Hiding behind a megaphone. / John W. Schultze

Fighting Words

The “free speech” equivocation

Hiding behind a megaphone. / John W. Schultze
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“Free speech or die, Portland. You’ve got no safe place.”

On May 26, 2017, white supremacist Jeremy Christian allegedly murdered two men and maimed another as they attempted to defend two women he took to be Muslim from his abuse on Portland public transit. Days later, appearing in court, Christian roared out the same refrain that conservatives and far-right agitators alike have been repeating online for years: Racist violence is free speech. “Get out if you don’t like free speech,” he howled. “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.”

Words have consequences. What was surprising was not how precisely a bloodthirsty criminal can echo the language employed both on racist reddit forums and by milquetoast liberal commentators wondering whether left-wing student activists aren’t the real fascists after all. What was surprising was that anyone at all was surprised. Where did you think this was going to end? When you start telling people that standing up for racism and bigotry makes them brave free speech defenders, they’re going to believe you, and they’re going to act on it. Two men are dead in Portland, and their murderer believes himself a hero. Internet, take a good look at your boy.

The free speech debate is the ultimate rhetorical proxy war. What is it, after all, that these new free speech warriors are so anxious to be allowed to say, and why, when the microphones are finally shoved in front of their mouths, when they have the attention they crave, won’t they say it?

Free speech. The term is repeated so often that the words themselves lose meaning, which is what the warped new movement that claims to stand for free expression seeks to do: to neutralize language, to collapse the meaning of political speech into an act of affectless sound. 

It’s the weaponization of the knowing look and the if-you-know-what-I-mean.

The political strategy of the new right is one of destruction of meaning, of deliberate avoidance of the point even as they stab you in the back with it. It is the very opposite of parrhesia, of bold speech, the concept which is the root of the modern notion of free speech. It is ballistic equivocation. It is the nightmarish amplification of the knowing shrug, the wink of complicity whose failure to enunciate its ideology is its only consistent element. Harassing, abusing, and physically attacking people whose opinions and existence offends you in the name of free speech is a little like—well, it’s a like invading a country for its oil resources in the name of “Enduring Freedom.” The global right has always been in the business of twisting the very ideals they ultimately despise into a gross parody of themselves, stuffing them and mounting them on their trophy wall to make themselves feel big. It’s a double win—they get to rebrand themselves as underground heroes while simultaneously devaluing a concept the left desperately needs. But killing two men while screaming about free speech does not make you a defender of the First Amendment any more than spray-painting “liberty” on the side of a cluster bomb makes you a freedom fighter.

Here’s the story a lot of frightened people are telling themselves about free speech. It’s a comforting story. It has a certain internal logic. It goes like this: Free speech means the right to say whatever you want, whenever you want, to whomever you want, without consequences or critique. If you get out there in public and say bigoted things about, for example, women, people of color, trans people, Muslims, migrants or anyone else you’ve decided was born less worthy than you, you’re not a bigot, but a brave free speech defender, standing up for everyone’s right to express their feelings and opinions, however harmful. Anyone who opposes you is an enemy of free speech and basically no better than the Stasi. Anyone who objects to what you have to say is actually objecting to free speech, which means they’re the real fascists, and you’re the real underground resistance, sound the trumpets and hoist the flag of freedom and head back home for tea and medals. It’s such a slick piece of self-deception that it’s almost admirable.  

To quote the philosopher Edmund Blackadder, there’s just one tiny flaw in this argument: it’s bollocks.

Let’s not be coy. We’re way too late for that. Sure, we could take apart this weary, weaselly argument piece by piece, and we’ve done that many, many times before, but the truth is that we’re all sick of debating this on someone else’s terms when in the world beyond your subreddit, actual human beings are being attacked and killed. The truth is that the free speech defense is bollocks, and we all know it’s bollocks. It’s bunkum. It’s cant. It’s smug, slimy, prating drivel designed by people who don’t just want to peddle pedestrian hatred, they want a round of applause and a blowjob afterward. It’s craven flapdoodle constructed by cowards who can’t be honest about their own agenda, not even with themselves. It’s the ultimate Instagram filter for ugly prejudice, for people can’t bear who to look in an actual mirror, because they’re scared they’ll see the shadows creeping around their eyes.

The free speech alibi works both ways—not only are your opponents recast as enemies of free expression, and therefore fascists themselves, anyone who calls you out on your own prejudices is simply attacking your right to free speech, rather than—as is so often the case—taking issue with the actual words you’re actually saying. Conveniently, that means you never have to consider that what you’re saying might be cruel, reckless, or wrong. Instead you can congratulate yourself for having the courage to say it in the first place. You can give yourself a sticker for being  plucky enough to risk the lukewarm wrath of Internet liberals and the disappointment of your parents, not because you’re a racist or a bigot, not because you actually think these awful things, but because you’re a valiant free speech defender. You really care about that First Amendment, don’t you? As long as it’s not women or Muslims or scientists pleading to be allowed to speak freely without censorship or abuse, of course—it’s only the speech of white men that’s worth defending. The rest is just noise.

Let us reiterate: this is arrant, dangerous bollocks. A lot of people desperate to believe in their own goodness can come up with some pretty damn convincing bollocks, and part of what makes it convincing is that they are so eager to convince themselves. And when a lot of angry white guys really, really want something to be true, sometimes it’s easier to just let them get on with it. Sometimes it’s less work just to accept their logic and deny your own. We can’t do that because people are actually being killed.

