Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Free speech?

In the United States and the United Kingdom, there have been protests in universities, against certain speakers coming to address the student bodies.

 

“Free speech”. Photo by Newtown grafitti. Flickr bit.ly/21e7sqJ

Steve Latham

 

In particular, erstwhile feminist fore-runners have been surprised at becoming the victims of ‘no platform’ policies.

This has resulted in people, like Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia, being labelled as ‘TERFs’ (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists).

The furore has not only affected invitations to speak at private student clubs, but also academic tenure, as, for example, Paglia has faced calls for her teaching contract to be cancelled. Excited to find potential allies in the culture wars, the political Right has complained about these assaults on what they call ‘free speech’.

While the wider views of radical feminists clearly deviate from cultural conservatism, on a range of issues concerning women’s rights, at this point the Right scents common cause.

Photo: Marcella Via

It is, however, ironic, and hypocritical, of right-wing commentators, like Rod Dreher, because conservatives were never previously noted for their support of free speech for left-wing radicals.

It’s only when their own interests, of cultural conservativism, are threatened, that they get on their high horse of moral outrage.

This happened recently when, the very reactionary, Jordan Petersen’s visiting fellowship to Cambridge University was revoked after protests about his political views.

But there is hypocrisy on the left as well. In the 1960s, free speech was the catchword of the, anti-Vietnam war, New Left and student rebellion.

But whenever they get the chance, leftists also restrict free speech. Trigger warnings are required before classes on controversial topics, and ‘no platforming’ becomes institutional policy.

This, however is dangerous. I remember supporting ‘no platform’ motions against racists and fascists in my university. But what about when we ourselves are ‘no-platformed’?

The turning point, as Michel Foucault realised, is ‘power’. Demands for free speech are made when our group is weak.

When we achieve power, we change tack, and exercise power against the losers, who used their earlier power to silence us.

The tables are turned, and yesterday’s oppressed becomes today’s oppressor. As Nazi lawyer, Carl Schmitt, wrote: politics is about the ability to define our enemy.

Photo: Marcella Via

Certainly, there needs to be protection for the weak. The trouble with conservative calls for free speech is that it usually represents protection for the already privileged – white males.

Yet the curbs on speech are needed. Hate speech, for example, must be curtailed. But what counts as ‘hate speech’?

At the extremes, it’s clearly when rhetoric explicitly advocates violence or discrimination against certain classes of people.

But what about less explicit discourse, which creates a wider, but undefinable, ‘atmosphere’, which allows previously censored actions to become acceptable? This is clear from a report in The Guardian, revealing that racial attacks have become more common, since the Brexit vote, which normalised racist attitudes, speech, and actions.

But how do we overcome our natural tendency to tolerate only those we like, while suppressing those we detest?

Perhaps we should learn the lesson of Martin Niemoller, who was imprisoned for his opposition to Nazism:

Photo: Marcella Via

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

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