Last Thursday night down on Bleeker Street in Manhattan, the libertarian entertainment company We The Internet gathered to throw a bash celebrating its latest mini-documentary, and the launch of its “The Funny Thing About Hate Speech” tour. The 15-minute film, “5 Reasons We Need Hate Speech,” is a full-throated defense of free speech that is well-produced, very clever, and often quite funny. Both the documentary and the party were hosted by Lou Perez, We The Internet’s jocular impresario whose straightforward and aw shucks style cuts straight to the heart of the matter.
The party in a downtown club space was fun and festive, a gathering of free thinkers and iconoclasts. Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie was there (yes, he wore a leather jacket), and former American Civil Liberties Union head Nadine Strossen and author Zachary Wood joined Perez for a panel discussion. Among the questioners from the audience was journalist Jesse Singal, who appears in the film.
The documentary is now airing on YouTube and is linked below. The reasons it discusses for why we need hate speech, or more specifically need to not ban hate speech, are not particularly new. They focus mostly on how such bans not only make hate speech stronger, but that defining hate speech always winds up as a slippery slope that captures at its bottom a much wider range of speech than was ever intended.
What makes the film special, and is true of much of We The Internet’s work, is how difficult it is to pin down politically. Indeed one of the central focuses is European and to a lesser extent American efforts to criminalize or ban criticism of Israel.
In one of the film’s more humorous moments, Perez is on his way to interview a pro-Palestinian group at Fordham University that had been denied the right to organize. Before he arrives, he receives an email from them, explaining that in light of his previous controversial work, they were declining the interview. The irony was amazing. Those demanding free speech were declining this opportunity to engage in free speech.
While We The Internet is not conservative, and Perez insists the group attacks all sides, in this case the libertarian value of free speech overlaps considerably with conservative attitudes on the issue. So, while conservatives can’t exactly claim We The Internet as their own, the troupe often, as in this film, presents conservative ideas in a fun, fresh, and funny way. In a media landscape so hegemonically controlled by leftist voices, this is a very welcome thing.
Conservatives have long sought to parry the power of progressive media with original content of their own, but have most usually failed at it. We The Internet provides a road map for doing better. A lot of it has to do with a refusal to come off as angry or mean-spirited. Their productions are warm, calm, reasonable, and produce an affability that conservatives sometimes struggle with.
Although best known for their well-produced libertarian sketch comedy, of late We The Internet has been delving into more straightforward documentary work. This has included an interview series with Dr. Deborah Soh on the science of the sexes as well as discussions with thinkers like Coleman Hughes on race. This is a welcome and praiseworthy expansion of their mission, and it’s producing some really excellent content.
“5 Reasons Why We Need Hate Speech” is well worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch. It can be especially valuable for young people who are navigating a new set of speech codes and a society less friendly to free speech than even 10 or 20 years ago.
One hopes that We The Internet can keep up the good work, promoting a free and honest exchange of ideas. Operating outside the maelstrom of partisan politics, they create wonderful resources for understanding the deep cultural debates in society. Today such efforts, especially successful ones, are few and far between, but We The Internet seems to have it figured out.