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In the past couple of months, I’ve seen many, many people complain about protesters blocking entrance to talks on campus by professional instigator Milo Yiannopolous. “No, no”, people say. “Go in and listen and challenge him. Free speech is important. The best counter to bad speech is more speech. Ugh, these protesters are so violent and immature.”
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen many, many people say that willingness to punch neo-Nazi Richard Spencer or to appreciate the fact that someone else punched him makes someone equivalent to a Nazi morally. “Noooo”, they say. “If you resort to violence, you have no standing to object to their violent suggestions. You say it’s okay to hit people whose opinions you disagree with. Plus it won’t stop them.”
To everyone who’s found themselves saying one version or another of those: Y’all have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re making stuff up to support your predetermined stance on freedom of speech.
I mean that part about making stuff up literally. No one I’ve heard say anything like this about Yiannopolous has been to one of his productions. I have.
To start with, Yiannopolous makes nearly no arguments in his presentations. He does make assertions, but rather than backing them up with anything, his schtick is to talk about how outrageous he is for saying these things and giggle that it makes people mad at him. No one will be educated on the reasoning of the Right by engaging with him.
What they’ll find instead is demagoguery and Yiannopolous encouraging the audience to suppress dissent. When an attendee spoke out of turn to challenge him on the assertion that there is no gender pay gap, that person was ridiculed by Yiannopolous and then shouted down by the audience. Once that person was escorted out of the auditorium by security (the response to every disruption), Yiannopolous finally calmed the crowd. Then he asked, “Is anyone else here stupid enough to believe in the pay gap?”, with the implication anyone answering in the affirmative would be subject to the same treatment.
The Q&A provided no opportunities for give and take, either. Questions were provided to a moderator on note cards. If anything challenging was handed in, it wasn’t read. And when one audience member shouted out something meant to be supportive that Yiannopolous had no answer to, he simply called for the next question. This was not a forum for debate.
Even before you get to the question of Yiannopolous using a university platform to harass university students, the argument from a free exchange of ideas falls flat. These events don’t expose any reasoning, and they actively suppress dissent while refusing to engage with it. Nothing is clarified. Nothing is challenged. Without protests, the only thing achieved is to provide a safe space for regressive views. With protests that seek to block entrances, it’s hard to define any value beyond abstract principle that is lost.
The basic wrongness of the arguments over Spencer is easier to articulate, easy enough that I only do it because of their ubiquity. Punching someone in order to disrupt their ability to organize people for the purpose of harming or killing millions of people is not equivalent to advocating to harm or kill millions of people. One is a limited act intended to prevent greater harm. The other is intended to normalize eugenics and “ethnic-cleansing”, or genocide, based on stereotypes and post hoc manufactured “science”. This wouldn’t even make a good trolley problem. (“You can punch a neo-Nazi who might fall onto the switch lever, which might divert the train away from millions of people, or you can do nothing. Choose.”)
Now, of course, intent is one thing. The probable outcomes of actions are another. Here too, however, there’s a lot of nonsense being said with intimations of authority. The idea that neo-Nazis are only now after a public punch going to act out with violence is absurd and ahistorical. Nazis in various club scenes have long used violence or the threat of violence. Responding in kind made them clear out, not escalate.
The idea that punching a neo-Nazi generates any kind of widespread sympathy is also unsupported. Sure, the Nazis themselves say it’s their strategy, but the modern regressive movement is second only to cats in proclaiming, “We meant to do that.” That doesn’t make it true.
There’s a very good reason Nazi demonstrations are used as the edge case when advocating for free speech. We have a pretty solid cultural understanding, verging on a shared visceral disgust, that Nazis are awful. It’s ubiquitous in our media, which is why Spencer spends so much time trying to dress up his positions in fancier words. He knows our cultural heroes punch Nazis even if you don’t. Punching Richard Spencer is perhaps the best PR black bloc has ever had. You personally might have sympathy for Spencer, but your argument from that personal position is not convincing.
The question of whether punching the occasional neo-Nazi will actually stop eugenic practices and genocide is an open one. The threat is real. Trump’s inaugural speech was written by a white supremacist, used Nazi-sympathizer and KKK language, and used racial coding to declare large portions of our population a problem in need of a solution. His rallies were filled with direct calls for racial and gender-based violence. People are already experiencing violence and the threat of violence. He’s consolidating power in ways that would make eugenic and genocidal policies harder to fight. We don’t know what can stop people like Spencer when they already have friends in power except toppling a government. It hasn’t been done. However, that also means that declaring this punch ineffective is a guess, not an argument.
The assertion that instead of punching, we should be engaging Nazis on their arguments is pure free speech fetishism. It’s assigning power to argument that hasn’t been demonstrated. The idea that we’ll convince anyone that all human life is deserving of protection through the exchange and support of logic propositions is ridiculous. That’s a value proposition. Those aren’t instilled through debate. They’re instilled and maintained through socialization.
