The Problem with “Free Speech” that Defends Power

Jacob Mchangama vividly paints a possible future scenario of a world governed by increasingly outlandish free speech restrictions. He does so in order to illustrate the point that people with opposing political and moral views might invoke the same rationale to justify laws that police language and behavior that they disapprove of, so that the very things defended by one group could easily be undermined by the other, without the content-neutral role of free speech as a sacred principle ensuring that no views or ideas are suppressed. Notwithstanding the rigorous and convincing detail and eloquence of Mchangama’s imagined scenario this is a standard defense of free speech. Unfortunately it does not really address the points I attempted to make in my initial response, which were less to do with free speech as a principle than the way in which “free speech” has been weaponized not only for highly dubious causes, but by dubious means.

It is not, as Mchangama claims, that I necessarily “dislike these people, or hate their ideas.” I might, but that is beside the point. If I was going to make an argument against hate speech it would not be based on my dislike for the people or their ideas, it would be to do with their ideas being wrong or harmful or damaging to the public sphere, and plenty of better minds than mine have made such arguments, not least Jeremy Waldron in the excellent The Harm in Hate Speech. And indeed, one of the problems with the free speech crisis narrative is that because it is little more than propaganda, there is little engagement, in the mainstream at any rate, with any of the useful, and constructive, critiques of free speech carried out in the last few decades by, for example, feminist philosophers of language, critical race theorists, or self-identifying liberals.

The issue then is not that fascists or racists are exercising their free speech, it is that their invocation of free speech as a principle is specious. In particular, the issue is the ideological use of the “free speech defense” – expressing racist nonsense is one thing; expressing it as a free speech martyr or a great defender of liberal democratic ideals is quite another. It is the latter I’m primarily concerned with here, though I do think sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and transphobia should be protested and challenged, but not necessarily through legal restrictions, and certainly not in some mythical marketplace of ideas.

I am not arguing that free speech perpetuates racism. I am arguing that the invocation of free speech as an ideal is used by racists to legitimize racist ideas – the problem is the legitimization and normalization of dehumanizing ideas; of views, ideas, and behavior that cause harm – not offense to a given individual, but harm to a group of people.

And in response to Jacob’s initial article, the problem is not that hate speech might incite or cause violence, it is that hate speech and other forms of extremist speech are violent, and that is one reason why they are not legitimate. Philosophers of language since at least Wittgenstein have shown that language does things as much as it describes or represents things (though you wouldn’t know it from the way free speechers discuss language). Speech is never free of power, it works to normalize certain ways of being against others, makes things or behavior or people normal or deviant, acceptable or unacceptable, included or excluded. So proving – if such a thing can be done – that hate speech doesn’t lead to conflict does nothing to address the deeper and more significant ways in which language and discourse operate. The problem with hate speech is not that it might offend an individual or a group, but that it is dehumanizing and therefore contributes to the conditions which make social exclusion and marginalization possible or even likely.

However, in my response I was suggesting that what needs to be challenged is “free speech,” not free speech. That may seem an irritating postmodern gimmick, but it points to an important distinction. By “free speech” I’m referring to the way in which free speech has become a mediating object or ideological tool, frequently invoked as an empty slogan by individuals or groups who have little interest in the principle of free speech, or the free speech of others, or the democratic ideals that free speech is deemed to be so central to.

And in the face of this abuse or misuse of free speech, which is blatantly self-serving, hypocritical, and contradictory, those who believe free speech is central to liberal democracy surely need to examine how it is that free speech can so be easily co-opted to serve anti-democratic ends. It may be a “built-in feature of free speech that people have the right to express views that others dislike,” but how is it that, far from being “the instrument of the weak against the powerful and unjust,” as Mchangama points out it once was, free speech today has become the instrument of the powerful against the weak. Mchangama’s useful and compelling history lesson about civil rights merely emphasizes the dire state of today’s free speech discourse, as well as the fact that free speech is contingent, and that freedom is a social and historical construction.

So to be clear, I have no interest in “dumping free speech on the ash heap of history”; I am arguing that its use and the arguments for its defense need to be interrogated, scrutinized, and critiqued, and furthermore that the unquestioned assumptions undergirding liberalism need challenging or at least more robust defending than the tepid regurgitation of platitudes. I am arguing that any examination of free speech needs to contextualize and historicize, that is to say, to situate free speech matters within a broader set of questions concerning political and economic power, structural inequality, and discursive norms.

The blinkered focus on free speech, on the idea that there is a free speech crisis, is a smokescreen that prevents an examination of more important issues. The obsession with free speech is not only misguided and disingenuous, but a sign of a reluctance to address the root causes of anti-democratic and extremist attitudes and behavior. Rather than worrying about the so-called authoritarian left shutting down the speech of intellectual luminaries such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer, why not examine the social, economic, and political conditions that have enabled such opportunists to become so popular; rather than worrying about censorious students, why not worry about the fact that universities today are metrics-obsessed, ratings-chasing, consumer-led competitive organizations increasingly run like businesses. Or why not at least listen to student concerns, and consider the structural inequalities, or deep-rooted forms of oppression, prejudice, and disadvantage that student activists are trying to address. The “free speech crisis” narrative is doing the very opposite of what the loudest free speech defenders claim to being doing. It is silencing critical voices, preventing progress, and entrenching established points of view.

The so-called free speech crisis is merely a symptom of deeper problems with liberal democracy. One of which is that liberal democracy has historically only ever been selectively liberal and democratic, and indeed, has been constitutively exclusionary and hierarchical. Which is why any attempt to make a clear binary distinction between democracies and authoritarian states is questionable. Such binaries have always been a key component of liberal democracies’ self-mythologizing narratives. It is one of the many elements, along with the fetishizing of free speech, in a broader civilization discourse, a means of distinguishing between so-called civilized societies and those that are supposedly uncivilized. Lurking behind such claims is an orientalist binary that masks the manifold ways in which “free societies” have never been truly or even significantly free, liberal, or democratic – the example of slavery in my previous response being just one of many that I could have cited. Another might be the report released yesterday concerning the UK’s role in torture and rendition.

Finally, I am not suggesting “abandoning free speech as fundamental principle,” but I am questioning the blind defense of the abstract principle of free speech in the face of conditions – such as gross inequality, gross corporate power, and a gross, barely unregulated, largely unaccountable media – that mean that in practical terms the principle means very little. Indeed, it means that the principle is often used in the service of that which it is supposed to be a defense against.

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