Why I Love Free Speech
"Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Now you've heard it, not shouted in a crowded theatre admittedly as I realize I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining room but the point is made. Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or defy it as an action, gave that to shouting fire in a crowded theatre. Its very often forgotten what he was doing in that case, was sending to prison a group of Yiddish speaking socialists whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn't read opposing President Wilson's participation in the First World War and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict which the Yiddish speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape. In fact it could be just as plausibly argued that the Yiddish speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire-fighters - were the ones who were shouting fire when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre indeed, and who is to decide?" - Christopher Hitchens
"And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only." - Bob Dylan, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
"You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him."
"We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought." - Kanye West.
Many people love censorship, but only when it is concerning something they disagree with. "I'm all for free speech, but was what they said going too far?" (As Hitch said, if you have to ask whether something went too far, it didn't go far enough.) You don't have to look far to see people on both the left and right, and inbetween, who seek to shut down debate, conversation and free thought when it interferes with their ideology. The left has gotten particularly good at this in recent years, publicly shaming people who don't share their specific values. Just look at the recent shambles that was the reaction towards Kanye West - one of the great artists of the 21st Century - when he dared to say, as a black man of all things, that he liked Donald Trump. Don't get me wrong, I do not like Trump in any sense, but I respect the right of an individual to make their own decisions in that respect. And while I may not agree with what they think, I respect their right to hold that view without fear of serious, real life, repercussions.
The usual retort deployed in this instance is the old chestnut that "words can have repercussions" or "freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences." Both of these are most often deployed by those on the left, at least in recent memory. There is a sinister undertone here, that the person reminding you of the power words is also going to be the one to oversee the required punishment for contradicting the party line. Here's a helpful hint: if you are spearheading mob justice, through pursuing actions that will rob a person of their livelihood, or of their ability to normally function in the world, you're part of the fucking problem. The impulse of people on both the right and the left to think BOYCOTT, no matter the veracity or severity of the transgression - to dare to speak something that the listener does not want to hear - or FIRE HIM, and of course in some instances physical violence, is dangerous and severely problematic, to borrow a rather overused word.
The First Amendment in the United States of America's constitution, it is said, merely protects the speaker from criminal prosecution, and not, as our friends on the left are so fond of saying, protection from consequences. Well, the First Amendment may only protect against government interference it is true, but the ideal of free speech should, if we are wise enough to value it, mean more than that. Free speech should mean that our first reaction isn't boycott or get him fired or make sure he can't go to the shops without knowing he's scum. Free speech should mean that we allow a space in our public discourse for unpopular ideas, whether overall or, as is the case in so many egregious and infuriating instances, just within a narrow, insular, homogeneous sociopolitical group.
The great Muslim reformer Majid Nawaz was on point when he pointed out the casual racism inherent in the idea that those on the left in a sense own Kanye West, because he is a black man in the United States and as such should be kept in line with those things that are in his best interests. Majid uses the term "regressive left" to describe those who are in many instances just as distant from being true liberals as those on the right are. There is an insidious tendency within the regressive left to think themselves the only people qualified to speak on any given issue.
"But Paul," I hear you object, "What about racism? Surely you couldn't be in favour of racism or sexism or transphobia or homophobia?" I'm not. I use freedom of speech to combat these horrible things whenever I can. To silence, and as has happened in the UK and other places, to criminally prosecute someone for these things seems, to me, to be incredibly short-sighted and counter-productive. These blights on society are driven by stupidity, fear and anger, as well as, somewhat ironically, mob mentality. I don't believe it is ever right to punish someone for being of low intelligence, or to be wracked with fears and anger that come from feeling - if not being - marginalized in society. Their outrageous claims about Trump or Bush or Blair should be protected as holy, but anything similarly paranoid or exaggerated on the other side of the issue are evil and must be immediately silenced. These people should have their liberal cards revoked.
The market place of ideas should be our guide here. You are free to react and to question and to challenge the person speaking hate. And while you can pursue mob justice through trying to destroy the lives of people on Twitter it is rarely just and is more often than not just a product of the desire for censorship that favours the supposedly damaged party. We should be careful in our speech and say things that have merit and facts behind them, absolutely. I am preaching restraint, but restraint that is across the board, not just for those on the left or the right, or whatever particularly group you belong to, dear reader. To do this, we need to stop trying to silence those whom we disagree with, and try to engage in a meaningful dialogue that actually helps people think and talk their way out of damaging social afflictions or prejudices. To silence those spreading hate, only emboldens and encourages them.
Or how about religion? Surely, we have to treat it with the utmost respect even when it is demonstrably prone to acts of evil, right? Well, no. I can't fully express how important it is to be able to say "Fuck your God." Those on the left like to speak on how we're all privileged monsters, and yet they singularly fail to confront the greatest threat arising from privilege and that is religious privilege. Growing up in Ireland in the 90s was enough for me to arrive at the belief that those who claim to have special knowledge about the nature of reality should have to back it up with something more than honeyed words about the absolutely craic filled time we'll have in heaven. I am no longer as militant as I once was, but I still hold to the belief that religions should not get a free pass because they happen to be practiced mostly by people of black or brown skin. By remaining silent when great crimes are committed against women, minorities and freethinkers in theocracies and otherwise backwards outfits, because of a fear for being misunderstood as a racist, those in the regressive left shame themselves and out themselves as traitors to their cause.
There are some recent cases where we see the left as cowardly and confused, and they are: Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke and Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed. Blurred Lines was said to be a product of rape culture and as such should be banned, as it was in many universities and colleges. When did the left become so spineless and cowardly? This is a basic misunderstanding about the nature of R&B and Blurred Lines in particular. It is not about forcing anybody to do anything they don't want to do. It is about the liberation of a wallflower. It is as much about rape culture as Off the Wall - get off the wall and on the dance floor - was about sexual assault. There are many who want to be better socially, to have more sex and enjoy their lives without crippling anxieties and fears. Blurred Lines is about the conflict and inner turmoil that comes from wanting something but being too afraid to step up and grab a hold of it.
Walk On the Wild Side by Lou Reed was called transphobic, because it tells a story of transsexuals, and well... that's about it. It is ludicrous that anybody could ever make the claim that Lou Reed was transphobic, even by the standards that we have thankfully evolved since the 1970s when Lou released the song on his breakout album Transformer. This is, even more so than Blurred Lines, a case of fundamentally misunderstanding the content and meaning behind the song. Walk on the Wild Side is a celebration of love without boundaries, whether they are gender or sexuality. Those who abandon ship because of a lack of courage or because they are unsure of the values they supposedly represent, should never be given the title of liberal. Being liberal means being accepting and engaging with unpopular ideas, and championing marginal views that express a truth that is not immediately apparent.
Free speech is a thorny issue. There is no particularly easy part in keeping it in good health. Given the current climate with that sorry old fuck Trump and his odious supporters, encouraging attacks on the free press and making the claim that truth is purely relative, we need to be stronger than ever. I am most critical of the left because I would like to include myself among their numbers. I agree far more with what they believe than I do with those on the right. When they behave in the way that they have in recent years however, it is increasingly hard to justify to myself that I am indeed on the left. Have courage that your argument is better. Stop trying to shut down conversation and debate. Stop trying to silence people you don't agree with. Understand that the spirit of the First Amendment means more than the letter of the law. Mob justice can go to hell. Let's get serious here.