That’s one of the places where free-speech fetishists have fallen down hard in recent years. The broad conflation of social disapproval and social consequences–and even proper labeling–with censorship has undercut social speech dramatically. Rather than treating disapproval and ostracization as powerful tools that should be used with care and forethought, they’ve been treated as betrayals of Enlightenment values. Many of their users, ironically enough, have been subject to organized disapproval and ostracization.
Are there other ways to change these values? There are, but they require significant access to the person whose mind you want to change. Otherwise, indoctrination can be highly durable. That kind of access not easy to get voluntarily. The circumstances under which it can occur are highly unusual in a separatist group. Far more often, it’s only available through government intervention. If you don’t have that, you’re the enemy and a dupe (or “cuck”). You’re not getting through to the Nazis.
You might, however, possibly be able to get through to people who aren’t ideologically committed to racial supremacy but find that the “scientific evidence” they’ve spent decades manufacturing compelling, either reluctantly or because it enforces their positive beliefs about themselves. Evidence-based beliefs are vulnerable to attacks on the evidence. However, this points to the second major failure of free-speech fetishists.
One of the biggest pieces of bullshit we’ve been handed in recent memory is the idea that freedom of speech is a moral good in itself. What’s the problem? Doesn’t matter. The answer is free speech. Just that. Free speech.
That’s slightly hyperbolic, but there is a real problem here, even more pervasive than the push against social disapproval of speech. Like any freedom, free speech entails an obligation. If you want free speech, you have to do certain things for yourself and for your community, because no overarching authority is going to do them for you. That includes championing good speech. If you want a marketplace of ideas, you have to be damned sure the good ones are easy to find. If you sell a marketplace of ideas as a good thing for society and humanity, you owe it to us all to make that true.
That isn’t what often happens in practice, however. It is, after all, a whole lot easier just say, “The answer to bad speech is more speech”, than it is to speak cogently and compellingly against bad speech. Bad speech is easy to produce in bulk. It doesn’t have to be true or well-reasoned. It doesn’t require nuance. It can play to people’s biases whether appropriate or not.
Good speech requires knowledge, not just of its subject matter but also of its audience, of the political climate in which it will be heard and the questions at stake. It requires recognition of the real uncertainties of life, even when those make it a harder sell because we find confidence persuasive. It requires championing messy, complicated positions that are difficult to explain and understand.
Good speech is hard. Frankly, most champions of free speech aren’t up to the challenge. That’s not a dig against them in particular. Most people aren’t up to the challenge. Even those who are have limits on the topics they can effectively address.
Sometimes they don’t know they’re not up to it. Then we get people who promote bad speech with token resistance. “Here, let me have you on my show, where I will ask you a handful of naive questions you’ve heard before (and can facilely counter) in the name of debate.” This is worse than useless for promoting good speech, because it creates the appearance that the good speech on the topic is easily defeated.
Sometimes they know they can’t provide the necessary good speech but assume debate among others will take care of their obligations. They post bad speech and ask for reactions, hoping the bad speech will be countered. While I applaud the personal humility, this still grossly underestimates the difficulty of good speech. It also overestimates the value of debate. This is usually accompanied by a complete failure to moderate this debate in a way that promotes any of the qualities of good speech over those of bad speech.
Still, though, most free-speech advocates do nothing to ensure good speech beats bad speech. They treat it like a true fetish. Or worse, they prioritize promoting the bad speech.
Why? Well, there are probably several reasons, since it’s a large group, but a couple jump out. Some people adopt pro-free-speech positions for the purpose of promoting bad speech they agree with, some even only for bad speech they agree with, since it’s the only way to make this speech acceptable. Others will promote bad speech to demonstrate their commitment to free speech. The extremes provide the most solid proof of their devotion, where promoting good speech proves nothing.
What very few crusaders for free speech are doing is effectively working to see good speech win. They don’t produce it. They don’t seek it out. They don’t promote it. They don’t defend it from attack. They don’t demand it in the spaces they control. Or they make a mere token effort at any of these, spending less time on the attempt than on promoting free speech as that moral good. They don’t even consistently apply social condemnation of bad speech, lest their actions be confused with censorship.
Yet they go on saying free speech is the solution. It could be, maybe. Or maybe it could have been at some point before now had its champions lived up to their responsibilities. It’s hard to say at this point. Thankfully, these political situations are rare, even if we’re about to collect a whole lot more (complicated, fuzzy) data on them.
It’s much easier to say that arguments for the primacy and efficacy of free speech in this situation are failing in this situation. It’s also easy to say that there are good reasons for that, both in the shape of those arguments and in the lack of work done to bolster them in real-world ways. This is more than fear curtailing freedoms.
If we ever manage to get back to a point where people are willing to listen to those arguments again, if we keep our own freedom of speech, it would be best for their cause if the defenders of free speech worked a bit harder to make it something worth having. That might even save us from situations like this that put it in peril.
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