There is a wide discussion happening in the West these days about governments cracking down on Freedom of Speech. In the dominant liberal-democratic order, Freedom of Speech is enshrouded as a sacred principle in the corpus of society.
Without the sacrosanct Freedom of Speech, we’re told, all views are put under threat. We are, therefore, supposed to defend, the holy order of Freedom of Speech.
As you have undoubtedly noticed from the title, dear reader, I don’t agree with this characterization.
It seems to me that Freedom of Speech is not some heavenly-ordained value that we should hold as essential in all times and all places.
I’d like to make the counterargument, that this “Freedom” can play a negative role and should, therefore, be more limited to restrict the speech of fascists. We should analyze Freedom of Speech critically and be willing to abandon it in certain situations.
Freedom of Speech, for the purpose of writing a coherent text, will furthermore be defined here as “the right to say things without state intervention.” I am not including societal backlash in this definition, but I will touch on that as well.
Noam Chomsky argues that in order to call ourselves defenders of “free speech”, we must be willing to defend speech that we find most abhorrent. Chomsky used this line of argument famously to defend the publishing of a book that denied the Holocaust.
I agree with Chomsky 100% on the logic and disagree with him 100% on the conclusion.
Today, Freedom of Speech is a façade.
In the West, it is a façade behind which fascists mask their plans. The Berkeley student body appropriately erupted at the prospect of a Nazi making speeches at their university. Immediately after the protests, everyone on the political spectrum began talking about Freedom of Speech. This ought to horrify all of us.
The Nazis themselves used the opportunity to argue that their Freedom of Speech was being threatened – as though the state was silencing them.
The fact is that the state isn’t cracking down on people like the Nazi who wanted to speak at Berkeley, unfortunately. In fact, Trump himself made sure to support the poor little Nazi in his hour of need.
To understand this broader principle, we should unpack this supposedly-cherished “freedom”.
Speech is language. And Language is a system of symbols.
By advocating “free speech”, one says that all variations of these systems ought to be available. All variations should be allowed to be expressed without facing state repression.
However, the problem is that systems of symbols propagate ideas and, following that, organizations and movements. The fascist variations on this system of symbols are completely unacceptable and ought to be suppressed. We must absolutely reject a society where Nazis and Alt-Righters spew their filth around.
We can get into Wittgenstein and the concepts that language establishes the bounds of human thought.
Or we can take a cursory look at the world. If Nazis are able to influence people with their speeches and publications, the response should not be: Let’s keep that going!
Therefore, we should ask: what is the solution?
State repression has often been successful at destroying (almost exclusively leftist) movements. In fact, the current president of the U$ is pretty consistently threatening to restrict the speech of the Left.
In light of this, state repression of the Alt-Right Nazi scum would be a welcome change.
The classical liberal argument stems from the love of negative liberties: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, etc.
Despite this, every state has limits on every one of these liberties.
In the United $tates, any speech can be censored if it might lead to “imminent lawless action.”
Free speech is tailored (but not enough) in Germany, where Nazi rhetoric and symbols are illegal.
I’d support taking it even further.
When it comes to destroying Neo-Nazi groups, right-wing militias, ISIS or Al-Qaeda, these organizations should be outlawed and their ability to express their views should be completely undermined.
If Dumbass Trump started throwing fascists and Nazis in prison, I wouldn’t hesitate to stand by the effort.
I’d be happy to help, in fact!
Advocates of free speech will also argue in favor of the cherished concept of the “marketplace of ideas”.
“Let people debate and argue freely and the best ideas will float to the top!”
This presupposition of the inherent value of ideas coming from their broad acceptance is blatant silliness.
We know that time and again humans are susceptible to accepting terrible, poisonous ideas. Colonialism, slavery, genocide, and war have all been spread through mass populations.
These ideas were, of course, spread through speech and publications.
No, the marketplace of ideas functions as poorly as the marketplace of capitalism.
As Kelefah Sanneh argues, “These days, just about everyone claims to be on the side of free speech.”
If we take Chomsky’s proposition and say that we must defend the speech we hate in order to call ourselves defenders of Freedom of Speech, then I am no defender of Freedom of Speech. I am not on the side of free speech.
In fact, you, dear reader, are probably also guilty of such a transgression of liberal values.
If, however, after reading this, you find that you’re ever the defender of Freedom of Speech, then please feel free to contribute to the legal defense of Tarek Mahanna.
Or re-post materials published by ISIS.
Or re-post Neo-Nazi articles.
Under no circumstances will I be joining you.