Talking About Free Speech–Again

Yep, it’s that time again–another diatribe about free speech.

This episode was brought about by a group of people informing me and some others of an article by Stephanie Zvan, titled ‘Nazis, No-Platforming, and the Failure of Free Speech,’ in which she expresses support for Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a man in black and states, ‘Punching Richard Spencer is perhaps the best PR black bloc has ever had.’ A handful of people I know who have read the article seem to think Zvan is advocating violence, in the way she lauds Spencer getting punched.

I disagree with Zvan about punching Richard Spencer being even a good PR move, never mind the best one the black bloc has ever had, for the following reasons: a) police have historically gone undercover in activist circles, advocated committing crimes, and actually committed crimes while masked (among other tactics) to justify cracking down on dissent (see COINTELPRO); b) the person getting punched or otherwise assaulted can milk boatloads of sympathy from their supporters and those who don’t know any better, and thus get more support for their cause while making anyone who sides, even politically and philosophically, with their attacker look like at least a million miles of bad road; and c) Richard Bertrand Spencer and Company simply aren’t worth it. Don’t punch or otherwise assault fascists or fascist sympathizers, people. We’re better than that.

I’m not for punching people who spout ideas I find repulsive, but I understand we as a species don’t always think of the best course of action in the heat of the moment. I also understand it’s impossible to talk to people whose minds are already made up, so it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.

And that’s why I’m for no-platforming.

Let’s be clear: No-platforming is not a form of censorship. Those being no-platformed can still spread their ideas from other platforms and forums. The government isn’t getting involved, so no one is being censored. Also, no one is owed a platform or an audience, so if people find your ideas repulsive or otherwise disagree with you/them and don’t want to hear what you have to say, you’ll just have to suck it up and move on. And it really bugs me how fascists and proto-fascists have a beyond-annoying tendency to use their freedom of speech to stamp on their critics’ and opponents’ freedom of speech, and make bad-faith arguments about free speech in order to recruit and push their ideas into the mainstream discourse (see Sir Oswald Mosley).

There is a line between ‘radical’ and ‘tankie,’ and oftentimes that line can seem fine, but we can’t continue having important discussions on terms dictated by those with privilege. How many times does the left have to tell the right and the centre, as well as other leftists, that freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences? I have become quite familiar with the concept of ‘freeze peach’–essentially, a bastardization of the term ‘free speech,’ in which its advocates actually want consequence-free speech–but only for themselves. Actual free speech doesn’t work that way, though–freedom of speech is for everyone who lives in societies which have it. You can say what you want, but–again–no one is owed a platform or an audience, and there are consequences, especially if you go too far.

All told, I think Zvan is saying that we as a society have allowed individuals to abuse the value of freedom of speech to devalue other, marginalized human beings, and even try to deny them their right to exist and to make the world worse for all but a few privileged individuals for long enough, but I think she communicates this idea in such a way as to allow for misreading and misinterpretation of her article–and this serves poorly the cause(s) she is advocating for. And she doesn’t help herself or her cause(s) by failing to elaborate on what she means by ‘good speech’ and ‘bad speech’–‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not objective values, after all.

This is not the end of the debate about freedom of speech, nor the last time I stick my oar in to give my two cents’ worth about speech–far from it. I feel the need to stand up for freedom of speech and fight against the abuse thereof, no matter how tiresome the debate gets. But these are my thoughts about freedom of speech, and how it’s used.