Free Speech


A long time ago, I was a regular on a certain band’s internet message board. The board was pretty bare-bones. You could post messages, but that was about it: by 2009, the board had changed very little in the ten years since its inception in 1999 (at least visibly; a lot of work went into making it more robust and reliable), and lacked a lot of the functionality of more modern forums. Inevitably, the board had some troll problems. I took it upon myself to write a GreaseMonkey script for the board that would introduce some more modern features, including, most importantly, allowing users to block the trolls.

Response was largely positive, but there were a few voices concerned that blocking people was an affront to “free speech”. I said then that free speech doesn’t mean anybody has to listen to you, and that’s still true, although I’ve since realised it’s perhaps a simplistic way of engaging the issue.

Free speech is very much the topic du jour after Harper’s published a masturbatory open letter decrying “cancel culture”. Many notably bigoted people signed it, self-importantly declaring that their bigotry was far more important than the targets of their bigotry.

First of all, it can’t pass notice that ‘cancelling’ has followed exactly the same trajectory as ‘woke’: a term originally used by Black people to describe positive action has been twisted by rich, white reactionaries to describe a pernicious threat. I’m not the right person to comment on the racial angle, but I absolutely can say that, even before digging into it any further, that level of discursive sabotage immediately raises alarms about the letter-writers’ sincerity in their adherence to “free speech”.

Another thing that we need to address is how much power many of the signatories hold. Many of them are media personalities or outright celebrities like transphobic danger to children JK Rowling, people with soapboxes far larger and more ostentatious than the platforms the people they’re criticising have. At first blush it seems like punching down, even if the signatories don’t see it that way.

An outcome of that power is that, of course, the people crying about being silenced haven’t actually been silenced. If they had, we wouldn’t know how upset they were about it in their continual tedious op-eds in the broadsheets. What they’re actually complaining about, and mistaking for silencing, is getting any pushback on their ideas.

In many ways the ultimate power fantasy is not only to have power, but to deserve it. This is still aspirational even for those who do have power. The easiest way to realise this fantasy — as we learned from fascism — is to pretend that you are the victim of an oppressive force. Acting like you are opposing injustice is the path of least resistance to justifying what power you hold. Conspiracy theories are often tales people tell themselves to legitimise the use of power in response, and this is why so many forms of bigotry include some clause about what a “threat” the targets of that bigotry are.

Another way that fascists legitimise their power is by spinning that mythological threat to pretend they are defending, not themselves, but the powerless. This is populism. Moreover, as Eco noted in his 1995 essay on Ur-Fascism, it’s a kind of selective populism where the ones who count as “ordinary people” coincidentally happen to be the ones who support the fascists’ power. This tactic has already been used by Janice Turner in The Times to justify the letter — the myth of a silent (or “silenced”) majority is a powerful and insidious way of amplifying one’s own voice, projecting it onto a group of people who, at best, don’t have the power to rebut any claims of speaking for them.

A key difference between historical fascism and modern fascism is that, as Eco explained, fascists need to feel “besieged” by an oppressive, powerful group that is simultaneously outside and inside. That hasn’t changed, but in the 1920s, fascists mostly created myths about Jews to fill that slot. 100 years later, an oppressive force attacking us, yet from within, is culturally emblematised by, well, fascists. Paradoxically, fascists slot neatly into the role fascists need to feel oppressed by. This is why fascists love to say “no, you’re the real fascists”. It’s why modern fascist rhetoric is so rife with references to “Orwellianism” (like Turner’s piece). And it’s why JK Rowling complained about the “authoritarianism” of people speaking on their own behalf instead of agreeing with her bigoted attacks on trans people.

Because the “open debate” this letter claims to want can only work in a power equilibrium. As Umberto Eco also said in that essay, “freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric”. While rhetoric and dialogue are indeed closely related, an important difference between them is that dialogue seeks a balance of power, while rhetoric is amplified by power imbalance. The only way for fascists to reconcile this is to pretend their opponents are more powerful than they, in fact, are.

The effects of this are manifold. Most obviously, debate means listening to what your opponent has to say, and moving forward from there. But people like noted transphobic signatory Jesse Singal make cowardly excuses for not listening to opponents who have, in his words, “motivated reasoning”, unambiguously taking the position that it is better to talk over people than with them.

Rarely, though, is it so overt. More often transphobes simply pretend they didn’t hear the response and go on to repeat the same arguments — often in exactly the same phrasing, because they are more rhetorical than substantive — at someone else. The net result is that there can be no progress, because we are trapped in refuting the same points a thousand times with no hope of dialogic advancement. Not only is the tenability of such a state directly tied to a power imbalance, resistance to it is held up by these bullies as evidence of “unwillingness to debate”: “See? We’re being reasonable by making them repeat themselves ad infinitum. It’s they who are being unreasonable by getting fed up of that.”

