The social media network Gab and its CEO Andrew Torba are divisive to say the least. Gab is seen as a free speech alternative to giants like Twitter by some, and as a haven for far-right anti-Semitism by others. Lately, however, it’s also gained the reputation of being a haven of censorious puritans.
On 7 November 2019, GabTrends, the network’s main Twitter account, uploaded this post (since deleted), citing a 2013 article from the Future of Freedom Foundation about pornography and the First Amendment: “Pornography is not speech any more than flag burning is, regardless of the tortured interpretations of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court over the years in an attempt to ‘protect’ certain activities by classifying them as ‘speech.'”
The account owner linked to a video by Vincent James of the Red Elephants (uploaded the same day), titled “How Pornographers Destroyed the Patriarchy and the West.” The replies and reactions to the tweet express disgust and ridicule at what was seen as both apologia for censorship and prudish grandstanding. Defenders, however, retorted that the company has a right to choose what to allow on its platform, that it only shares content of interest to its users, and reiterated earlier statements by Torba himself that NSFW content was still permitted, though the terms of service suggest otherwise.
Gab doubled down on these points in the days and weeks that followed. On 19 November, for instance, the Twitter account promoted an article by Zak Slayback from the Daily Caller‘s “American Renewal” section, titled “Libertarians Are Wrong About Pornography. Don’t Let Them Control the Conversation.” On 6 December, it promoted US Representative Jim Banks’ push for overt government censorship of obscenity, for the purported good of society and, especially, of children.
The network’s owners continued to double down on such rhetoric, even lashing out at the libertarians who had previously defended them. These actions not only betray the censorious agenda of the people involved, but also reflect a worrisome development in the culture wars: the emergence—or rather re-emergence—of the puritan moral guardians.
It doesn’t take too much effort nowadays to find ideologues pushing censorious rhetoric—not just about pornography, but about anything deemed degenerate or otherwise harmful. These ideologues are highly reminiscent of the moral guardians of yesteryear. Just as crucially, the distinction between them and their supposed enemies on the left is increasingly nonexistent.
What Was Old Is New Again
The latter-day puritans of 2019, especially in the Anglophone west, are a motley collection. They include so-called groypers (who follow figures like Nicholas Fuentes), ultra-traditionalists, elements of the old guard religious right and members of the far-right. What brings such disparate groups and individuals together is a sense of anger at what they perceive as the decline of civilization, combined with a desire to return to a sane, traditional worldview, usually with Judeo-Christian pretensions. Whether or not they actually follow the rules they advocate is irrelevant, so long as others do so.
Puritanism has a long history. The past century alone has witnessed the Hays Code in America and the United Kingdom’s video nasties scare, while, more recently, we’ve seen video game violence hysteria and claims that Harry Potter is pagan propaganda. That censorship policies—like Prohibition—simply enable more abuses (in the form of black markets and underground crimes, for example) or harm the people and industries (such as film and comics) they supposedly protect, doesn’t help. There have, unsurprisingly, been myriad crusades against porn, including those pushed by the group Morality in Media (renamed the National Center on Sexual Exploitation/NCOSE in 2015) and its co-founder, Fr. Morton A. Hill, S.J., in the 1960s–80s. Their claims that sleaze presented a danger to society eventually led to President Reagan’s infamous Meese Commission, which tried to present the issue as a moral and public health concern. By 1987, this had degenerated into a humiliating farce—though that didn’t stop the activists from continuing to riff on the evils of what would be called NSFW material today.
The puritans nowadays are savvier than those of yesteryear. The likes of Fuentes use social media to attract followers and spread their rhetoric. They are also able to tap into the growing backlash against those on the left who are pushing increasingly radical stances. They similarly exploit how, though many people consume porn and NSFW material, few will publicly defend them. Other puritans appeal to legal technicalities and pseudoscientific claims about the harms caused by pornography, which allegedly include everything from erectile dysfunction to increased sexism. However, their underlying rationale remains in certain respects remarkably similar to that of their predecessors. Like them, they invoke degeneracy, conflate just about any degree of use with addiction, make moralistic appeals to God and invoke the preservation of the west. Their claims remain as false as before. There is no reliable proof to back them up, as Christopher J. Ferguson has pointed out.
It would be folly, though, to simply see these folks as merely the old moral busybodies in current year garb. They not only have more in common with their erstwhile enemies than they would ever admit—they increasingly are what they hate.
As tempting as it may be to frame the puritans and their identity politics activist foes as a textbook example of horseshoe politics, this is not quite accurate. Few would mistake radical feminists and intersectional ideologues for ultra-traditionalists and the far-right, given their different foundations and belief systems. This is more of an ouroboros: a serpent eating its tail, forming a closed circle where the ends blur together.
These puritans share many tactics and an underlying mindset with their supposed opposition. One need only look at Gab’s immature ok coomer retorts and the comments of artists and professionals who have been smeared by moralists. These antics are becoming almost indistinguishable from those of Social Justice Warriors, who attack comic artists for supposed sexism in art. We can see the same attitude in play in Zak Slayback’s piece. The censorious policies implemented in the United Kingdom are held up as examples for the US to emulate—a move that has ramifications far beyond pornography. These arguments, coincidentally, are rather similar to the thinly-veiled ode to censorship that is Sasha Baron Cohen’s recent ADL keynote address on bigotry and hate speech.
In an echo of the purity spirals among progressive ideologues in the social sciences, the disdain among puritan moral guardians for those on the right who don’t share their views is almost as pronounced as their grievances against Marxists and the left. Spite is levelled at libertarians, moderate conservatives, classical liberals and other Christians (whether or not they share the same moral stance), among others, for seemingly enabling degenerates. This is not unlike the tendency among identity politics activists to treat gays who don’t agree with them as gender traitors. The scope of what constitutes degeneracy has also expanded. Gab has expressed ire towards nerds for not having babies, while Matt Walsh uses porn censorship to push for his idea of what conservatism ought to be. This parallels the leftist tendency to see everything as sexist or racist.
The same could be said of the moral puritans’ myriad ideal visions for society. It’s not just about the porn. These self-appointed crusaders seem to have little time for women’s rights, tolerance of other views or, ironically, traditional aspects of American civic culture, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, they hearken back to some interpretation of the good old days, when everyone knew their place, God was in his heaven and all was right in an ordered world. If their skewed ideals were actually implemented, however, the result would be less like a 1950s postcard and more like a Christianized take on sharia law and post–1979 Iran—the kind of world depicted in Victoria: A Novel of Fourth-Generation Warfare or The Handmaid’s Tale. Such fantasies are no more realistic than those of the people advocating a global ban on hate speech or justifying pedophilia.
Radical feminists and sex-negative crusaders like NCOSE have found common cause in pushing for censorship for decades, even at the expense of sex workers. It’s becoming hard to tell their rhetoric apart at times, especially when such ideologues resort to either government-enforced or activist-induced means of stifling liberties. This is no longer a case of left versus right: it’s about two variations on the same theme. Whether they are fighting sexism, upholding the word of God, defending children or saving people from themselves, the actions of the puritans, regardless of political affiliation, speak for themselves. To see such trends as partisan and associate them with one side or the other, in accordance with their current perceived cultural dominance (or lack thereof) is to miss the point.
One can have moral disagreements on topics like pornography. But it is quite another matter to exploit such concerns to justify censorship and moralistic control over the rest of society—no matter which end of the ouroboros such justifications stem from. Unless these moral puritans are confronted head on, history may repeat itself—and many will be the worse off for it.