What Liberals Don't Get About Free Speech in the Age of Trump

Nothing proliferates speech quite like a debate about a white man’s inalienable right to it.

Ever since a bit of lighting equipment was set on fire at UC Berkeley, causing the cancellation of a planned rally by Breitbart editor and professional crypto-fascist troll Milo Yiannopoulos, we’ve seen endless handwringing and finger-wagging defending his right to free speech and chastising of the evil, violent protesters. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t anywhere near this much speech surrounding the attempted murder of an anti-fascist protester at the University of Washington by one of Milo’s supporters. Apparently, a right-winger trying to shoot someone to death matters less than an anarchist smashing a Starbucks window, but I digress.

There are other confounding details as well. Were the violent actors at the Berkeley protests even students, or Black Bloc agitators from outside? Why do all accounts of the protest ignore the many months of peaceful work, operating entirely through speech, that had been dedicated to pushing back against the hate Yiannopoulos was spreading? Why is there less emphasis on what Yiannopoulos was actually at Berkeley to talk about — i.e. providing a training to Young Republicans on how to identify and report “illegal immigrant” students on Berkeley’s campus, a form of harassment that is nothing if not chilling on the speech of those students and potentially damaging to their prospects? Why have so few talked in detail about Milo’s specific acts of hate, from sexual harassing a blogger and supporting the abuse of Gamergate, to using derogatory slurs and anti-Semitic symbols, playing a role in the rise of hate crimes against Jewish people?

Why was there no battalion of op-eds in major newspapers about Adelaide Kramer, the trans woman Yiannopoulos harassed off of UW’s campus after he devoted the better part of his address there to attacking and slandering her? Whither her free speech, or her right to the education at UW that she had earned on her merits? Coverage of her story was limited mostly to online opinion outlets and Teen Vogue. Yiannopoulos warranted an editorial from the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.

We could even go more broadly and ask where these noble defenders of liberty — from eggs on Twitter to carefully manicured beards at TheGuardian — were when it emerged that US Customs and Border Patrol were searching the phones of certain people of color to see if they had criticized Trump on social media?

This entire essay could simply be comprised of questions like this — all the things that are not asked loudly enough or from lofty-enough platforms because they do not involve the rights of a photogenic right wing man, a “provocateur” that allows certain liberals to morally posture about how superior they are because they “tolerate” him.

But more should be said on what a right to free speech is, and is not, made of, and why so many nominal liberals (and leftists) routinely allow themselves to be seduced into defending the rights of fascists while ignoring the speech rights of the less powerful.

A common refrain is this: A right to free speech is not a right to a platform. But this statement needs to be unpacked a bit more because it is often misunderstood.

The New York Times allows anyone to submit an op-ed draft for consideration. As you might imagine, they’re snowed under by all the submissions. Some 1,200 per week — and that was back in 2004; imagine what the ease of widespread email submission has done to that number since then. Interspersed among those submissions, undoubtedly, are the ravings of someone who believes the Moon landing was a hoax, or that Area 51 is the site of an intergalactic conspiracy, or who simply believes that the earth is flat. Such people are passionate and compile mountains of “evidence” to support their deeply held beliefs. But I have yet to read an editorial carefully laying out the steps the US Government took to cover up NASA’s faux lunar landing, alas. Is this speech being suppressed? Are Moon Truthers having their rights violated?

And leaving aside these edge cases, what of the thousands of other rejectees who’ve written on more prosaic topics? Are they being censored by the Times’ editorial board?

No, obviously not. We have no problem understanding this: Even a major public forum for debate, like the Times’ which solicits a wide variety of views for its op-ed page, has a right to exercise editorial control. There are standards would-be op-ed writers are expected to meet, and there is a consensus about the spectrum of permissible views in that space. It is highly unlikely that the Times would publish an op-ed calling for the restoration of white rule in South Africa, or a Richard Spencerian piece arguing for the merits of “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” or an editorial demanding a return to chattel slavery. This is true even though there are people in this country who do indeed hold these views. But they are not being censored — they’re simply not being given a very large megaphone.