Another effect is the “discursive sabotage” I mentioned earlier. This is how we end up with things like “TERF is a slur”. TERF is not a slur because, quite simply, there is no other term that describes the same group, no more and no less. They might prefer to call themselves “gender critical”, but given the number of them who have accused me of reading Judith Butler, it’s evident that that term applies to more than just them. Nor can we call them radical feminists — the term TERF was invented by a radical feminist to distinguish between trans-exclusionary ones and other ones — much less feminists (without qualification), women, or any of the other groups they claim to speak for. On the other side, ‘transphobe’ is likewise a superset of ‘TERF’: since it includes people who are not TERFs, it does not describe the same group. Therefore to say that we must not use the word ‘TERF’ is to say that we must not even name a group that oppresses us. Sorry, you were saying something about “silencing”?

Likewise with ‘cis’, which just means that your gender identity and assigned sex at birth are in agreement, but that TERFs pretend is an evil, heretical word. TERFs insist that, instead of using words to describe our own experiences, which are “offensive”, we must instead use words that a priori already encode their own assumptions about us. The term ‘Orwellian’ is abused a lot but it’s far from a stretch to say that this is literally how Newspeak works. And these are the people who want to lecture us about “free speech”, are they?

Of course, that’s not the only hypocrisy on display here. As one anonymous (well, relatively) signatory told Vice:-

I think it’s a form of silencing to dismiss anyone you disagree with as racist, or transphobic, or, less seriously, as an out of touch elite.

There are a couple of points here. First is that it is obviously far more silencing to dismiss someone as “merely” concerned about racism or transphobia. “Free speech is when people of colour aren’t allowed to call racism racist, and trans people aren’t allowed to call transphobia transphobic” is certainly a creative understanding of free speech. It speaks more to a retrenchment of power than it does to anything liberatory.

I don’t particularly believe this form of silencing is of malicious intent, or at least not always: far more likely people simply don’t want to admit — even to themselves — that they may harbour unaddressed bigotries. For years — before, even, “cancel culture” was a thing — we have noticed the tendentious liberal privilege of acting like calling someone racist is almost a more grievous offence than being racist. There is a certain emotional immaturity to the assumption that one is free of bigotry, and it’s not like it doesn’t cause a problem, but hope springs eternal that such people will, well, grow up.

Michael Jackson’s 1991 single Black or White — nearly 30 years ago — is at its core a song about white people who like to think of themselves as not-racist while still behaving in racist ways. Particularly given how widely the song was misinterpreted as an excuse to think of oneself as not-racist, can we honestly say much has changed in the intervening three decades?

Secondly, and in some ways conversely, the signatory notes “racist” and “transphobic”, but neglects to mention “misogynistic” or “homophobic”. Misogyny and homophobia are real issues that people have been “cancelled” for, but they are also snarl-words that are used to silence in the way the signatory suggests. Trouble is, they’re used in that way by the very people who consider themselves “victims” of cancel culture. They’re used against people who are concerned about transphobia, whom they dismiss as using the exact same tactics they are, themselves, using.

And unlike the self-righteous defensiveness to being called a bigot, this absolutely is malicious. Transphobes insist that we, for example, explain how JK Rowling is transphobic while they call us misogynists because we committed the crime of noticing a woman (or even a man!) was being transphobic.

If we applied the same evidentiary standard to our accusations as they do to theirs, it would be very easy to perform some justification-shaped excuse. But TERFs know that we won’t settle for that standard, because they know we are not massively dishonest, and, like all fascists, they abuse the scrupulous nature of their opponents.

We also cannot ignore the hypocrisy that comes with dissent to the letter itself. When one of the signatories — a trans woman, as it happens — realised what she’d gotten herself into, she retracted her support from the letter, and faced immediate public censure from Singal and Rowling. Almost like they were trying to, ahem, cancel her. And, of course, they succeeded.

One final thing to say about what we might call free-speech absolutism is how closely related it is with the post-truth nightmare we currently live in. When TERFs insist that we must treat their lies with the same respect and seriousness as someone being honest, one can’t help but think of the Trump Administration’s “alternative facts”. Calls for “common sense” are the populist invocation of Michael Gove’s “Britain is sick of experts” soundbite.

It’s a somewhat difficult needle to thread, because as one of the “postmodernists” these reactionaries are so disdainful of, I do appreciate the value of questioning what we assume to be true, but at the same time that is not licence to reframe truth and falsehood as mere differences of opinion.

Recorded hate crimes against trans people in the UK rose by 81% in 2018-19. TERFs might like to pretend that’s just a coincidence, and isn’t inspired by a sustained media campaign of hate against us, but it sure is strange that other crimes, while also rising, didn’t rise nearly so steeply. No discussion of free speech can ignore the consequences.