Fredrik deBoer, who teaches at Purdue University in Indiana, recently wrote on his blog a passionate polemic about the way that what he calls the ‘social justice left’ has abandoned the struggle for free speech, and indeed take up the struggle for censorship. Since much of his argument resonates with many of the themes I have pursued on Pandaemonium, I thought it would be useful to repost it here. There was an interesting discussion and a follow-up post, too, both worth reading. See also my discussions on ‘The Importance of the Right to Offend’, ‘Why Hate Speech Should Not be Banned’, ‘The Pleasures of Pluralism, the Pain of Offence’ and ‘On the Right to Satirise, Provoke and be Downright Offensive’.
Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?
It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response is something like ‘of course not, stop slandering us’, or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering ‘yes’. And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.
I say this in light of this depressing, maddening report about a UCSB professor who attacked an anti-abortion protest and stole one of their signs. She responded to the incident by saying that she had been triggered by the protesters. In the comments of Gawker, she’s attracted many, many defenders. Several of them have come right out and said that speech they find unpalatable should be banned.
I wish this didn’t need to be said, but apparently it does: this is not OK. It is not OK to attack protesters. It is not OK to try to silence people whose views you don’t like. It’s immoral, and it cuts directly against the very human rights that are the foundation of feminism, the campaign against racism, and the campaign for gay rights. That this could be possibly in question among self-defined members of the left demonstrates how unhealthy the left has become. What’s more, it demonstrates the incredible lack of historical perspective among today’s social justice left. It is precisely because we have enjoyed the freedom of expression that feminism, the anti-racist movement, and the gay rights movement have made long and arduous progress. Had we lived in the world these commenters want to live in 50 years ago, there would be no feminism. And it’s particularly bizarre to endorse the end of free speech when it comes to an issue like abortion, where the public mood is very much in question, and where we are not at all guaranteed victory. If we get around to banning speech we don’t like, there’s a decent chance it’ll be abortion rights advocates like me who are silenced, not abortion foes. That’s the risk you run.
I know some people will assume I’m speaking to some sad fringe here. But I have been amazed at how mainstream these anti-free speech efforts have become. I have been amazed not just because of the immorality of trying to ban free though, free expression, and free assembly, or because these efforts reverse centuries of the assumed work of the left, but because of how easily this could backfire, in a world where our movements against sexism and racism and homophobia are still so fragile and contested. Ten years ago, the Republican party ran on a platform of opposition to gay marriage, and enjoyed enormous electoral success, and yet people trust the majority so deeply that they are willing to hand it the power to ban unpopular speech. My people: we are not nearly so popular or powerful as it can sometimes seem, when we engage with those we agree with online. Sometimes, the people who are arguing against free expression know that; they recount in terrible detail all the ways in which this remains a deeply unjust world. And yet when it comes to these kinds of political debates, they seem to forget, arguing always for a retrenchment back to the already convinced, and responding angrily to the notion that it is our responsibility to argue publicly and effectively for what is right. It’s a central contradiction of this movement, and something I’ll never understand.
If we’re going to have this debate, then please, let’s have it. It would be very useful if people who are committed to social justice but opposed to rights of free expression would lay out their preferences directly and clearly. Who gets to define acceptable speech? How would laws against that speech be worded? Where does hate speech end and unpopular or controversial speech begin? How would these laws be enforced? How severe would the punishments be? Where would the right to express unpopular speech continue to exist? What level of force would the police be allowed to exercise in preventing unpopular speech? How much would the carceral state grow in response to these laws? What would be the long-term consequences of further aligning the social justice movement with the violent apparatus of the state? What is the potential for unforeseen consequences? What guarantee is there that the public won’t move to ban speech we on the left would like to express? Why do we need to ban hateful speech, when examples like the Westboro Baptist Church and gay rights demonstrate the capacity for free expression of hateful speech to result in progress?
All of these are natural and necessary questions that need to be answered by those who think that the solution to enduring inequalities and injustice is to ban speech they don’t like.
The cartoon is from D!ssent magazine (No 24, spring 2007)