An analysis of the reactionary co-option of the term "freedom of speech" in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro, and discussion of how best to respond to it.
It is no secret that in the past few years, "freedom of speech" has largely become a dogwhistle for the reactionaries, whenever someone doesn't want to associate or platform them, or even just criticizes them. In spite of this, "freedom of speech" as a term also has a long pedigree of being used on the left wing in order to protest repression by the state and major institutions, such as with the IWW's "free speech fights" in the 1910s and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1965. So what exactly is the deal with it?
Of course, it should be made clear that the current right-wing demands for "freedom of speech" are in no way based on sincerely-held principles of civil liberty. How have the self-described "classical liberal" e-celeb clique reacted to the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, a man who said that the greatest flaw of Brazil's cold war-era military dictatorship was that it "tortured but did not kill [political dissidents]"? A man who intends to classify Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement, made up of some 1.5 million people, as "terrorists", and to "purge" political opponents? YouTube "skeptic" Carl "Sargon of Akkad" Benjamin, better known for telling for telling a UK Labour Party MP that he "wouldn't even rape" her, claimed that "the left earned this pistolwhipping", presumably for being vocal about issues that he disliked - interestingly a dynamic that is rarely applied to growing leftist, rather than liberal, sentiment in response to the "alt-right". Even more outwardly "respectable" figures such as Dave Rubin, spoke favourably of him, with Rubin, in response to a viewer question asking him his opinion on him, chose to praise him for "hating Marxism" and "getting SJW stuff out of schools" - rather an interesting way to refer to recent events such as police seizing electoral materials for Bolsonaro's opponent from universities and members of Bolsonaro's political party asking students to upload footage of whoever they deem "indoctrinating teachers" on Facebook. Of course, while Bolsonaro has provided the perfect opportunity for the "intellectual dark web"'s greatest minds to trip over themselves as they rush to publically demonstrate their own flagrant hypocrisy, these are far from the only such incidents we can point to. We can point to Niall Ferguson, professor at Stanford University, being caught attempting to order "opposition research" tactics being deployed against a left-wing student who had been critical of his guest speakers (in fact, he even claimed this was done in order to protect "free speech"), the general silence over the passing of SESTA/FOSTA despite this coming directly from the US government and white nationalist talking head-cum-punchbag Richard B. Spencer admitting on a podcast that they (the alt-right) weren't actually supportive of freedom of speech, describing it as a strategy of being "radically pragmatic".
But all this aside, how should we approach "freedom of speech" as a context? It probably is not something that should be dismissed in its entirety, even if we do not use it as a term, especially after how soiled it has become. Government repression is a genuine and omnipresent threat to working class and anti-capitalist movements around the world, wherever it be in China, France, Brazil, South Africa, Iran or the United States. As mentioned earlier, "free speech" has often used by the left to defend itself when under attack in the past. When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in 1920, it frequently played the role of providing legal defence for socialists following the First Red Scare. Early leading figures including the feminist and pacifist Crystal Eastman, and six-time Socialist Party of America candidate Norman Thomas. However, times changed. Joseph Stalin rose to power, and many former sympathisers became alienated with communism. In 1940, following the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and external pressure as it was accused of being a Communist front, the ACLU voted to purge "totalitarians" from leadership roles in the organization. By the early 1950s, with McCarthyism in full swing, the ACLU opted not to defend American communists facing persecution. Ironically, Norman Thomas had become one of the ACLU's key anti-Communist figures.
Of course, what this bit of history shows us is that free speech is something that we are better off with or without, it isn't much of an ends in of itself. It's all very well to be able to say that you are living in a horribly alienating, exploitative and oppressive society, but merely being able to say alone that isn't going to make your life any better. And those focusing solely on freedom of speech or even civil liberties, and not a wider analysis of the suffering in the world around us, aren't necessarily going to be helpful. We can perhaps view freedom of expression and other state-derived civil liberties as akin to social democracy or the welfare state - a bandage placed upon a gaping wound, something that helps mitigate the worst of what may happen, but doesn't cure our ills, it doesn't seek out the root cause of repression. It's also something that is easily ignored by the state even when it is supposedly enshrined on a constitutional level - who was going to stop the HUAC during the Red Scare? The government? The conception of freedom of speech as a "right" - or indeed of anything else as a "right" - presupposes that it is being granted by a higher power beyond your control, and having a right to something doesn't mean much beyond rhetoric when there is no-one to stop you being deprived of that right. Furthermore, "freedom of speech" as a concept in of itself is quite the nebulous thing. It's doubtful you could get many self-described supporters of freedom of speech to support legalizing death threats or child pornography, other than a few hardcore absolutists who fetishize the concept to the exclusion of anything else. Political philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 work On Liberty said that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others". This has come to be known as the "harm principle". Mill, of course, is a philosopher who was very influential on liberalism and is still often cited today. This is typically used to justify restrictions on things such as libel or threats, but how do we implement such a principle? Is it justified to use anti-sedition laws to stifle dissent, on the grounds that it may harm those who hold power? Is it justified to introduce hate speech laws, to prevent the further subjugation, harassment and potentially violence against marginalised groups? You'd get a lot of people disagreeing with arguments such as those, although the level of crossover may be lower than what you assume. You could even make an argument that consensual, adult pornography causes societal harm and it is therefore permissible to ban it under the harm principle, which shows that this rule of exceptions is in itself something that is vague and open to interpretation.
