Since the election of Donald Trump, a right-wing discussion point which had long been burbling in national press outlets such as The Times and the Telegraph has spectacularly jumped into the spotlight — why does the Left hate free speech?
In Britain, this question has over the last few years mainly revolved around a relatively tame phenomenon of intersectional struggles in universities, with the likes of Germaine Greer expressing bafflement and anger about students’ efforts to give the cold shoulder over issues such as transphobia. In other countries though, particularly the US, the subject matter has been an altogether harsher one — the rights of white supremacists and fascists to organise in public spaces.
In both cases the same response has been used by the people being blocked: “What about my right to speak? Why are you so afraid of debate” and the like. And in some ways it seems a reasonable question, after all setting aside her Palaeolithic views on trans people and The Youth’s Culture’s tentative collapsing of gender norms in some arenas Germaine Greer has had a major and very positive impact on all kinds of social questions. She has things to say that are worth hearing.
But a problem arises when this is parsed into the language of “free speech” as opposed to “exclusion from specific arenas via grassroots pressure.”
The search for meanings
One major block in the conversation is what people actually mean when they say “free speech.”
For some, it represents a person’s right to say whatever they want, wherever they want and be heard. Appeals are made to the lessons of history. We must all be free to speak, or we risk none being free to speak.
But this all-embracing sentiment is a nonsense when compared to day-to-day reality. No free speech militant offers up heated complaints when a “flag guard” of big scary bikers stares down and physically blocks the Westboro Baptist Church to stop its horrible efforts in the cause of further upsetting the parents of military dead. The right-wing “anti-political correctness” brigade doesn’t get particularly uneasy when Colin Kaepernik is very publicly bullied by press, fans and corporate bosses for taking a knee against institutional racism. Few liberals wax lyrical about the right of abortion advocates to speak without noise and banners being used to keep them out of the faces of vulnerable women. No-one at all cares that you were told to shut up that one time when you’d been going on with your pet 9/11 conspiracy theory down the pub. Yeah mate, it’s a free country, now get lost.
What people actually mean in these contexts is usually “people can say whatever they want within what I perceive to be a reasonable arena.” So WBC can debate their hateful world view with Russell Brand on the telly, but not blare it out to the bereaved at a funeral. Kaepernik can potentially demonstrate his anger on a media stage (if they let him — actual reach and respect offered within public discussion is another huge elephant in the room here) but not on the sports stage while an anthem is playing.
The idea of “free” speech within liberal and rightist discourse clearly has very real limits, enforced not by statute but but common cultural understanding. Limits that aren’t really debated in any meaningful way unless doing so offers political capital, such as liberals attacking conservatively-minded NFL circles over Kaepernik’s blacklisting, or Times journalists excoriating students over lobbying for the dis-invitation of Greer from university debate panels.
Instead, what we get is a blanket appeal to “our right to speak,” often hinting at some sort of legal right as substitute and support for moral right, shouted by people who have been denied a voice in very specific arenas where a social culture has formed that excludes them. Academics complain of censorship when excluded by students (usually via national press platforms, rather undercutting their own argument) and fascists complain when excluded by antifa, cheered on by their allies and cultural hinterlands.
But a radical understanding of “free speech” doesn’t necessarily buy what’s being sold there, particularly the legal angle.
Freedoms and the State
Having looked at how cultural and social influences already limit what we can say, the real core of most debate over free speech as a concept is not a social question but a political one.
When we bring up the concept of an Unfree country, the key is in what’s consistently enforced — the systemic outcome of opening your mouth to say something provocative as opposed to what might happen if you show up to a Manchester United pub on match day and sing the Munich song. And force is the domain of governments, indeed the monopoly of violence is key to their existence.
Historically, we find that every popular example of free speech destroyed involves either direct State intervention, or a force which is in the process of seizing State power. The Nazi State shuts down radical art. The Soviet State shuts down the free presses. McCarthy blacklists leftists, Maduro shuts down rightists. Forces which attempt to disrupt their opponents without ruling class consent risk being themselves beaten out as a dangerous and disruptive element (eg. the EDL, antifa, or any direct action movement you’d care to name, up to and including animal rights).
And this largely informs the way in which the Left — or at least that part of it which goes out to physically shut up white supremacists and fundamentalist homophobes — looks at free speech as a concept. It’s not just about stopping someone who advocates the genocide of all Jews from lying, manipulating and dissembling their way into actually achieving that dream, it’s also about not letting the State, on everyone else’s behalf, make the decision on whether such elements have a right to speak.
