of approval or disapproval divorced from any interest in the matter.
But who has the courage to actually listen to what a Klan member might have to say, and the respect to take their arguments seriously? Who is willing to consider that the KKK might actually be right about some things?
Only someone with that kind of intellectual courage and curiosity can combat ideologies effectively.
This is not to say that the effects of condemnation aren’t painful. They certainly are. Disavowal and ostracism are enough to drive many people away from beliefs they might hold — or at least from publicly acknowledging what their true beliefs are. But the price of this short-term payoff is that you punish courage and intelligence while rewarding obedience and cowardice.
In the long term, it will take courage and intelligence to maintain one’s own ideology and argument, even if you are in the right.
And the disavowers and condemners don’t even know if they’re right or not.
How could they?
They condemn before they have the chance to find out.
The world’s a tough place, and we all have to live. As it stands, many of the tech giants and other cultural institutions all but require disavowals and condemnations if you are to maintain your existence on their platforms. Schools too. Banks, airlines, and travel corporations are heading in that direction. Ultimately, we all have to make our own choices, and some people are going to have to “disavow” aspects of their own past, even if they emerged wiser from it. But to whatever degree is possible, it is better not to disavow, not even to disavow things with which we disagree.
Condemnation is not the path of freedom, but compliance. Disavowal is the language of compulsion, not argumentation.
To whatever degree possible, we should do our best to disavow disavowal itself. For our own courage and intellectual growth, we should condemn condemnation.
The only people who should be preemptively dismissed from the conversation are the people who attempt to pressure everyone else to condemn and disavow. That compulsion to induce compliance ahead of time is a sure sign that the maturity, intelligence, and curiosity necessary for an adult conversation are lacking.