Calling Kanye West, ‘no stranger to controversy’ today feels like such a cliché to the point that I can sense your eyes rolling as you sounded out those four words in your head. Not to bash cliches too hard, after all the whole ‘I can sense your eyes rolling’ bit is hardly a stroke of originality on my part. Regardless, Kanye West, or Ye as he goes by today, has a history of spurring indignation from his flippant remarks. It hardly seems worth documenting them here as even the most blissfully unaware of readers I’m sure already has pictured in their minds one of his many outbursts. Ye’s comments historically often varied between unimaginable arrogance and deeply problematic notions. Though it is in recent years, since his failed run for president and rebirth as an evangelical Christian, that his statements have gone from deeply problematic to outright hate speech. It was this hate speech, more specifically a vitriolic streak of antisemitic tweets, that led to the initial banning of Ye’s Twitter account on the 9th of October (Levine 2022).
Ye and Elon Musk amongst many others including Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Nigel Farage and Ben Shapiro (great company to be amongst I know) are part of a crusade against a perceived ‘free speech crisis’. It is this ‘crisis’ that this article focuses on today. The views of Ye and others show an absolutist free speech perspective that is not supported in law nor is it morally defensible. We are however indeed in a ‘free speech crisis’, just not the one imagined in the minds of Ye and Musk. As this article will show, the real crisis is the capture of free speech rhetoric by those on the far right and the dishonest/ misunderstood use of such rhetoric in defence of unjustifiable beliefs. The claiming of censorship and invocation of free speech rhetoric in issues that are not prima facie free speech issues legitimises the perspective of the censorship claimant (Khan 2020). This article will start by establishing the contexts leading up to the banning of Ye from Twitter so the claim of censorship can be properly evaluated. Secondly I will move onto showing why free speech is valuable so we know what would justify restricting it. Finally I address the comments of Ye and why his claim of censorship is misguided.
First it’s important to look at how Ye has shifted in recent years to the radical positions he now holds. Ye was not always associated with the far right, the Republican Party and Donald Trump. In fact, up to 2015 Ye had expressed support for the Democrats with thousands of dollars donated to the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (Rosenberg 2021). The turning point where we first see the Ye we know today was his 2016 meeting with Donald Trump. Following the meeting, Ye continued to be a cheerleader for the now former president. He stated that he would have voted for Trump in 2016, had he actually voted (McKirdy & Allman 2016). In 2017, Ye appeared in a tweet sporting a ‘MAGA’ (Make America Great Again) cap. By 2019 Ye announced a recommitment to his Christian faith which seemed to increasingly shape his opinions especially regarding abortion with him taking an anti-choice stance. All this culminated with the announcement of Ye’s 2020 run for presidency on his platform of ‘Christian democracy’, anti-choice and “America First” diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, Ye’s presidential run ended in failure coming 7th overall with 0.04% of the popular vote, leading him to take a step back from politics (Ballotpedia 2020). This takes us to the current year where we have seen Ye’s further descent into the far right. More specifically this descent has been focused around an abhorrent and still ongoing series of violently antisemitic viewpoints.
In October 2022, Ye suggested on Instagram that fellow rapper Puff Daddy was under the control of Jewish executives in the music industry (Merlan 2022). Not long after, Ye stated on twitter he would go “death con [sic] 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE [sic]” (Levine 2022). Following these statements, both Ye’s Instagram and Twitter accounts were banned. From early to mid-October, Ye appeared in a series of interviews with the likes of Fox News Presenter Tucker Carlson, Hip-Hop podcast Drink Champs and Chris Cuomo (Former CNN presenter fired for sexual harassment allegations). Much of the Carlson interview went unaired due to the severity of Ye’s antisemitism during their discussion (Merlan 2022). On Drink Champs and with Chris Cuomo, Ye’s made two main points throughout both interviews. First, the claim that “Jewish people have owned the black voice […] especially in the music industry” (Centre on Extremism 2022). This of course playing off exhausted conspiratorial stereotypes regarding the supposed disproportionate influence of Jewish people in media organisations. The second main claim was that as a black person “we are Semite, we jew, so I can’t be antisemite [sic]” (Ibid.). This being a failed attempt to avoid accusations of antisemitism.
