We are presently developing an editorial policy. This roundtable is a discussion of how to handle political differences in a multi-tendency organization and our role as an editorial board in that process.
Evan Heitkamp Boucher
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Co-Editor, International Affairs
In the first few weeks at the newly-formed Democratic Socialists of America digital platform, there have been two coordinated online calls for piece or author removal from the now-legacy Democratic Left blog.
It is impossible to speak to the specifics of every individual’s reasoning for taking down articles. Yet the core underlying theory behind the removal demands seems to be that some pieces or people are just too dangerous or personally offensive be legitimized by a left platform. The problem with arguing for censure of dangerous “problematic” material as a matter of service to others is that it presupposes readers are highly suggestible and waiting to change their minds or suffer emotional trauma after reading something unless they’re protected by an ad hoc vanguard.
Personal offense, though, is not something that should be dismissed, because often both the reasons to be upset and the feelings themselves are perfectly valid and often are responses to the networks of oppression we’re fighting to undo. However, published articles mark a viewpoint that can be disputed on this same platform, which is a far more powerful method to weaken ill-conceived positions than simply removing them.
While the goal of the platform should be to shepherd content that explores key issues within left politics—thus avoiding the facile debates so often found on cable television that value of right wing or self-described “centrist” commentary for its own sake— this exploration does not assert that contentious material on the periphery of the left has no place, only that it should be vigorously discussed. That said, no piece on the platform should be so abominable that it puts the onus on marginalized groups to explain the value of bedrock ethics.
The true marker for removal is bad faith, not bad opinions and that standard is critical. In the meantime, the editorial team intends to articulate a clear policy moving forward to avoid publishing material that sits outside of the moral tenets of the DSA.
Co-Editor, Arts & Culture
This publication differs from other publications in that we are accountable to our readership, members in an organization that has specific political and ethical tenets at its core. It is not censorship to develop editorial policy that takes this special relationship into account, or to acknowledge that demands for a more transparent and accountable editorial process are completely on the mark.
No-platforming, open letters and demands for article removal are crucial if controversial elements of fighting fascism. We should acknowledge these efforts as a form of discourse, while acknowledging that we have a responsibility to represent the broad diversity of thought within the organization itself.
The blog editors will work closely together over the next month to articulate a policy which thoughtfully outlines ethical standards for publication. The policy must include generous guidelines for the range of acceptable rhetoric for the publication, and include the right to suggest the removal or editing of portions of text not in line with the most fundamental of Democratic Socialist beliefs, as defined by existing DSA documents. If the issue cannot be resolved, the editorial board reserves the right to not publish the article.
I’m going to speak to the particularities of one recent controversy: the Open Letter to Democratic Left made in response to the February 2018 article “The Future China-U.S. Competition and Democratic Socialism.”
While the former committee published the piece, the petition is addressed “to DSA’s editorial team, regardless of personnel changes.” Our new committee is in the process of establishing an editorial policy and publication guidelines, but this petition and its nearly 200 signatories deserve a direct response. The petition, Open Letter to Democratic Left, is in part an analysis of what the petitioners perceive to be political line expressed by the article in question.
The petitioners argue that the article “bills democratic socialism as a means to solidifying U.S. global domination in the face of China’s growing influence,” a position they say “is national chauvinist to the core” because “it pits the U.S. working class against the Chinese working class.”
They conclude that the piece “reifies national chauvinism,” “trades heavily in anti-Chinese prejudice” at a time when there is a “a sharpening of hostility toward East Asian nations.”
These arguments as to the nature of socialism and the socialist orientation to questions of nationalism and imperialism attempt to confront key political questions and are clearly reflective of political tendencies within DSA. That’s good, and the petitioners should be commended for their insight and hard work.
However, the views expressed by the original article are also reflective of a political tendency within DSA and they too are an attempt to address political questions. The article begins with the premise, “the US and China will compete more directly both economically and politically in the next decade.” This is a political fact, evidenced most recently by the open tariff battle between the two nations.
However, what this political fact means and how socialists are to orient to this dynamic are up for discussion. By putting the politics in command and making an argument, whether one agrees with the positions espoused or not, the original article on China surfaced a political line and created the opportunity for political differences to manifest and be engaged.
We must not suppress and censor the political line being put forward. Instead, we need the democratic method of discussion and persuasion. The object is not to police what can be said in our group, our purpose is to win people over in the process of winning political victory in society as a whole. Conflict among the people in the course of that journey is inevitable, and we cannot suppress and censor our way to social transformation.