Members of the NSPA marching with "FREE SPEECH" placards in Illinois, 1977
So, with freedom of speech remaining something of an ambiguous concept, it shouldn't be surprising that it is something that can be easily co-opted by anyone. As far as I can tell, no-one has assembled a comprehensive history of reactionary appropriation of the concept. Arguably, some reactions to antifascists in the 1920s and 1930s could be considered something of a precursor, even if the rhetoric is slightly different. The British Union of Fascists, in its press statement following the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 stated that "under the Present Government, therefore, free speech can be prevented by anyone who cares to organise violence against it in defiance of the law but with impunity from the Government". With government repression of fascist organizations in many places following the end of World War II, and as decades passed and the war faded more out of the conciousness of younger generations, it became easier for the far-right to cast themselves as "oppressed", regardless of their intentions of intensifying oppression. In 1969, the US Supreme Court struck down the state of Ohio's "criminal syndicalism" statute, prohibiting the advocacy of violence, in a suite involving the state and members of the Ku Klux Klan, supported by the ACLU. The court ruled ruled that the United States cannot make speech-based prosecutions unless they are "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action". It should be noted that the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Statute was introduced in 1919, and its name was no accident as it was originally intended to directly prosecute groups such as the IWW during the First Red Scare. However, it is perhaps worth noting here as a relatively early example of freedom of speech legislation being used specifically to defend far-right groups in the post-war period, and other American white supremacists appear to have been taking notes. In 1977, members of the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) announced their intention to rally in Skokie, Illinois, a town with a high Jewish population. After a complex legal battle involving both federal and state-level authorities, and in spite of the wishes of the people of Skokie, the decision by authorities to deny permission to march in Skokie was revoked. Despite this, they ultimately marched in Chicago instead. What is most remarkable about this incident, however, were the NSPA utilizing the rhetoric of "freedom of speech" in a highly visible way. Slogans utilized by the NSPA included "Free Speech for the White Man" and "White Free Speech". It is not hard to see how this proved a forebearer of things to come. The ACLU once again were in the role of the defence - albeit with the cost of losing 30,000 of their own members. In the 1980s and 1990s, a right-wing backlash against the gains minority groups had made in recent decades in the West began to emerge. These reactionaries adopted the phrase "political correctness" to refer to efforts to avoid discriminatory language, or discrimination in general. Although it preceded the right-wing popularization of the phrase, which came into vogue in the US around 1990, an early example of a case of anti-"PC" media panics can be dated back to February 1986. The Daily Star, a UK right-wing tabloid not known for being particularly trustworthy, reported that leaders of the council of the London borough of Hackney (which was under Labour Party governance) had supported a local nursery school's decision to ban the song "Baa Black Sheep" on grounds of anti-black racism. Shortly after the story was published, the Hackney Gazette, a local newspaper asked the nursery that had been cited for the ban about it. They responded by saying that "we're run by parents and if they want us to stop singing it, we would. But there have been no complaints so far, though someone once suggested it could be racist". However, this was only in a local newspaper, and the correction that the ban had not in fact even happened was only reported by a few minority-oriented papers. Meanwhile, the (non)story was carried by several national newspapers through 1986 and 1987, such as the Daily Mail and the supposedly respectable Economist, and it continues to circulate as an urban legend to this day. To anyone familiar with the kind of sensationalist and frequently misrepresented stories about "SJWs on campus" served up by Breitbart and YouTube channels with pretentious names today, this should all sound very familiar.