As a result of these subsequent comments and with media pressure, Adidas, Gap, Vogue, Balenciaga, Footlocker and T K Maxx dropped their respective deals with Ye causing him to lose his billionaire status (Reid 2022). According to Forbes (Ibid.) Ye’s net worth currently stands at $400 thousand. Despite Ye's actions following his initial Twitter ban, on the 20th of November Elon Musk reinstated Ye’s account (Sheets 2022). Ye chose to announce the ending of his suspension by tweeting “Shalom” (Sky 2022). Following his return to twitter, Ye began an association with white supremacist political commentator Nick Fuentes. Fuentes has been known for both denying the holocaust and praising Adolf Hitler, rhetoric which, as we shall soon see, Ye will come to replicate.
By far the most damning of incidents so far came with Ye and Fuentes appearance on Infowars, hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Ye spent a good deal of the interview discussing his admiration for Adolf Hitler stating he “See[s] good things about Hitler” (Massie 2022). The rapper expressed belief that “every human being has something of value that they brought to the table [sic], especially Hitler” (Ibid.). Unlike other far right figures who prefer to deny affiliation with Nazis and dog whistle far right talking points in order to be palatable to the mainstream right, Ye felt no need for this propriety. Ye initially claimed that “I love Jewish people but I also love Nazis” before later clarifying that “I am a Nazi” (Times of Israel 2022). Finally and most reprehensively, Ye claimed that “the holocaust is not what happened. Lets look at the facts of that […] He [Hitler] didn’t kill six million Jews. That’s factually incorrect” (Settles 2022). These statements as a well a tweet from Ye depicting the Star of David with a swastika inside it led to the now second suspension of Ye’s twitter account, this time by 'free speech absolutist' Elon Musk (The Jerusalem Post 2022).
The value of free speech
With the full story leading up to Ye’s removal from Twitter laid out, now this Juncture Review asks was Ye’s free speech violated? The assured answer of this article is no for a variety of reasons. First, Twitter as a private platform with their own terms of service is permitted to remove users who violate such terms. Secondly, Ye, as a multi-millionaire with massive outreach, has a greater capacity for communication than arguably most of the planet and so has a greater means of exercising free speech even without access to Twitter. Finally, the rhetoric of Ye constitutes such a clear harm that restrictions are justified, or put another way, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.
The point most pertinent in theoretical discussions of free speech today is the final one which will be the focus of this section. Before looking at why we ought to restrict harmful speech it is first important to note why free speech is valuable. The value of allowing free speech in society means we need to have strong reasons to want to restrict it. How we value free speech also has implications for how we think abouts its limits. Therefore the following will proceed with an outline of the value of free speech before looking at why harmful speech such as that from Ye supersedes the value of free speech and so justifies restrictions.
The value of free speech for individuals and society can be derived from multiple theories. One of the most prominent and longstanding theories comes from John Stuart Mill (2006/1859, pp. 22-63) who argues that free speech in society is necessary for the discovery of truth. Simply put, the more speech there is, the greater our chances of discovering truths. Even the increased prominence of false beliefs is permissible as Mill claims we develop an even greater understanding of true beliefs through the dispelling of false notions.
Mill’s conception of the value of free speech has been heavily scrutinised over the years however, especially his analogy of the ‘marketplace of ideas’. This puts forward the idea that people treat ideas similarly to goods in the market. As people use their ‘purchasing power’ to support good ideas, bad ideas fail and fade away as would poor products on the market. As has been noted by Gordon (1997), the marketplace analogy fails as unlike the idealistic market in the minds of libertarians, agents in the market of ideas do not have equal ‘purchasing power’. What is meant by this is that people have unequal access to the means of spreading ideas. Even with the rise of independent journalism and greater freedom of information, the main means of dispersing ideas is through institutions such as the media and academia. As a result, If I think the ideas spread in the media are ‘false’ and hope to dispel them with my own ‘true’ ideas, I would be unlikely to make any sort of difference. The unequal access to the means of spreading ideas cuts both ways. The spread of information being restricted to certain outlets meaning that people also do not receive as broad a spectrum of ideas. Control over the spread of ideas does not make the ideas being spread any more true and so under Mills theory it is surely a failure that we cannot engage with a multitude of other ideas not represented in mainstream institutions. If the spreading of ideas is a market then it has a monopoly problem.
