When we talk about ‘free speech’, what are we actually talking about? Questions of speech rights, censorship and platforming are among the most complex we face, and largely deserve the word-counts we lavish on them. But it often feels as though there’s something more to the gravitational pull they exert, something fetishistic in the way that left and right alike are drawn to the topic. And if it is like a fetish, it might not be too surprising if it turned out that the object of our interminable debates, ‘speech’, was somewhat less real, somewhat more imaginary, than we assume.
As real-life language-users, we never actually encounter some abstract thing called ‘speech’. What we encounter is situated language-use: particular things people say or write that are meaningful to us or not; things that resonate or leave us cold; that we agree or disagree with; things that matter or that don’t. It’s a peculiarly modern idea that it could make sense to separate speech as such from its content, context and effects in the way that most freedom of speech discussions presuppose. To ignore the differences between different utterances, and sweep them indiscriminately up into the catch-all category ‘speech’ – as we do when we demand freedom for it – is to frame the debate at a level of generality and abstraction that we never actually experience, and which therefore should be politically irrelevant.
Speaking can never be severed from the rest of life. That almost seems too obvious to state, but it’s got an important consequence that is regularly ignored: asking whether or not someone ‘believes in free speech’ is a hopelessly general question, which makes about as much sense as asking whether they believe in free movement. Without knowing what kind of speech is at stake, the question is vacuous. Just as some kinds of movement – those of human traffickers, for instance, or of armed forces supporting colonial oppression – certainly shouldn’t be free, so, as almost everyone in these debates agrees, some kinds of speech (incitement, hate speech, genocide denial, defamation, misleading advertising: take your pick) shouldn’t be either.
Trump’s recent ban from social media has provided the latest opportunity to measure what speech’s real-world effects can be, and raised questions whose relevance goes far beyond it or any other free-speech controversy du jour. Many of the debates centred, as usual, around the feared ‘precedent-setting’ effects of the exclusion and the politically best response to it. While liberals often supported the ban and conservatives regularly opposed it, a Voltairean spectre haunted some parts of the left. If you live in a glass house, some said, you should probably forget about stones: radicals implementing or approving censorship of any kind simply gives our political opponents tools that will be turned against us.
‘Censorship,’ Branko Marcetic argued after Trump’s exclusion from Twitter, ‘always begins by targeting particularly unsympathetic people, those who it is uncontroversial to censor. But once you set that precedent, inevitably, the bounds of what is considered acceptable or wrong always ends up expanding.’ The argument is conventional: ‘The Left needs free speech’, Chip Gibbons wrote last year, so it mustn’t sour ‘on stringent free speech protections’. ‘Weakening free speech rights,’ he suggested, will come back to haunt the Left – providing our opponents tools to silence us.’ Glenn Greenwald made another version of this argument a few days ago:
unleash this monster and one day it will come for you. And you’ll have no principle to credibly invoke in protest when it does. You’ll be left with nothing more than lame and craven pleading that your friends do not deserve the same treatment as your enemies.
Sometimes, concerns about the ‘precedent-setting’ effects of censorship and the risk of ‘providing our opponents tools to silence us’ are entirely justified. In law, for instance, ‘precedent’ literally does create or strengthen tools that can be – and are already – used against the left. Since legal precedents have real power, the left should avoid booby-trapping itself by strengthening the state’s ability to repress us through the courts. For similar reasons, we have to be extremely careful demanding that deeply reactionary social media companies censor our opponents, or calling for the censorship of academics or public figures with views we find objectionable. If we successfully urge tech companies or other organisations to ban our opponents, a precedent is established that might well be used to justify censoring us down the track.
But some commentators regularly assume that the power of precedent extends much further than the legal sphere or concrete bans, crediting mere political argument with the same precedent-setting capacities as the courts. For these commentators, we should go out of our way to actively defend freedom of speech for the right and far-right, on the grounds that doing so sets a precedent that will boost our own speech rights in the future, whereas not doing so will harm them. In December, for instance, Leigh Phillips claimed that if we excuse censorship when it targets our political opponents, then ‘we have no leg to stand on’ when it comes to censorship directed against us. ‘Civil liberties are for everyone,’ he says, ‘and above all for those we oppose.’
This Voltaireanism is ubiquitous. ‘If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us’ is how the signatories to last year’s controversial Harper’s letter put it. Numerous critics of Trump’s exclusion from Twitter made the same point.
To many people, this position may sound mature, critical and pragmatic, as well as simply principled. To me, it seems mistaken. The belief that we’re ‘setting a precedent’ when we argue for or against the censorship of our opponents evokes an orderly, principled world of political rationality light years distant from society’s actually existing Realpolitik. It also embodies an overblown assessment of the significance of explicit political argumentation, resting on a conception of power that’s simultaneously paradoxical and Polyannaish. On the one hand, we credit ourselves with a demiurgic ability to set or undermine precedents that others will respect. On the other, we lay our political weakness bare for all to see: we despise what our opponents say, we tell the world, and we know that the first thing they’ll do when they come to power is try to crush us, but we’re going to defend to the death their right to say it, because we’re going to need the same speech rights when our time comes.