Therefore, we cannot comply with the petition’s demand for the “immediate removal of the piece from Democratic Left and any other DSA publication.” DSA needs more political discussion, not less. The only hope for our organization is to put politics in command, to engage across political differences through the democratic method. We must not squander our historic opportunity before us, and this platform will be a space for rising to the challenge.
Co-Editor (Press and Electoral)
I generally agree with the above, (1) that censorship or removal is an extreme step that demands extreme circumstances and (2) that the DSA is an ideologically varied organization committed to debate and democratic process and our platform should reflect that.
I’m also glad Miranda wrote that "No-platforming, open letters and demands for article removal are crucial if controversial elements of fighting fascism" that should be acknowledged.
I doubt that we’d find many DSA members who take issue with any of those three points in the abstract.
As commented above, the response to this petition should articulate clear policy about where the line is for Democratic Left-published content—what speech is simply not allowed and what standards are applied to submitted work and authors. It should also make clear how and by whom those standards are enforced and the process to contest decisions.
Additionally, comments above mention more speech as the best antidote to bad speech, but that response is inadequate unless paired with changes to website functionality, for a couple of reasons:
- Unless a piece links to past articles and is updated with future articles both on and off the DSA website, a casual reader lacks context of how an individual piece is situated in ongoing intra-DSA and intra-left debates.
- The DSA blog lacks comment sections, letters to the editor, or other traditional ways readers engage and respond with content. Admittedly, the barrier to submit and publish on the blog is lower than a major newspaper, but it is still an intimidating and perhaps unlikely course of action for a member looking to meaningfully respond to a piece in their spare time.
We should use our current dilemma to inform the changes we’ll be making to the blog platform:
How can we collate and organize content such that
- any individual piece comes with the full context of ongoing debate?
- topics can be viewed, consumed and understood holistically?
- How can we facilitate response, debate, and discussion?
- Should users be able to flag content as offensive, needing response, lacking context, or beyond the pale? Conversely, as well-researched, striking, actionable or not-heard-about-enough?
In solving these questions, I think we have an opportunity to do something unique and beneficial for online publishing. We can be leaders in creating a readership-accountable and -responsive publication that fosters meaningful online debate and builds an accessible, member-directed repository of knowledge.
I have a deep discomfort with the idea of removing any piece already published. In general, I’m with R.L. above; the solution to speech we dislike is more speech, ideally from multiple voices. I think Miranda’s general guidelines are useful, but my stomach twisted when she spoke of “the removal or editing of portions of text not in line with the most fundamental of Democratic Socialist beliefs, as defined by existing DSA documents.”
To remove a piece as requested feels like a broken promise, on both sides. Writing is labor, and time is often costly. When someone agrees to write for us, they’re contributing both. To remove a piece because of its ideas is too close to censorship for me to affirm it.
New York, NY
Managing Editor, Co-editor (Organizing)
It would be difficult to make the case that the Democratic Socialists of America hasn’t seen a leftward shift over the past thirty or so months. For better or for worse, DSA remains a multi-tendency political organization, and it’s a safe assumption that at any given time most of us organize with Berniecrats and Leninists alike.
We’re certainly not a liberal organization, though, and I regret that, for a moment or two, I may sound like an acolyte of John Stuart Mill (I promise: I am not). Our multi-tendency character might well be what allows us to build a mass working class movement, but it also means we’ll need to be prepared to weather the occasional bad take without demanding total erasure.
We’ll also need to afford those who have previously had less-than-stellar takes the opportunity to make good faith contributions to the conversations we present in our various forums, and it’s our job as the editorial committee to discern which perspectives are disagreeable and which downright oppressive.
We hope we can do right by DSA’s membership, but this is a question of editorial policy as well as one of doing politics: our job as organizers is to meet folks where they’re at, and hopefully we can move them accordingly. We’re not perfect, but at its core DSA is fundamentally an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist organization, and our materials should reflect that.
While we will increase the level of scrutiny to which we subject our commissioned articles, we will not remove pieces from our website, barring extraordinary circumstances. Our committee will soon articulate a new editorial policy that we hope most members will find both conscientious and fair, one that allows for disagreement and debate while also ensuring that published texts cohere to the politics of our organization, however broadly-defined they may at times be.