If you follow the inner workings of internet journalism, you’ve probably heard about the recent shuttering of Gawker.com, the centerpiece website of the Gawker Media empire that includes several other popular websites (specifically: Jezebel, Deadspin, Gizmodo, Kotaku, Lifehacker, and Jalopnik). Those other websites will be consolidated into the Fusion Media Group, owned by Spanish-language conglomerate Univision Communication, Inc., but Gawker.com itself, as of early this week, ceased operations.
Univision chose to shut down Gawker after a successful ownership bid in a bankruptcy auction, which was the result of Gawker being sued by former wrestler Hulk Hogan for invasion of privacy after the website posted a video of him having sex without his consent. Industry observers claim the lawsuit was bankrolled by tech mogul and libertarian activist Peter Thiel, who made it his mission to destroy Gawker after they outed him as gay in 2007.
Because of the salacious nature of the lawsuit, most of the reactions from Christians in my social media have been muted, if any reaction at all – usually some combination of “meh” and “good riddance.”
But I think as Christians, we ought to be concerned about the implications of this series of events.
Now, let me be absolutely clear – I am in no way defending the kind of invasion of privacy that precipitated the lawsuit. I’m generally opposed to sex tapes in general, much less distributing them online without the subject’s consent. And I’ve never been a regular Gawker reader, mostly because celebrity gossip just isn’t my thing. I stumbled into the controversy because I’m a sports fan and a regular reader of the Gawker Media blog Deadspin, which is, itself, no stranger to controversy.
So on one level, the immediate result of this whole affair makes me happy, because I think people need to be held accountable for their actions, and most of what I’ve seen at Gawker is tawdry celebrity gossip. But process and the implication of this affair, meaning how it came about and what it might mean for the future… that’s what should concern all Christians.
A targeted campaign
The Gawker saga is troubling because it illustrates the extent to which income inequality is a threat to free speech and a balanced political process. Peter Thiel got a lot of press because of his crusade against Gawker (and because he’s espoused a lot of ideas that are just plain out there) but he’s hardly the only wealthy individual who looks for test cases he can fund in the pursuit of his ideological goals. It happens on both ides of the aisle — George Soros, the Koch Brothers, even entrepreneur and legal activist Edward Blum has gotten into the act, a man who started out as a stockbroker and is responsible for challenging both affirmative action and a landmark civil rights ruling at the Supreme Court level… and now, Peter Thiel.
One of my Facebook friends put it thusly:
I’m concerned that what people will remember about Gawker is that they posted a sex tape and got sued into oblivion, and forget (or never know) that the process was at least as much about one rich person’s vendetta as anything else.
Yes, what Gawker did was a reprehensible violation of privacy, but that was peanuts compared to what started this vendetta from Thiel, a blog post written by a Gawker writer who assumed Thiel was already out as a gay man because it was common knowledge among a circle of Silicon Valley intelligentsia. If you read the previous link, there’s ample, albeit circumstantial, evidence to think that Peter Thiel mostly was just tired of being embarrassed by Gawker’s regular targeting of him as a powerful figure.
And if the idea of a rich man lashing out after being embarrassed seems familiar, it should come as no surprise that Peter Thiel is a supporter of Donald Trump.
And that’s really what concerns me the most.
The Trump Effect
One of the many damaging side effects of Donald Trump’s run for president – of which, even a cursory overview would require a whole separate post – is that among a certain segment of progressive and/or liberal America, Trump’s brand of arrogant, insufferable, hardline, obstructionist conservatism is virtually indistinguishable from orthodox Christianity.
And because Trump himself has been known to say many inflammatory things, including sometimes inciting others toward violence, it’s at least somewhat understandable that, again, among a certain segment of liberals, public statements of adherence to Christian doctrine can be interpreted less as religious proclamation and more as dangerous hate speech. So it should come to no surprise that there are movements afoot to litigate Christian organizations out of existence merely for adhering to their convictions.
I keep using qualifiers like “some” because there are still many progressive civil liberty advocates who ascribe to the Oliver Wendell Holmes adage that freedom of thought is especially important to protect the thought and speech that we despise.
But the tide may be turning. The proliferation of safe space language on college campuses has the potential to morph into a form of political censorship, where anything that threatens a particular worldview is automatically branded as unsafe hate speech. And to be honest, it won’t bother me too much if a group of college students think my belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation is regressively shackled to the religious patriarchy, but what if instead it’s a massively wealthy atheist technocrat with an axe to grind about anything explicitly Christian?
Or what if he is a presidential candidate? Because one of the few realistic Donald Trump campaign promises is his promise to weaken libel laws so that he can sue any news organization that prints or broadcasts a point of view that he doesn’t like. Indeed, it seems that process has already started.
Peter Thiel’s crusade against Gawker might’ve appeared righteous because his opponents came off as unlikeable jerks who work for a website hellbent on embarrassing people. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who is embarrassed enough and rich enough should be able to suppress speech that they don’t like.
It’s important to remember that the winds of public opinion will not always blow on the side of those who support the transmission of the gospel – especially since, as Paul reminded us, it seems dumb to people who haven’t yet received it.
So it behooves us to be vigilant about protecting the concept of principled dissent – even when the dissenters are jerks and scumbags.
If we fail to do so, and we become the dissenters instead, then we might eventually find, like German pastor Martin Niemoller, that there is no one left to speak for us.