Instead of Mill’s conception, we may choose to value free speech for its contribution to personal autonomy. Free speech as autonomy begins with an understanding of humans as having an interest in living autonomous lives (Barendt 2005, pp. 23-27). Living autonomously here means being the author of one’s own life by being able to freely frame, revise and pursue our own conception of the good. To do so, it benefits us to have access to as much information as possible so we can make our decisions in an informed way. Therefore, we would need strong reasons to want to restrict free speech as limiting the receiving of ideas and information would inhibit our ability to make decisions and live autonomous lives (Ibid., pp. 15-16). With our theory of free speech’s value laid out, this article will now show why Ye’s hate speech outweighs the value of autonomy.
Despite the value of free speech and its importance in many liberal democracies, there are still many legitimate reasons to limit speech. For example, many western democracies have laws in place restricting expression such as defamatory statements, incitements of violence and obscenities. These are often dependent on time, place and manner. For example, whilst one is free to write in a diary an unprovable statement about Rishi Sunak having an affair, publishing such a statement in a newspaper may open up one to prosecution for libellous speech.
Hate speech is another reason we may want to restrict freedom of speech. Indeed many liberal democracies, excluding the United States, already have laws in place for this very purpose. As already stated, we need strong reasons to want to restrict free speech due to its value towards autonomy. It is for this reason we cannot simply restrict speech we find problematic or even offensive. Instead we need a normatively justified reasoning that expresses why certain speech is so harmful as to outweigh the value of free speech. I believe that we can find this normative justification again in autonomy.
It is first worth noting this section starts with the assumption that public discourse is strongly linked to the functioning of society. More specifically, words are not simply ‘just words’ but shape what society values, how certain people are treated and how we form our opinions (Fairclough 2003). A society with a public discourse filled with statements of hate for a certain group of people is likely to treat such people poorly in social practices and policies. As a result, we must take words seriously as they have power in shaping the world around us. With that said, this section will show why autonomy gives us good reason to restrict hate speech by setting out a criteria for hate speech we can use to evaluate Ye’s comments.
A key aspect of autonomy is equal treatment. If autonomy is the ability to make, revise and pursue a conception of the good, this ability is hindered if one is not treated equally to those around them. For example, a white middle class man in 1950’s America has a far greater ability to exercise autonomy than a black woman. If such a woman found her conception of the good in the pursuit of higher education, there would be far greater barriers in place for her as for the man due to discriminatory attitudes furthered by hateful speech. Ideally all would have an equal ability to exercise their autonomy without being at a disadvantage to others.
There are reasons for restricting autonomy however that we find just such as prisons (this is of course a broad oversimplification as there are many normative issues with punishment that cannot be addressed here). So as well as restricting autonomy, the restriction of autonomy must also be for an unjustified reason such as a person’s immutable features (i.e. race, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc.
Finally it is worth noting that historical context must also be taken into account. What makes hate speech so impactful is the presence of historical oppression (Lawrence, Matsuda, Delgado & Crenshaw 1993, p. 8). A group that does not have a history of oppression cannot be the victim of hate speech. If I was heckled on the street by someone calling me a ‘cracker’, this is not a hate crime. This is because the connotations of the word ‘cracker’ is not linked to any sort of oppression as white people have historically held a dominant role in society. At most the person shouting at me on the street could be called rude but not a racist. Based off these three points we can conclude with a criteria for hate speech based on autonomy. This criteria asserts that statements that promote unequal treatment based on the immutable features of another group who has been subject to historical oppression are unjust as they restrict the autonomy of others without good reason.
