Anti-fascist activists at Berkeley, 2017 [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]

The Myth of Free Speech

Free speech does not exist. It never has done, at least in any absolute sense. Freedom of speech, like any other concept, is an abstract ideal, one which has been polemicised and debated about since the dawn of time. Considered one of the founding principles of modern Western liberalism, it is sanctified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” As we have seen in countless examples throughout history, as well as the fictions of Orwell, Bradbury and many others, any infringements on the rights of citizens to express themselves freely can be a slippery slope leading to totalitarianism. However, when both its application and implications are considered in practical terms, things are never clear cut. In recent times there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the concept of free speech, from the Danish cartoons and Charlie Hebdo to political correctness and deplatforming of speakers from university campuses. While there has certainly been no short supply of column inches on the matter, the overwhelming scope of the issue has created an almightily tangled mess of ideas which is at first glance very hard to make any real sense out of. It being almost one of the defining philosophical and political issues of our time, however, causes the necessity for a genuine deconstruction of this debate in order to try to untangle some of this mess. And as with any rigorous and thorough examination of ideas, we must first begin with definitions.

One of the first things apparent is the often confused use of terminology when discussing free speech. When we look at the implementation of free speech in any democratic society, it is never anything more than an ideal that we strive towards, rather than an actual fact in itself. So when discussing free speech in today’s context, what exactly is it that people are actually referring to? And since it seems to be impossible to avoid having certain boundaries around what is allowed to be said, what should those boundaries be, and who should define them? Usually, the debate comes down to a discussion of the accepted code of conduct within a certain platform, and generally speaking there are three areas in which the concept of free speech is contested. The first level is that of centralised legislature, for when laws are passed banning certain speech. The most obvious examples of this would be the ban on hate speech in most democratic countries. The second level at which free speech can be discussed is that of individual institutions, such as in universities, workplaces and the media, since every institution has its own policy regarding what can and can’t be said in an official capacity. The third and final arena for the contention of free speech is in the sphere of societal norms, which is the language and terminology we consider acceptable among ourselves, but isn’t necessarily codified. This is not to say that these three platforms are unconnected — there is in fact a constant dynamic interplay between them, shaping each one over time. For instance, the laws governing a certain topic or a particular use of language can come to have an effect of silencing those issues at a societal level. However, in order to have a better understanding, let us examine each one a little more closely.

The philosophical basis for the banning of hate speech can be roughly ascribed to John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’, in short that the liberty of one individual should only exist to the extent that it does not infringe upon the liberty of another. There have been far too many instances in history of powerful people inciting violence on the more vulnerable members of society through not only eliciting hateful sentiments, but more concretely through a process of dehumanisation and othering. Before the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, for example, the Hutu-run radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) acted as a major source of propaganda against the Tutsis, labeling them as cockroaches, and caused a significant proportion of the violence and death that followed. While it is impossible to not see the necessity of curbing this kind of speech, this approach is not without its pitfalls. The blanket ban on Nazi politics and holocaust denial in Germany and Austria after the Second World War was seen as a necessary step to never allow a repeat of one of the worst human atrocities in history. However, fast forward to 2018, and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in all effect a neo-Nazi party, have 92 seats in the German Bundestag after the 2017 general election, from a campaign run on a purely anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform. As Günter Grass so poignantly displays in his 2002 novel Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk), the legacy of that silence around the holocaust was not to make Nazism disappear, but rather to drive it underground, aided in particular by the anonymity of the Internet in later decades. It’s no coincidence that it is not just in Germany, but across the entirety of Europe and the US, that this ethnocentric authoritarian politics is rearing its ugly head once again, despite having remained on the fringes for more than half a century, and the various laws surrounding hate speech that have been implemented in these countries in the meanwhile. Users on popular Internet platforms such as YouTube and Reddit have indeed served as a major radicalising force in this current resurgence of Fascism, as Grass noted nearly two decades ago. It is therefore clear to see that imposing restrictions on speech at the level of legislature is certainly limited, if not altogether ineffective at affecting the hateful ideologies that leads to violence. Additionally, when it comes to defining what speech is banned, the waters rapidly become murky, particularly when it comes to voicing political dissent. As is customary in authoritarian regimes around the world, and throughout history, political opposition to the regime can easily be silenced under the banner of protecting the state’s interest. Regardless, no matter how many flaws are apparent in the restriction of free speech by law, every state has an obligation to outlaw hate speech, and it is hard to imagine a democratic society where that principle is not upheld.