This is the key difference. You can think whatever you like, and even say it without fear of government reprisal, but when you introduce force-multipliers for speech into the equation, things begin to get very hazy indeed. You have a right to a view; do you have a right to pronounce it to millions of New York Times readers, however? No. We have no problem recognizing this when it’s about something silly like Bigfoot, but the minute matters of consequence enter the frame, suddenly people are mystified by the very existence of standards.

To speak to so vast an audience is a privilege, not a right. To speak through a newspaper or magazine column, a TV talk show, an interview on national TV, a speech at a university, or a primetime debate program, is, by its very nature, a privilege not open to all. There are billions of people on this planet, each speaking their views at any one time, but they can’t all appear on the Today show. Once again, we intuitively grasp this basic logistical matter, but forget about it entirely when a raving bigot shows up, feeling cornered by an abstract principle into insisting that he or she be given not only space to speak, but the largest possible platform and audience for it.

It has been the pride of my life to be able to write editorial copy and speak at universities and conferences around the world. I do not, however, delude myself into thinking I have a right to any of these things. They are privileges I have earned. I have a right to the views I espouse here; I do not have a specific right to force the editors of The Establishment to use their platform for that espousal.

The same applies to Yiannopoulos at Berkeley. What people are really arguing about is whether Yiannopoulos has a right to be paid to go on a speaking tour, complete with hotels, a bus (yes, really), and an entourage. That is a separate question from whether he has a right to hold his views; he could spread them, as so many do, from street corners and subway stations. He does not have a specific right to any particular rarefied rostrum, however.

The larger issue is why liberals keep letting themselves get suckered into this argument again and again. It was already a pointless extravagance in years past, but in the age of Trump and his proto-fascist presidency, it is a fatal indulgence.

One of the biggest problems with mainstream liberalism is its fetish for abstract principle over material reality. It is prone to forgetting that in a democracy, principles exist as a means to an end: the guarantee of maximal rights and liberties for the greatest number of people. A right is a tangible thing for the person who needs it most: a freedom from imprisonment by the state, food on the table, a roof over one’s head, a life free from deprivation. The abstraction of that right in legal documentation serves only to ensure its guarantee for the most people; when examining specific cases, we must always drill back down to the material in order to properly assess what is ethical and just.

What liberalism’s fetish for abstraction does, however, is leave it woefully unprepared for rights conflicts, which are inevitable in a complex society. At some point, one person’s exercise of their rights will come into conflict with another person exercising theirs, and this dispute must be adjudicated upon. Someone’s rights will be abridged as a result, which will be necessary to guaranteeing democracy’s stated aims.

The right to free speech is essential; it is very, very far from abstract. Ask anyone who had their phone searched at a border crossing this past week. That scenario is the very reason we have a First Amendment: uniformed, armed officers of the state, searching the correspondence of a civilian to see whether they criticized the president, punishing them if offending material is found. More than anything our First Amendment exists to protect the rights of the ordinary person to criticize those in power without fear of reprisal from the state. Yet instead we debate the right of an already rich man to use his exalted platform to take away the speech rights of others.

This is largely because liberal abstraction — and its counterparts on the political right — are very shy about delving into the specifics of any one case, lest it complicate an otherwise triumphantly straightforward argument.

So many people are hung up on Yiannopoulos’ right to free speech (without enumerating the specifics, e.g. a right to this platform, a right to payment from this institution, et cetera, none of which are democratic rights per se), while ignoring the rights his hate-mongering specifically abridges. This recent editorial in The Guardian by Matthew d’Ancona does not even try to reckon with the rights-conflict issue raised by Yiannopoulos’ planned Berkeley rally, and it’s quite typical in that regard. For the principle-obsessed pseudo-civil-libertarian, details only confuse the matter. D’Ancona merely gestures at it through yet more generalizing language, saying: “In a pluralist society, the line of least resistance is to shield citizens from offence. The problem is that everyone is offended by something, or by many things.” But this discourse of “offence” is a refuge for those who do not wish to speak of substance.

Yiannopoulos was not “offending” anyone; he was painting a target on the backs of Berkeley students, encouraging their classmates to harass them and incite the state itself into abusing them.