Looking specifically at Ye’s statement that got him removed from Twitter, we can find that his banning was indeed not a violation of free speech but a just restriction on expression due to hate speech. The statement that lead to his first ban (“death con [sic] 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE [sic]”) is a clear example of this. ‘DEFCON’ (Defence Readiness Condition) is the alert state of the United States military and goes from 5 to 1, the lower the number the more imminent the threat (Department of Defence 2001). DEFCON 3 specifically means an increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness with the air force ready to mobilise in 15 minutes (Ibid.). The last time this level was reached was during the September 11th attacks (Arkin & Windrem 2016). The invocation of such intense alertness and readiness for violence should be startling.
I believe this fits the criteria for hate speech as outlined above. First it is targeted at Jewish people where there is a prominent history of oppression and marginalisation. Secondly Jewish ethnicity is an immutable feature. The case of religious rather than ethnic Jewish people is not as clear cut but a distinction can still be made. Religion is unlike other preferences we have in life and I argue is closer to an immutable feature or way of life than a preference. Consider the following comparison of thought experiments.
As much as I like Greggs sausage rolls, if in some horrifying future in which Greggs closed due to bankruptcy, I would not find my way of life altered all too greatly. I can very easily get my sausage and pastry from hot food counters at the Co-op or Morrisons. Even if there was a country wide shortage of sausage rolls and they weren’t available anywhere near me, I would still be happy with an alternative snack such as a croissant or steak bake. This is because my choice of what to eat in this situation is a mere preference. The case of religion is far more different. For example, we can imagine a church-going Christian on a small island in the Pacific which contains a church, synagogue and a mosque. For the sake of the thought experiment, this particular Christian expresses their faith through church attendance and would not feel fulfilled simply praying at home. If the church on the island shut down and the next nearest church involved a long flight to the west coast of America, it would not comfort the Christian if they were told other religions are available. What solace would it be to this Christian that they can get their ‘faith kicks’ in from the other religions on the island. This is because religion in most cases is more akin to an immutable feature or a way of life than a simple preference. We can therefore include religious Jewish people in our analysis.
Finally, the statement clearly undermines equal treatment through the incitement of violence towards a certain group of people. Of those who hear and agree with the sentiment of Ye’s statements, their agreement may manifest in general discriminatory attitudes towards Jewish people they interact with in their lives. Therefore, Ye’s statement undermines equality for a historically oppressed group which restricts their autonomy as they are more likely to face discriminatory attitudes when pursuing their conceptions of the good.
Overall, the banning of Ye from Twitter can be justified as Ye engaged in hate speech according to the criteria developed in this article. When considering his most recent comments on Jewish people, all are of course targeted at a group based on immutable features with a history of being subject to oppression. Not all his remarks meet the final criteria of undermining equality but as this article argues his “death con 3 [sic]” comment qualifies as a threat to equality and therefore autonomy. Unfortunately this article could not address other comments from Ye such as his denial of the holocaust but this raises separate important questions about historical denialism which would deviate from the central argument of this article too far to be addressed adequately.
This account of free speech presented here as being valuable due to its contribution to autonomy is by no means definitive or even the best justification for free speech. It relies on an inherently liberal notion of human nature which sees people as individuals primarily concerned with the pursuit of their distinct ends. Alternative conceptions of free speech which take into account our nature as social beings are possible but for the purposes of this article, the autonomy account is sufficient.
As a final comment, we are in a ‘free speech crisis’. Not the one imagined by Ye and Musk but one caused by their free speech absolutism. Framing in the media often sets the free speech conflict as a fight between those on the right who are firmly committed to free speech against those on the left who want to restrict free speech and so do not support it. In reality free speech does not do society more good the less it is restricted. One can value and support free speech whilst also wanting it to have some restrictions and that does not make one an opponent of free speech. Despite this, the current framing sees any call for regulation as being an attack on the concept of free speech as a whole. Until we can get past this framing, this ‘crisis’ is set to continue.
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