The reason for placing such decisions outside the remit of the State should be self-evident — though often it’s not, as bizarrely some Left groups are more than happy to lobby for police to shut down fascists for them, so I’ll reiterate it briefly.
The State is not, and never has been a neutral actor but is a maintainer of national and capital power. It’s there specifically to provide social stability in favour of the status quo and the interests of the powerful State actors of the day. If it takes to itself the right to make decisions on who can and cannot speak, who can or cannot protest, who can and cannot print, nothing but revolution itself can save those whose views fall outside that limit. Erdogan’s critics disappear into darkened cells and don’t emerge again. Saudi atheists are offered the lash if they are not silent. British citizens get jailed for sedition (this happened to Freedom’s editors in 1945).
As critics of the status quo, of capitalists and indeed of the State itself, leftists are often first in line for such repression. For radicals, the State is self-serving and thus incapable of neutrally deciding what is “too extreme” to publish. It has no place dictating what others should say. That is “free speech” in a nutshell, nothing more, nothing less.
The Linksunten process
Here we have a brief diversion to talk about a concrete recent example. Linksunten, in case you’re not aware, was perhaps the most successful ongoing branch of the Indymedia open publishing project in Germany up until late in August 2017, when it was shut down for hosting “extremist left” views.
Germany has been in the grip of an anti-left hysteria in the wake of the G20 protests in Hamburg in July, and has faced repeated calls from the right-wing press to crack down on leftist extremists who are blamed for the chaos and property destruction which took place at the summit — very similar in tone to calls which have been made by the likes of the “pro free speech” Daily Mail to shut down Islamic extremist content.
It’s the culmination of years of fear-mongering and a long process of lawmaking which has enabled the German State to tap phones and emails with impunity, shut down servers and take, essentially, whatever measures it deemed necessary to combat “extremist terror.” And the shift has happened gradually enough, with plenty of plausible reasoning about “national security,” that social norms have changed.
What once might have caused a pause for thought, the shutting down of an open publishing platform because the politics of some of its members were “too extreme” according to a State which has no requirement to justify such accusations to any other authority, is now simply business as usual. It’s even cheered on in large part by those presses which have no cause yet to feel the same cold breath of censorship on their own necks, because they so primly self-censor — no rowdy anarchists are getting a regular column to rabble rouse in Bild anytime soon.
There have been years of warnings about similar processes happening all over the West, including in Britain with GCHQ’s surveillance methods, spycop infiltration of non-violent activist groups and the banning of organisations both Wahhabist and fascist. But it’s in Germany, so damned and so praised for its liberality by those same people right and left who whine about fascists’ right to free speech, that a week of riots (provoked in the first place by police incompetence and violence) has led to threats against tangentially-linked social centres and raids on the homes of radical journalists. The silence from the likes of Greer and Aaronovitch over Germany’s systematic demolition of free speech for the left is palpable.
So going back to the original question, “why do leftists hate free speech?” is interesting, because it is actually a two-parter with complicated answers (and of course a wide degree of variation — the Left is a big umbrella).
In the first part, it asks why leftists would try to shut down people who put forward regressive and extreme views, and the answer to that is simple — because such views when left unchecked can spread and directly support violence against vulnerable people and minorities in society. “Free speech” on public platforms is a matter of what we as a society are willing to tolerate, not a given for all no matter how poisonous.
In the second, it effectively asks where State tolerance should begin and end. And the answer there is that while some lefties are silly enough to call for State repression of bigots, the more savvy are aware that any weapon given to the State is one that will, eventually, be turned on us as well, and thus should never, ever, be advocated.
Which leaves us, in the end, with an uncomfortable but necessary position. On the one hand, your right to talk crap with your mates is up to you. No-one’s going to police it, least of all leftists, and no-one would advocate that doing so should be made illegal. On the other, if what you’re going out and specifically advocating for in the public sphere, as an activist, is something which will lead to the murder of say, Jews or black people or indeed leftists, then we have a problem. There’s grey areas (what is “public,” where do you draw the line on acceptably stupid vs unacceptably dangerous) but also a responsibility. It’s not an issue that will be solved by the State, but by the hands and brains of communities which refuse to make room for mindless hatred to take root.
In the end the Left doesn’t hate free speech, but it’s not entirely comprised of naive chumps who actually buy the bleating of dilettante liberals and self-serving racists either. Free speech is never completely free.
Pic: Paul Weaver