I seek no protection from offence. I’m a big girl, and I can handle being annoyed by the foolishness or narrow-mindedness of others. What I protest in Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot Tour” is that he incites action, which cannot be ignored or brushed off by its targets. Yet despite being central to the issue, it is rarely the focus of chest-beating free-speech absolutism in the editorial pages.

This also gets to the heart of why argument alone cannot be expected to prevail against this tide of proto-fascism. The futility of debate in such a scenario terrifies the good liberal reared on reruns of The West Wing, but it is a vital lesson in this dark hour.\

“Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” wrote Jean Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew. “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.” He might well be talking about the “troll” tactics beloved of today’s neo-Nazi alt-right, which cloaks its anti-Semitism (and sundry other bigotries) in irony and deceit.

Writing this past sunday in the LA Review of Books, Ron Rosenbaum, a leading scholar on the rise of Nazism, described what that looked like in the 1930s:

“[T]his tactic of playing the fool, the Chaplinesque clown, had worked over and over again, worked like a charm. It kept the West off balance. They consistently underestimated him and were divided over his plans (‘what does Hitler really want?’). The tactic became irresistible, as repeated always success does. Few took Hitler seriously, and before anyone knew it, he had gathered up the nations of Europe like playing cards.”
Rosenbaum links this tactic to the rise of Donald Trump and his cadre. This chameleon-like dissembling, being all things to all people, is specifically an armor against discourse, against those of us who “believe in words.” For Trump, his army of trolls, and his ideological lieutenants like Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, words are playthings used to win a moment’s battle, to elicit a reaction, and to hide as much as to reveal. It is their actions that speak true.

Yet some liberals prefer to chase men like Yiannopoulos through a postmodern hall of mirrors.

Hannah Arendt had the right of it when, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, she explained what the purpose of Nazi propaganda was. It was not a proposition presented for debate, compromise, and rebuttal, but an alternative reality that justified its own existence:

“The assumption of a Jewish world conspiracy was transformed by totalitarian propaganda from an objective, arguable matter into the chief element of the Nazi reality; the point was the Nazis acted as though the world were dominated by Jews and needed a counterconspiracy to defend itself.”

In other words, these were articles of faith that served to justify Nazism’s aims. They told the world what had to be true in order for race laws and death camps to make moral sense. This was not a matter for debate, though it had been disproven on its merits time and time again. Rosenbaum’s essay tells the heroic story of The Munich Post, a newspaper that had been a thorn in Hitler’s side for over a decade, reporting on his every move, exposing Nazi violence, even sounding the alarm about “the Final Solution” long before the rest of the world knew its true horror.

The paper was shuttered two months after Hitler’s election, with several reporters sent to camps or otherwise “disappeared.”

This puts d’Ancona’s praise for Channel 4 presenter Cathy Newman into perspective. He holds her tough questioning of Milo Yiannopoulos up as a prime example of how to deal with the man, and indeed her forthright and unwavering dissection of his empty views deserves much praise. But by d’Ancona’s logic, this should have spelled defeat for Yiannopoulos. Instead, he went on to win a lucrative book deal.

This is why we should roll our eyes every time Slate or Huffington Post declares that some satirist has “destroyed” or “eviscerated” some famous fool. It’s not just the exaggeration, but the overwhelming and naive faith in the power of merely disproving someone. All of Trump’s ideas, such as they were, were debunked time and again long before the election; it did not stop Wisconsinites from voting for him.

This is not to say that quests for truth are pointless — quite the opposite — but rather that we should understand what they can and cannot do. You cannot disprove the truth of an action; you can only combat it.This essay will undoubtedly be positioned as a defense of the violence at Berkeley. It isn’t; a disquisition on the merits of political violence as such requires its own article. But the argument I’ve made here should serve as an explanation of why, when faced with an establishment that is deaf to all reason, some may have felt setting lighting equipment on fire to be their only recourse.

Inasmuch as it stopped Yiannopoulos from radicalizing his audience into committing hate crimes against their fellow students, the protest achieved something meaningful. But it diminishes us to flush that down the memory hole of another pointless debate about tediously abstract and immature constructions of free speech. If we must do this, then let us do it properly. Let us call actions by their names, acknowledge the harms of those actions, and then, with the terms of debate and its principles properly grounded, discuss the matter.

After all, is that not what those of us who care about words are obliged to do?

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