home Commentary, Current Affairs, Politics Protecting truly free speech is hard work

Protecting truly free speech is hard work


Recently I undertook a final year undergraduate class in political philosophy. The opening lecture commenced with a trailer from 1984 (1984). This film adaptation of George Orwell’s original dystopian novel (1949) imagines a society monitored pedantically by an all-encompassing omniscient totalitarian super state (Oceania).

My lecturer subsequently discussed her upbringing in formerly USSR-controlled East Germany. East Germany was a microcosmic manifestation of ‘Airstrip One’ (Britain rechristened in 1984). It was a relatively small communist province managed maliciously from Russia.

What dangers can transpire when a singular overriding ideology is bequeathed an exclusive cultural and legislative precedence?

Stringent protections of free speech (‘the right to dissent’) are an important guarantor against any potential monopoly of power. When free speech is unjustifiably curtailed, democratic societies are threatened. Enabling disparate voices to participate in political and academic life ensures that current ‘orthodoxies’ become neither lackadaisical nor presumptively unequivocal. Unpopular schools of thought, strong opposition parties and a variety of editorial slants constrain intellectual egomania and unhealthy political power grabs.

Most people will acknowledge this principle to some extent. At a base level, many Republicans recognize that they need Democrats. Often, academics are more indebted to their detractors than they would care to admit. But should disparate fascist cohorts and militant Islamic groups be given a hearing in democratic societies? Should extremist spokespersons be allowed to benefit from the privileges which they would seek to suppress in alternative circumstances?

What if particular radical tenets exploited susceptible listeners? Surely some measure of benevolent paternalism is warranted. In practice, many developed nations do place limitations upon free speech.

Recently, Ursula Haverbeck, a prolific revisionist historian and neo-Nazi, was imprisoned for denying the Holocaust on German soil. The British government has also introduced anti-extremism legislation. Even views which were once the main sway of opinion merely decades ago are now mitigated against legislatively and on university campuses.

In 2016, Angus Buchan (a conservative evangelical South African evangelist) was banned from preaching in Scotland. LGBT groups cited his allegedly homophobic and misogynistic views in justification of the prohibition. Offbeat second wave feminists like Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia have had their invitations to universities revoked by disenfranchised students.

These measures are not only inappropriate, but fundamentally counter-productive. Furthermore, they send a dangerous message to zealous minority factions. The prima facie obvious ought to be stated: these demarcations are purely symbolic. Everyone knows that the most efficient way to stifle reprehensible opinions merely requires not paying attention to them.

Unsurprisingly; bannings, finings and imprisonment provide frenzied radicals with much larger spheres of influence. Nothing is more ineffectual than bestowing notoriety upon fringe groups which would otherwise have never been given any platform. Attempts to curtail free speech merely ratify the grandiose outlaw status which agitators thrive upon. Outrage just adds fuel to the fire of irrational contempt.

If certain views really are beyond the pale of rational discourse, there is no inherent reason for their adherents to feel any compulsion towards dialogue, compromise or self-critique. Abhorrent positions should be forced to earn their place in an economy of ideas rather than being crowned royalty in a much more lucrative, less competitive, black market.

Why then have coercive attempts to restrict ‘hate speech’ become so popular? Perhaps attempts to officially proscribe certain opinions pertains to a far more raw, emotive and visceral essence. An ancient human facet has resurfaced: team psychology.

An ability to cooperate in large collectives is one of the characteristics which distinguish humanity from other primates. This remnant of our tribal ancestry is manifest almost everywhere; competitive sports; fashion; political partisanship; etc. Even whenever we are not facing any imminent danger we still sense a pressing need to express particular loyalties and make specific alliances.

However, in his infamous Ted Talk, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (N.Y.U.) identified one precarious trait innate to team psychology: “The psychology of teams […] shuts down open minded thinking.”

This is tantamount to stating the obvious. But Haidt’s observation should provoke serious introspection. Is it possible to reasonably discard ingroup thinking and pursue the common good? Do attempts to ‘officially’ silence various antagonistic voices actually have a predominantly self-validating function?

Our position within a specific social tribe is reinforced. We are no longer required to critically assess objectionable opinions. The immense pleasure tribalism affords us makes it difficult and painful to distinguish between advocacy and enactment. Acknowledging the practical ineffectuality of anti-free speech legislation feels like betrayal.

Notwithstanding this phycological complication, there remains an immense difference between allowing persons to vocalize positions and possessing a blaze attitude towards the manifestation of such beliefs. Mob psychology has undoubtedly contributed to the rise of populism and social polarization (e.g. identity politics) throughout many Western nations which arose after the 2007-2008 global economic meltdown. Speech regulation provides continuity in an unstable world.

However, preemptively shutting down the possibility of dialogue with ‘others’ cannot provide long term social security. The ‘War on Extremism’ will soon be cataloged alongside other failed social ‘Wars’ (like the ‘War on Terrorism’ or ‘War on Drugs’). If monitoring language is counter-productive, what posture should anti-extremist political engagement take?

Free speech has become a hot button issue in recent years. The rise of cultural libertarianism (embodied by alternative media outlets like ‘the Rubin Report’) has remapped the political landscape for many millennials. Its purported ‘free speech fundamentalism’ resonates amongst people alienated by consensus politics; which characterized both the 90’s and Noughties. Cultural libertarianism is a flashy somewhat adolescent protest movement with plenty of uncanny insights and a remarkable lack of real solutions.

The conscientious branding which these star struck demagogues have deployed does their crusade a damning disservice. They have inadvertently capitalized upon the tribal loyalties which underlying anti-free speech regulation in the first place.

Furthermore, this movement has failed to attract much needed cross-partisan support. Left of center socially minded democrats, often disparagingly christened ‘Social Justice Warriors,’ are presumptively excluded from this more ‘open’ project. As Milo Yiannopoulos (a recently defamed former darling of the Cultural Libertarian troop) states; “free speech is now a conservative issue.”

Cultural Libertarianism is too facile. Its unwavering commitment to value ‘facts over feelings’ reflects a limited awareness of the complexities inherent throughout the historical development of moral and political theory. Social liberalism has produced revolutionary free speech advocates like the infamous British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. Without the Quran political toleration may never have got off the ground.

Yes; free speech is under threat. Democratic participation is difficult. Authentic university life is fragile. The freedom of the press is always somewhat in jeopardy. Protecting free speech involves hard work. It requires putting up with ideas we dislike and hoping that reasonable discourse will win out in the end.

Free speech advocates on the right, left, top, bottom and center should recognize the importance of grey. We must stop painting ourselves and our adversaries in cheap gaudy colors. Unless we are careful, one person’s utopia may become everyone else’s nightmare.

Photo: John Nakamura Remy/Creative Commons