As has often been pointed out, social and traditional media companies and many different organisations – universities, cultural festivals, publishers, digital platforms – already censor many kinds of radicals, and do so doggedly. And they don’t rely on any kind of ‘precedent’ to do so: they’re free agents constrained only by their stakeholders and public opinion. When Twitter or Facebook censor Palestinian supporters, or when Facebook closed down Socialist Workers’ Party pages last week, for instance, they typically don’t feel any need to explain themselves at all. Sometimes, it’s true, Facebook has justified censoring Palestinian voices on the grounds that they’re ‘hate speech’ – an outright lie, as we can demonstrate to any reasonable standard of proof simply by pointing to the facts on the ground in Palestine itself. Clearly, Zionists and their supporters, including in social media companies, won’t accept those demonstrations: they’ll brand Palestinian solidarity as hate speech no matter what. They’re simply not reasonable – which is exactly why we can’t expect them to honour any ‘precedents’ we might try and establish by defending our opponents’ speech rights, and why breaking their hold over the public sphere has to be a key demand of the left.
But what about everyone else? Don’t radicals lose credibility if they adopt a pick-and-choose attitude to free speech? Won’t we be dismissed as partisan if the only censorship we decry is the kind directed at us? Won’t our criticisms of the bans we’re already subject to be undermined if we’re not equally vocal for the free speech of our opponents? Unless we’re consistent on free speech, won’t we create a situation where – as Greenwald put it – ‘force, not principle, will be the sole factor deciding the outcome’?
As far as I can see, the answer to these questions is no. No-one, except our political opponents, particularly cares about, or is monitoring, our consistency on free speech. The consistency that does matter to people is about substantive political content – whose side we’re on, which causes we defend, what reforms we’re campaigning for. What makes the positions of the left consistent is, quite simply, the political goals they embody.
The freedom that the left should stand for is freedom from oppression, not freedom for oppressors like Trump. So we certainly shouldn’t defend the kind of undifferentiated ‘freedom’ that is violated when one of our political adversaries – Twitter – bans another – the former president – from its platform. In those cases, the best option is a tactical silence: no defence of Trump’s ‘free speech’, certainly no congratulations to a reactionary click billionaire forced, no doubt for entirely the wrong reasons, into censoring the right; no compromising political support to either. And when the Left defends itself from censorship, we can do far better than complain that those banning us are violating a procedural ‘free speech’ truce that we thought we’d reached with them.
For years now, as documented by, among others, two incisive recent books by Gavan Titley and Anthony Leaker, free speech has become the political standard behind which both racists and reactionaries assemble. So slippery is it as a value that our opponents not infrequently justify censoring us on the grounds of protecting their own ‘free speech’. Emptied as it has been of much of its political content, the notion readily lends itself to this kind of use: Zionists, for instance, predictably accuse the Palestine solidarity movement of violating their own free speech; in universities, the BDS movement is always attacked as an enemy of academic freedom – academics’ and students’ freedom of expression.
In a world where free speech has become a reactionary war-cry, the notion is principally understood as meaning that right-wing views must always be represented. Free speech is, as a result, arguably losing its ability to mobilise progressives. Instead of pinning our hopes on it as the guarantee of a platform, we’d do better to say what we positively stand for – economic, environmental and social justice, anti-racism, anti-fascism, internationalism, the end to all exploitation, real political freedom for everyone – and do everything we can to differentiate ourselves from political forces with the opposite goals. Compared to that, appealing to a bloodless tolerance that also embraces Trump and neo-Nazis as the justification for left speech is a compromising diversion from the substance of our politics. Our substantive agenda is what will most sway the public, ultimately our best defence when we find ourselves censored.
Those who vow to defend their opponents’ speech rights ‘to the death’ are speaking accurately: the insistence that we support our political adversaries’ ability to spread their ideas is something of a death wish. The power of the state and private companies to shape the public sphere in their image should certainly be opposed. Not infrequently, that will lead us to support the speech rights of people we disagree with in different ways. But, since speech is never just speech, when it’s a question of whose free expression we choose to explicitly defend, its content matters. We’re under no obligation to call for freedom of speech for our dangerous political enemies, just as we’re not obliged to facilitate or defend open borders for human traffickers. When, for once, it’s our opponents who are censored, there’s no reason we should actually help them by defending their right to propagandize, since doing so seriously muddies the political battle-lines we should aim to keep as clear as possible.
We generally shouldn’t call for censorship by states or other powerful actors. But since speech is inseparable from its content, actually defending the right to a platform of someone like Trump when it is withdrawn means conceding the legitimacy of the very political forces we should be combating. The entente we try to enter into with our enemies and their allies is treacherous for us and politically misleading about whose side we’re on. Let the far right defend its own ‘freedom of speech’. We should have better things to do.
Image by John Cameron