Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent anti-defamation league speech was quite a performance, even by his standards. In shrill, bordering on hysterical tones, he labelled large social media companies (including Facebook and Google) the ‘greatest propaganda machine in history’, responsible for the spread of ‘hate and violence’ around the world. If they were not curtailed, he warned, democracy, civilisation and indeed the very idea of truth itself would be threatened. This is high-octane alarmism.
According to Baron Cohen, our democracies ‘are on a precipice’ and the ‘next twelve months’ could be critical in their fate. In comparison to Baron Cohen, Greta Thunberg is a model of nuance, calmness and erudition.
While Baron Cohen’s speech has triggered a (predictable, but worthy) debate on free speech and censorship, for me its most interesting aspect is the window it provides into his world view. A world view, sadly, which is shared by many others.
For Baron Cohen, the ‘ultimate aim’ for society must be to ‘make sure people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray.’ This goal must take precedence over our traditional freedoms, including freedom of expression. Sure, he concedes that these are considered ends in themselves, but where they threaten the utopian ideal, the clear implication is that they must give way.
No one would question this motherhood statement, but if we unpack his argument in more detail we see he goes far further than this.
For Baron Cohen, all human knowledge of the world (both factual and speculative) and indeed all questions of value and social preference can be placed in one of two categories. In the first, we find what ‘truth’, the dictates of ‘empathy’ and the views of ‘experts’ sanction. This can be disseminated freely to the masses without any harm being done. In the second, we have ‘lies’, ‘prejudice’ and the views of ‘ignoramuses’. The latter, Baron Cohen implies, must be repressed, lest they trigger hate and conspiracy thinking.
Of course, an elite must determine what is safe to be disseminated. Baron Cohen calls on the social media firms to do this, but doubts their hearts will be in it. He coyly suggests that parliaments might step into the breach, but given his lack of faith in the wisdom and moderation of electorates, I suspect he would delegate this function to a selected few.
Only with this prophylactic in place, Baron Cohen argues, can democracy function properly. This is because democracy ‘depends on shared truths’. If the wrong kind of knowledge enters the public domain, he suggests, autocracy will prevail. The Age of Reason, which he calls ‘the era of evidential argument’, would end, to be replaced by a new barbarism. When I read this, I asked myself whether Baron Cohen was being serious. Had he created a new character? A parody of an intolerant, politically-correct, celebrity-philosopher? A cross between Derek Zoolander and Leonardo DiCaprio?
Baron Cohen’s case for a ‘curated’ democracy is not new, of course. Every would-be autocrat since Plato has offered the same argument. He is entitled to this perspective, but it is profoundly undemocratic and elitist. It is also dangerous. It is clear that Baron Cohen’s censors would not only repress obvious historical untruths, but also any view lying outside the political, cultural and scientific orthodoxy he favours.
Baron Cohen prides himself on his tolerance and love of diversity. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But like so many, he seems unable to apply these to the world of ideas. It is possible for decent, thoughtful people to question the progressive consensus without being bigots, Islamophobes or hostile to science. There is room for dissenting views. In this connection, Baron Cohen’s touchstone seems to be the Holocaust. His speech is peppered with references to this. While this is not surprising given the forum he was addressing, there was something disturbing about it for me. I do not doubt Baron Cohen’s sincerity for a second, but by invoking the Holocaust to buttress his wider case for censorship, he can’t help devaluing it a little (at least for me, as someone from a Jewish background). It reminded me of the high school debating whiz who plays the Holocaust card to defeat his opponent.
He also misses the point. No sane person denies the Holocaust. No sane person condones the denial of this tragedy. The question, as Mark Zuckerberg puts it, is where do you draw the line? Baron Cohen bats this away by aspersing his opponent’s motives. What Zuckerberg is really saying, according to the comedian, is that ‘removing these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive’. This is too cute by half. Far better to deal with this concern, which is shared by many, with the respect it deserves. When engaging in public debate, play the ball, not the man.
Baron Cohen rightly condemns crude conspiracy theories, but his attack on the Silicon Six (the heads of the major social media companies) has a distinct conspiratorial tinge. As he puts it, these profit-obsessed individuals spread hate and violence, caring ‘more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy’. If their propaganda machine is unchecked, they will ‘decide the fate of the world’ no less.
But this image has been conjured up many times before. The idea of a small group of amoral, all-powerful plutocrats fomenting hatred and war is a familiar one for those with a knowledge of history. It was a favoured anti-Semitic theme for Nazis and Bolsheviks. Yes, Baron Cohen has removed the Jewish element from his story, but the crude conspiracy, which is now an anti-capitalist one, remains.
Can Baron Cohen be entirely in earnest in this speech? I know I am wrong, but I can’t help hoping that he was in character after all. That this was a giant ruse to expose the intolerance of the righteous elites. Those who most loudly, and unthinkingly, applauded his message. As he says himself, his whole modus operandi as a performer is to ‘get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice’. Whose guard was let down this time?
But, no, I have a sinking feeling that he took the mask off for this one. It was as if Oscar Wilde stopped a performance of the Importance of Being Earnest to lecture the audience on the importance of public sanitation. When this happens, the spell is broken I am afraid. We might enjoy future performances, but some of the magic will have disappeared.