Middlebury College students protest against controversial author Charles Murray speaking on campus. [File: Jon Olender/AP]

OK, so how about the second area of speech regulation, that of individual institutions? There has been a great deal of heated discussion on the subject in recent years, and in particular accusations that the Left has taken over various institutions and is shutting down worldviews which differ to them, such as in the case of the student protests at Berkley against the invitation of Milo Yannopoulos, or the infamous Google Memo. First of all, the inherent political biases at institutions, both academic and otherwise, are certainly not inherently Left-wing, as is evident from cases such as Norman Finkelstein’s — an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and its occupation on Palestinian territories, he is now in academic exile in the US ever since humiliating Alan Dershowitz on a radio debate. There have been countless other professors and speakers who have been denied tenure or a platform to speak due to their critical political views, not to mention the anti-Communist purges through all industries during the McCarthy era, which was used to silence much broader political dissent and break up the unions. Secondly, in the 1960s, we saw the poststructuralist turn in the humanities, a new perspective on academics, which identified the world to be the result of a complicated and interlinked web of power relations. With the hugely influential works of Foucault, Said, the Frankfurt School and many others, we could now understand cultural artefacts, including words themselves, to be the signifiers of power, through the meaning we ascribe to them. As power relations change over time, words take on new meanings, and as such the meaning of a particular word at a certain point in history is a reflection of the dominant discourse of that time. However, as much as the meaning of words are reflective of the discourse, they are also what upholds those very power relations by reinforcing them every time they are uttered, and thereby words maintain the dominance of the discourse. In universities, or any other institution for that matter, the accepted terms of speech are reflective of the views or wishes of those with the power to make such decisions, just as is the case for the editorial policies of media corporations. However, now that we have an understanding of the role of words in shaping power relations, isn’t it our imperative to make a concerted effort to challenge those discourses by ascribing new meanings to some words, and preventing the violence caused by others?

This brings us finally to speech at the level of societal norms, the unspoken rules of what we can and cannot say in the company of others. Language is extremely powerful in itself — it is possibly the first thing that truly distinguishes the power of humans, is the foundation of all society, and as individuals we each have the capacity to use it. However, even if we physically could, we don’t simply say any and everything that we could. Why? Because language is sacred in that it has the power to create as much as to destroy, and returning to the Harm Principle, we have a duty to consider the consequence of our speech, especially to those in our immediate surroundings, because we are ultimately dependant on each other for survival. Just because we have the power to offend, does that mean we must? #MeToo was a significant moment because it exposed to the world the true prevalence of sexual harassment and assault that women face across the board, regardless of industry or personal status. It has caused in its wake on the one hand vicious backpedalling by institutions trying to save face by dissociating themselves from accused parties, but on the other hand a serious moment of introspection among all men as to what kind of speech and behaviour is considered acceptable towards women. At least I sincerely hope it has. So we can see that even disregarding restrictions on speech at the legal and institutional levels, we limit our own speech voluntarily all the time.

Something I take great objection to is when people rush to the defence of offensive and hateful material by appealing to the sanctity of free speech, often with an intellectually dishonest pretence of neutrality. This is particularly true of well-meaning liberals, for example when they jumped to the defence of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. Discounting the absolutely inexcusable attack itself, if we compare their frankly racist caricatures of Islam with anti-Semitic cartoons of the late 19th century, there are many similarities. They were themselves reflective of a hugely racist and xenophobic sentiment towards Jews from that time, as are similar depictions reflections of the current attitude towards Muslims in many parts of Europe and America. We know better now than to publish similar caricatures of Jewish people because we have seen what the logical outcome of letting such hate go unchecked can be, so how can we be so arrogant to think that there can’t be a repeat of such atrocities once again? Every time we choose to speak, to make use of the power of language, we are always in effect exercising a political choice, picking a side in a debate, and often times it comes down to choosing whether to uphold dominant systems of oppression or to challenge them. The question is, which choice should we make? For me, the answer is straightforward.

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Aranyo Aarjan

North London Bengali, writing about politics, culture, football and climate