Of all the grievances erupting against Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, perhaps the most telling is the complaint that, back in 2015, they failed to suppress presidential candidate Donald Trump's call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."
This kvetch was expressed in a recent front-page The New York Times investigation, which griped, "Trump's call to arms—widely condemned by Democrats and some prominent Republicans—was shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook, an illustration of the site's power to spread racist sentiment."
The complaint demonstrates the ever-expanding definition of the word "racist." Muslims, after all, can be of any race. Anti-Muslim bigotry is wrong, and racism is wrong, but even if the two biases have much in common, that doesn't mean they are the same thing. The Soviet Communists pioneered the use of the racism slur to tar political enemies, championing the 1975 United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring "Zionism is a form of racism." The Soviet Union was defeated and the resolution eventually repealed, but the tactic, alas, endures.
The complaint also signals the persistence of the belief that the way to deal with offensive or incorrect speech is to smother it rather than to rebut it. This, too, is a view more compatible with totalitarianism that with freedom. It suggests an insecurity, a lack of confidence that one's own ideas are strong enough to overcome alternative views. It leads to the establishment of central authorities with power to decide which views are acceptable for publication or broadcast, and which are not.
Relatedly, the complaint betrays a low opinion of the American electorate.
One view of the situation might be, "The American voters aren't bigots. If the voters see a politician making a racist appeal, that appeal is likely to backfire by hurting the candidate politically. Hiding the appeal just helps the racist politician by covering up his racist blunder." Call that the idealistic view.
Another view would be, "The American voters are a bunch of bigots. If the voters see a politician making a racist appeal, that appeal is likely to help the candidate politically. Hiding the appeal hurts the racist politician by restricting his ability to communicate his racist message with the vast audience of racist voters." Call that the cynical view.
Facebook and other large media organizations had an opportunity earlier this month for a re-do of this episode, or at least a chance to make a new decision about something arguably similar. This time around, they chose the suppression route. NBC, Facebook, CNN, and Fox News all in the end chose to reject a Trump campaign commercial that CNN described as "racist." The ad featured the migrant caravan moving through Mexico and also a convicted cop-killer named Luis Bracamontes who is an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
In the critiques of the caravan-cop-killer commercial, as in those of the Muslim-ban Facebook post, there's an expansive definition of racism. Hispanics, after all, can be of any race. Anti-immigrant bigotry is wrong, and racism is wrong, but that doesn't mean they are the same thing. Here, too, there's an implicit low estimation of American voters, a fear that they are so susceptible to racist appeals, so easily swayed, that they've got to be kept far away from such a commercial. And there's a quaint reliance on the idea of central authority—as if, just by preventing this ad from airing on CNN, Facebook, and Fox News, it's also going to be somehow kept off YouTube, or Twitter, or email, or newspaper front pages.
Both the Muslim ban and the caravan ad go to genuine political issues—the threats of extremist Islamist terrorism, of illegal immigration, and of violent crime. These are issues that both parties have struggled to solve completely. Declaring peremptorily that voters concerned about such issues are racist, that these issues are outside the bounds of acceptable discourse, or that emotional appeals by political candidates on these issues should be suppressed seems a recipe for a politics that is even more volatile. It's "basket of deplorables" and "bitter clingers," the domestic politics of contempt all over again.
That doesn't mean that there aren't some real racists out there, or that businesses can't choose for themselves to impose standards for acceptable advertising. But it does mean that those who have a real interest in promoting tolerance, or reciprocity, toward immigrants, whether Mexican or Muslim, might do that cause some service by examining their own biases and stereotypical assumptions about their fellow American voters.