With the rise of social movements such as Black Lives Matter in the early 2010s, it became easy to couple "anti-PC" rhetoric with the use of "free speech" rhetoric to defend the far-right to create a dangerously potent formula. With a generation of disenfranchised angry young men growing up in an increasingly uncertain world, reactionaries found a fertile recruiting ground. But enough has been written about the rise of the alt-right at this point. Going back to the theme of rightist exploitation of liberalism's weaknesses, we have a figure that many of the people reading this will likely have been waiting to be mentioned - political philosopher and Nazi Party member Carl Schmitt. Schmitt saw all politics as a form of violence, and even liberalism ultimately had to defend itself from that which seeks to destroy it. However, capitalist interests are ultimately incompatible with the far-left, while they are with the far-right, so using liberal tactics within a (capitalist) liberal democracy is far more likely to be successful for the right - and even when leftists do manage to win power through the ballot box in spite of media and financial interests against them, there is a very long tradition of established democratic socialist parties sliding to the right - wherever it be the SPD in Germany in the 1910s, former national liberation/Marxist-Leninist parties in post-colonial Africa, Eurocommunism during the Cold War or most recently SYRIZA in Greece. 1 In a 1928 essay entitled "Why Do We Want to Join the Reichstag?", Joseph Goebbels himself even directly stated that "we enter the Reichstag to arm ourselves with democracy’s weapons. If democracy is foolish enough to give us free railway passes and salaries, that is its problem". More well-known but from a liberal perspective is Karl Popper's idea of the "Paradox of Tolerance", which holds that the "intolerant" much not be tolerated or else tolerance will be destroyed - however, this seems a lot more similar to the ideas that are critical on how well freedom of speech can be applied as a broad principle, but rather at the even more vague measure of "tolerance" - which is something that largely only exists in terms of rhetoric rather than a legally enshrined "right".
Perhaps a more helpful approach than the rather narrow focus solely on speech would be a broader look at oppression, or the suffering that the powerful subject others to, although this is something that tends to require a degree of social analysis, and is not really something that can be reduced to a catchy phrase like "free speech" is. "Oppression" is broad and can encompass many different things. You have more obvious things, "overt" things such as acts of genocide, conquest, or persecution of political dissidents, and there are also things that are more subtle to the casual observer - the stigmatization, the denial of opportunities and the systemic violence that social discrimination brings or the alienation and poverty of those forced to sell their labour to survive. In the wake of the Great Recession, the increasingly precarious economic position of the young and growing inequality, American suicide rates rose 30% between 2000 and 2016. And this is something that happens while the minority who are wealthy only continue to get more wealthy as inequality grows further. Why is this not considered more of an issue than ageing stand-up comedians possibly facing some degree of backlash if he uses transphobic slurs? Of course, we could use this to go on a tangent about how trans people or indeed any other marginalised group experience poorer quality of life including in terms of suicide rates which I have just used as an example for the working class more broadly, but the point about how discrimination can be made socially acceptable via speech, and the resulting drop in quality of life should be clear. Another thing that is seldom accounted for is the effect that harassment and the resulting fear of hostility has on those who wish to express dissent, thus creating something of a more directly socially-constructed range of "acceptable speech", which is something that could support Popper's argument. One of the more prominent recent examples of this was the effect that 2014's GamerGate had on women looking to enter the video game industry. In August 2015, one game developer said to the USA Today that "I've heard more women talk about (and act on) leaving game development in the past year than I did in my other 22 years combined". In January 2019 - as this article is being written - members of the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer (among those who have utilized free speech rhetoric most frequently in the US as of late) attacked an IWW Union Hall in Portland and harassed members inside - will right-wing media outlets cover this in the same way? Due to the guarantee of freedom of speech in the First Amendment of the US constitution - something that unsurprisingly has faced many legal reinterpretations over the centuries - and the way the constitution is treated almost as a sacred text in the public conciousness of American patriotism, it has even gained something of a nationalistic connotation, akin to how overseas invasions were cast as "spreading freedom" during the Reagan and Bush years. In June 2018, nearly a year after they fought to ensure the Unite the Right rally went ahead, a leaked memo from the ACLU began to reveal that divisions with the organization in regards to their long-standing approach had begun to emerge, with the organization finally acknowledging internally that "speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms" - in this case, coming after the murder of a counter-protester at UTR.
Ultimately, it should be clear that freedom of expression to reactionaries is something that they aren't interested in applying to others. However, as tempting as it is to simply mock their cries of "freeze peach", this might not be the best move, as it does play into their narrative of being the victim, in spite of the massive amount of institutional power they wield. And freedom of speech may be a vague, hard-to-define concept that requires a vast amount of social context to be taken into account in order to fit into something that is more logically consistent, but being simple and direct, it has a proven track record of being rhetorically effective. This still doesn't mean it should be considered an end goal in the same way that pension reform isn't an end goal, but the next time we hear about a pacifist being threatened with arrest if he dares set foot on a college campus, a government prohibiting art exhibitions depicting their own atrocities or a student being "disciplined" by their university for speaking out against the presence of anti-trans groups, perhaps the question we should ask that those rugged right-wing "individualists" won't is - what about our freedom of speech?
- 1In order to pre-empt any whatabout-isms, seizing control of the state through revolutionary means and instituting "socialism" from above doesn't have a great track record either.