Free speech is dead. The right that people fought and died for has been taken away by politically correct, blue haired social justice warrior vegans and their backers in the left-wing establishment.
Or so we are lead to believe by the far right at their weekly demonstrations across the UK, in their election campaign literature, on their uncensored websites, on their social media accounts or in the hundreds of videos they publish every day on the internet.
The far right’s freedom of speech is especially curtailed, so much so that this weekend they have been left with no option but to have a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in central London, which will no doubt be covered by elements of the mainstream media and across the right-wing alternative media.
If their voices are so oppressed, one wonders why we seem to hear little else when it comes to the debate about free speech.
This Sunday will see a plethora of far-right, alt-right, alt-light, fake news and alternative media personalities converge on Whitehall for the so-called Day for Freedom demonstration.
Proposed and compered by Raheem Kassam, the editor of the Islamophobic fake news site Breitbart London, the event involves the support of longtime far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), anti-Muslim, anti-feminist personality Milo Yiannopoulos, and the alt-right’s favourite pseudo-philosopher Stefan Molyneux, among numerous others.
This is just the latest in a spate of so-called ‘free speech’ events involving far-right activists here in the UK in recent months. Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park has become the scene of frequent demonstrations by the likes of Lennon and the racial separatists of Generation Identity, bemoaning the supposed curtailment of freedom of speech in the UK.
This comes in the wake of a lively debate around the use of tactics such as no-platforming on university campuses and echoes recent far-right demonstrations in America like Yiannopoulos’ failed ‘Free Speech Week’ in Berkeley, California last year.
However, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that those behind the Day for Freedom event either don’t understand what free speech is, or worse still, don’t actually believe in it at all beyond seeing it as a tool to be used.
One of the major issues the far right fail to grasp is the difference between their right to say what they want (a right they have) with their desire to say it wherever they choose. These are not the same thing and should not be confused. Nonetheless, the two continue to be conflated by the far right when their speakers are refused a platform at a university or kicked off Twitter for breaking the guidelines of a private company.
This also goes for Milo Yiannopoulos’ book Dangerous, which was dropped last year by the publisher Simon & Schuster and subsequently self-published. Yiannopoulos certainly has a right to write this book, but nobody has an obligation to publish it. This is just as true for the infamous Holocaust denier David Irving, who had the right to pen a biography of Joseph Goebbels, but did not have a right to insist it be published by St Martin’s Press.
Furthermore, the far right’s 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.
They wrongly assume that diversity of opinion always leads to attainment of the truth, and that the correct argument will always win if debated. It would be wonderful if this were true but 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; people like Lennon and Yiannopoulos can certainly shout loudly (the latter has, after all, made a career out of it).
At worst, debates can become flooded with proven falsities such as Holocaust denial and pseudo-scientific racism, which risks unduly legitimising topics that objectively are not legitimate.
In addition, all too often those condemning the supposed clampdown on free speech fundamentally underestimate the potential for social inequalities to be reflected in public debate, and seem ignorant to the nature and extent of these inequalities in the marketplace of ideas. Those who recognise this feature of much debate understand very quickly why some are in a position to shout loudest in the first place.
The position of these far-right ‘free speech’ advocates is ultimately paradoxical. They claim 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).
Beyond the charitable explanation of ignorance is the outright hypocrisy displayed by many of these far-right figures when they talk about free speech.
For some on the far right free speech is not a right, it is merely a tactic. With their ideas long marginalised from the mainstream, they are using the notion of free speech to try and broaden the ‘Overton Window’ (the range of ideas the public will accept) to the point where it includes their prejudiced and hateful politics.
At the extreme fringes, they do not even hide this fact. When Richard Spencer and his alt-right supporters held their ‘Free Speech Rally’ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in June 2017, Nathan Damigo, then of white nationalist group Identity Evropa, 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 organised the Free Speech Week at University of Berkeley, California and is due to speak at the Day for Freedom in London this weekend. In 2017, for example, he called for the banning of Glasgow University’s Muslim Students Association. It seems that for Milo free speech should be universal except for Muslims, a point he openly conceded 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”.
Paradoxically then, anti-Muslim activists such as 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.
Similarly Lennon, who endlessly talks about the curtailment of his speech, actually has a history of harassing those who say things he disagrees with.
His ‘Troll Watch’ series for Rebel Media involved storming journalists’ offices and harassing people at home at night if they published something to which he objects. As he said in one video: “If you’re a journalist and you think your office or your home is a safe space. It’s not.”
With his long list of convictions and his violent history, these threats have understandably cowed some from speaking up in opposition to him. Where was his respect for their freedom of speech?
We Must Protect Free Speech
Despite all the disingenuous and contrived declarations by the far right around free speech there is something we can agree on: Free speech has to be defended and we have to fight for it.
Whether there should be limits around free speech and what those limits might be is an important debate but it’s one that is being distorted and sidetracked by the far right, who are using it as a way into mainstream political debate in ways not previously possible.
We cannot allow them to highjack something as important as free speech, or allow them to strip away all nuance and complexity. Such behavior risks binarising the debate to the point where the only two positions agree that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, and those who dissent become an enemy of free speech.
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