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This was met with sheer delight from many conservatives, libertarians, and others on the right. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for example, heralded Musk’s Twitter takeover as “one of the most significant developments for free speech in modern times.” Right-wing media stars like Ben Shapiro similarly celebrated the takeover.
I myself was optimistic, although more cautiously so. Yet since actually assuming control of Twitter, Musk’s taken a decidedly different approach to what true free speech advocates hoped.
The CEO’s latest free speech controversy comes, of course, in the context of the never-ending culture war over transgender issues. While it’s not commonly used in daily life, the term “cisgender,” or “cis,” is increasingly used in academia, media, and various progressive spaces to describe people who are not transgender—a.k.a. people whose gender identity matches their birth sex. Some people, particularly those who lean to the right on the debate over transgender issues, reject this term and do not wish to be called “cisgender.”
The “free speech” approach would be to let proponents use the term and let critics critique it. Then… there’s Elon’s new approach.
One Twitter user complained after tweeting that he doesn’t like being called “cis,” many people flooded his replies calling him, well, “cis.” (Welcome to Twitter, folks. Trolling isn’t a reason to tweet, it’s the only reason.) In response to this random post, Musk announced a new Twitter policy that will treat “cisgender” as a slur and suspend users who repeatedly use the term to describe someone who doesn’t want to be called it.
Repeated, targeted harassment against any account will cause the harassing accounts to receive, at minimum, temporary suspensions.
The words “cis” or “cisgender” are considered slurs on this platform.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 21, 2023
“Repeated, targeted harassment against any account will cause the harassing accounts to receive, at minimum, temporary suspensions,” Musk tweeted. “The words ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ are considered slurs on this platform.”
This is bizarre and absurd for a number of reasons.
For one, the idea that “cisgender” is a slur is kind of silly. While some people view it as ideological language, it only means “not transgender.” There’s nothing inherently offensive about being referred to as not transgender. (Especially coming from the same crowd that, sometimes correctly, complains about “liberal snowflakes!”)
Yet some on Elon’s side in this Twitter debate have actually compared “cisgender” to the n-word. Despite being both overwrought and ridiculous, that claim is self-debunking because in their own arguments they write out the word “cisgender” but, of course, do not spell out the n-word. It’s almost like one of those words is an offensive slur and the other is just a word some people don’t like.
But whether “cis” is a “slur” actually misses the point. Slurs are, like it or not, part of free speech. And they have always been allowed on Twitter.
Just search the N-word or the word “f*ggot” on Twitter and you’ll see them used ad nauseam, often by black or gay people in ways intended to reclaim the slur but also, yes, in offensive or hateful ways. So, if Elon actually meant it when he said that Twitter was going to be a free speech platform, that would have to include allowing people to call others “cis,” whether he thinks it’s a slur or not.
In fact, this new standard is directly contradictory with another rule change Elon imposed.
Shortly after taking over Twitter, Musk removed the company’s prohibition on “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.”
Under previous leadership, Twitter users weren’t allowed to use the “deadname,” or old name, of transgender people, and could even face suspension for violating this prohibition. Yet Musk ended this prohibition, arguing—correctly—that while using someone’s old name might be viewed as offensive or unkind, it is nonetheless part of “free speech” by any serious standard.
But now rather than actually having open discourse, Elon is rigging the rules to favor one side of the transgender debate. Conservatives are free to call transgender people by their “dead name” on Twitter even though that offends them. But transgender people or allies cannot call conservatives “cisgender”… because that offends them.
That’s not “free speech.” That’s just the same old ideological censorship, but this time, in favor of the right. And, unfortunately, it’s not the only example so far where Elon has betrayed his free speech promises.
He also temporarily throttled and censored links to Substack, a major journalism platform, over his own business dispute with the company. In another example, he suspended journalists, myself included, for sharing publicly available information about a planned “transgender day of vengeance.” And, perhaps most disturbing, Elon has repeatedly complied with requests by foreign governments to censor journalism critical of those governments.
That’s not very free-speech-y, if you ask me!
That’s what’s so disappointing. It’s not that Twitter fails to uphold free speech principles; it was like that before. It’s that Elon promised us something different—and then delivered the same old bullshit, just with a right-wing spin.
Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is an independent journalist and co-host of the BASED Politics podcast.