There is a gaping chasm between the rhetoric and reality of Alternative Right activists on the issue of free speech.
Last week in People’s Park in Berkeley, California, something strange happened. A tiny demonstration of activists from the far-right Alternative Right movement (whose infamous alt-right wing believes that ‘white identity’ is under threat) decided to hold a small rally, despite the cancellation of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ ‘Free Speech Week’.
On the slightly raised wooden stage were members of the far-right men’s fraternity, the Proud Boys, replete with Fred Perry polo shirts and armored vests, as well as prominent figures from within the ‘alt-light’ wing of the Alternative Right (who focus more on perceived threats to the West than to white identity). Joining them were those such as Kyle Chapman (nicknamed ‘Based Stick Man’), who has a history of violence.
A group of anti-fascist protestors made their way over and mounted the stage. Chants of “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA!” drowned out the speaker. Running scuffles between the two sets of protestors had been breaking out for several days and this looked like it would be the start of another.
Boos rang out as a member of the anti-fascist group Refuse Fascism began to shout over the crowd: “They say ‘America first’, we say ‘humanity first’!”
To everyone’s surprise an Alternative Right protestor stepped forward and called for quiet. “Let him speak, we believe in Free Speech”. This man, wearing a ‘Patriot Prayer’ t-shirt, was inviting an anti-fascist protestor to speak at their demonstration.
Was this a shining example of how the far right has genuinely adopted the cause of free speech and open dialogue? Was this the realization of Yiannopoulos’ supposed dream to return free speech to the home of the 1960s Free Speech Movement?
The short answer is ‘no’. Rather it is a perfect example of how ‘free speech’ is cleverly and successfully being used by the Alternative Right to undermine political opponents.
Disingenuous and hypocritical
In reality, just the briefest of investigations exposes a gaping chasm between the rhetoric and reality of Alternative Right activists on the issue of free speech.
Perhaps the starkest example of the hypocrisy on display by those determined to “protect free speech” at Berkeley are the three attacks on a left-wing book shop, Revolution Books, that happened over the course of the two days of protests.
Videos show 40 right-wing protestors from the Free Speech Rally banging on the windows while the Daily Californian reports they were yelling rape threats against store employees and customers.
The irony of attending a demonstration in defense of free speech and then attacking a shop that sells books you disagree with should not be ignored.
What we are seeing is the far right, whose ideas have long been marginalized from the mainstream, using the notion of free speech to try and broaden what’s called the ‘Overton Window’ (the range of ideas the public will accept) to the point where it includes their prejudiced and hateful politics.
While the debate about free speech on campus and in society is an important one, it has to be engaged with honestly, not merely used to advance one’s own political beliefs.
Does the Alternative Right understand free speech?
Key here is their confusion of their right to say whatever they want (a right they have) with their belief that they should be able to say it wherever they want.
For example, it is true that Yiannopoulos has a right to say whatever he pleases, but that is not the same as having a right to say it on the campus at UC Berkeley.
This also goes for Yiannopoulos’ book recently dropped by Simon and Schuster which he then self-published.
He certainly has a right to write this book but no-one has an obligation to publish it. This is just as true for the infamous Holocaust denier David Irving, who had a right to pen an biography of Joseph Goebbels, but didn’t have a right to insist it be published by St Martin’s Press.
This is not the only area which suggests that much of the Alternative Right has a flawed understanding of ‘free speech’.
Their use of the notion of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ has no relationship to the quality or value of the speech they demand should be heard, when and where they demand.
This is important when it comes to the question of whether universities – which are meant to advance debate – have an obligation to spend the often exorbitant security fees to host a speaker like Yiannopoulos.
Alternative Right activists also wrongly assume that diversity of opinion always leads to attainment of the truth, and that the correct argument will always win if debated. This optimism ignores the possibility that ill-informed opinions will flood the debate and that ‘he who shouts the loudest’ will end up drowning others.
In addition, proven falsities such as Holocaust denial and pseudo-scientific racism risk unduly legitimizing a topic of debate that objectively is not legitimate.
Importantly, those with far-right views also fundamentally underestimate the potential for social inequalities to be reflected in public debate. Since they reliably dismiss the existence of these inequalities anyway, they are ignorant as to the nature and extent of these inequalities in the marketplace of ideas.
For example, because they dismiss the presence of anti-Muslim prejudice they ignore the fact that a Muslim speaker may well be starting out on an unequal footing when trying to get people to listen to Muslims concerns.
This creates a paradox whereby they claim (often disingenuously) to be committed to valuing equal free speech above other values, while simultaneously propagating an unequal debate that further undermines the free speech of those who are already harmed by social inequalities (namely minority groups).
A tool to be used
At the most extreme end of the Alternative Right – in the alt-right – the declarations of fealty to the universal principle of free speech can generally be dismissed out of hand as transparently contrived. Their worldview is inherently and openly exclusionary and anti-democratic.
When Richard Spencer and his alt-right supporters held their ‘Free Speech Rally’ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. back in June, Nathan Damigo of Identity Evropa, made clear the position when he said: “I want to say one thing. Fuck your freedom, give me responsibility,” and explicitly called free speech a “tool” to be used.
However, while few are taken in by those on the extreme end of the movement many more give undue time to the claims of those on the more ‘moderate’ end of this spectrum.
Take the hypocrisy of Yiannopoulos, who organized the Free Speech Week at UC Berkeley, yet also called for the banning of Glasgow University’s Muslim Students Association earlier this year. It seems that for Milo free speech should be universal except for Muslims, a point he openly made at a talk in New Mexico:
“I try to think of myself as a free speech fundamentalist, I suppose the only real objection, and I haven’t really reconciled this myself, is when it comes to Islam. […] I struggle with how freely people should be allowed to preach that particular faith [Islam] in this country”.
Similarly, the notorious anti-Muslim ‘counter-jihadist’ Pamela Geller, who also attended the tiny Free Speech Rally in Berkeley last Sunday, was the organizer of a protest demanding the Muslim political activist Linda Sarsour be disinvited from speaking at the City University of New York back in May.
Paradoxically then, anti-Islam activists such as Geller and Yiannopoulos feel it is legitimate to suppress the speech of those they believe are dangerous while simultaneously dismissing out of hand those that oppose them for the same reasons as merely being anti-free speech.
Take a knee
The hypocrisy on display here goes well beyond the right of Muslims to free speech and includes the Alternative Right’s support for Donald Trump.
Many of those at the numerous Free Speech Week events last week wore Make America Great Again hats or Trump t-shirts.
Yet this is a President who has suggested “open(ing) up the libel laws”, which many have seen as a threat to the First Amendment, and last November he suggested imprisoning and stripping of their citizenship those who burned the American flag.
Just last week Trump called for NFL players who protested during the national anthem against racist policing to be sacked.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”, said Trump in Alabama.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin supported Trump by saying NFL players should, “do free speech on their own time”.
Across the American right, the principle of free speech is being used, not defended. The far right is seeking to use their right to free speech to shut down the rights of those they disagree with.
They have confused, purposefully or otherwise, ‘their speech’ with ‘free speech’ and rather than defending dissent they seek to crush it, rather than expanding debate they aim to shut it down.
Dr Joe Mulhall is Senior Researcher at HOPE not hate. Formerly he was a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London where he also completed his PhD on the postwar far right. He has published extensively on the international far right and discussed his research on the BBC, CNN and Channel 4 news among others. If you have a tip, get in touch at [email protected]Twitter