Jeremy Christian did not just want to speak; he wanted to act.

Hate crimes are on the rise across the United States and Europe, and the bad-faith defense of free speech is being marshalled as an excuse for those hate crimes. Jeremy Christian did not just want to speak; he wanted to act. He was prepared, as the saying goes, to defend to the death his right to say something—but not to his own death. To the death of two brave men who stood against him, and the near-fatal injury of a third. When we’re done being deliberately obtuse, everyone knows the real issue is not free speech, but the violent entitlement of bigots who believe that the constitution gives them a right to act on feelings of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. They claim to stand for “free speech” because they’re scared to go on record with their actual opinions, though they’re getting braver about that every day. It’s the weaponization of the knowing look and the if-you-know-what-I-mean. 

It should not take a sneering, wall-eyed murderer yammering out free speech clichés from the dock like a subreddit made sordid flesh for us to realize how much of a pile of claptrap this has all been from the start. You might well care about neo-Nazis’ right to speak their addled brains, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t prioritize it over everyone else’s right not to be harassed, abused, and attacked by bigots who see their humanity as more important. There’s an argument that shutting down white supremacist demonstrations sets a precedent that will eventually lead to a censorious oligarchy cracking down on the press, on popular protest and on the universal right to free expression. I hear that, but I hate to break it to you—that stable door is open, and the horses are being ridden into the sunset by heavily armed cowboys who still think they’re heroes fighting to Win The West, and they have murder in their eyes. 

Understand the difference between speaking truth to power and screaming for power in the face of truth.

There’s already a crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly across the Western world, and it’s not the far right who are feeling the whip. In France, public political gatherings have been banned. In the United States, as journalists are professionally and physically attacked by a Republican administration in mad victory rut, non-violent left-wing protesters are facing exemplary sentences of decades in jail. That crackdown on freedom of assembly and of the press is the real free speech fight on the table right now, and are the new right bothered? Are they hell. In those circumstances, I’m extremely relaxed about anti-fascist counter-protests.  Of course I am. I’m British. I come from a country, for all its faults, where if fascists want to march down your high street, you get out there and stop them. Why? Because not all political viewpoints are morally equivalent. Because some ideas should not be tolerated, because when you tolerate them, people start acting on them.

Aren’t you sick of being told that there is moral equivalence between every possible political statement? Aren’t you sick of hearing that there is no ethical distinction between a speech defending migrants’ rights and another calling for Muslim internment camps. Aren’t you fed up of watching to centre-right pontificators accuse students and activists of being censorious prudes when they object to racism, sexism, and homophobia on campus, just like students everywhere have been doing for generations? Most of all, aren’t you utterly done with watching people swallow this claptrap, this half-pint of high-fructose corn syrup that makes bitter bullying slide so smoothly down the gullets of the gullible? 

The veteran journalist Paul Foot, speaking about the national Union of Students’ “No Platform” policy in 1994 said that:

Imposing socialist ideas without . . . democratic debate is the opposite of real socialism. Yet we deny these rights to the Nazis. Is this just the same sort of hypocrisy used by tyrants through the ages who have demanded free speech for themselves but seized the first opportunity to deny it to others? After all, runs our critics’ argument, the fascists are, like you, a minority. They have a “point of view.” Why should they be denied the right to put that point of view in the same way that you do?

There are two immediate answers. First, there is the connection between saying and doing. If an organized party goes around preaching race hatred against black people, as the British National Party does, that race hatred is bound to overflow into deeds. . . . The “point of view” of a fascist party is not only measured by their rights or freedoms, but also by the immediate and consequent curtailing of the rights and freedoms of everybody else.

The other answer to the question why deny free speech to the fascists is that the central aim of fascism is to destroy democracy. This is not speculation, as it might have been before Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922 or Hitler in Germany eleven years later. Now we know without any shadow of doubt that the aim of fascism is totally to destroy democracy and to remove the rights and freedoms of everyone except themselves.

When students first started using “No Platform” tactics in the 1970s to delegitimize the far right, denying someone a platform was still something it was technically possible to do. It is all but impossible in the age of social media and rolling controversy feeding the raveling drama-drooling maw of the 24-hour news cycle to prevent someone from publishing or articulating whatever asinine twaddle they fancy. Nobody is actually being censored here. What’s happening is that people are being called out on their bad behavior and bigoted opinions, and that might feel uncomfortable, but it’s not the same as censorship. You might believe that being told you’re an arsehole is the same as fascism, and you’ve a right to that belief, because people have a right to believe whatever silly thing they like. The trouble is that so do an increasing number of violent, unstable people with hatred in their hearts.

Not everyone who makes the free speech argument makes it in bad faith. It’s really easy to convince yourself of any story whose moral is that you’re a decent human being and shouldn’t worry about the consequences of your words and actions. That’s why racists and alt-right recalcitrants are throwing rallies under the banner of free speech. A lot of people who go to these things, wrapped in the stars and bars and bellowing about Blue Lives Matter, actually believe that they are fighting for free speech. And so does Jeremy Christian. 

So here’s a challenge to all those brave free speech defenders—stop being such lying damn self-righteous cowards. Stop whining about so-called speech rights that nobody’s actually trying to take from you, and start saying what you actually mean. Saying what you mean, and start listening to yourselves, and see if you can live with the feedback, if you can bear it, and if you can’t, change. Understand the difference between speaking truth to power and screaming for power in the face of truth. Have the courage to actually say what you think, and face the consequences. 

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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