The subject of free speech has been violently raised.
The narrative we have heard says that it is under attack. First it was the politically correct left wing and now its jihadi extremists (I won’t dignify them by calling them Muslims as all Muslims I have spoken to in the last few days have excommunicated the terrorists in no uncertain terms) who wanted to “teach us the limits of free speech”. In response cartoons which are clearly, and intentionally, offensive to many are being republished as a defiant stand for free speech and millions have marched behind political leaders in Paris to show their support for a free press and that they are not afraid.
Left-libertarians can be left somewhere in limbo, it seems wrong to celebrate ‘edgy white guys’ mocking the religion of a people group on whom our leaders, claiming to act in our name, have ordered wars that have killed millions. A people who in many parts of the world are on the receiving end of extremely unfair global trade rules which exploit them in order to bring us cheap goods such as clothing (Bangladesh and Pakistan) technological products (Turkey) and ferrous metals (Kazakhstan). A people group who can die in their scores and barely make the news. “But they treated every religion equally!” I hear the cry, well the world doesn’t treat every religion equally does it? Were there not more deserving targets? Further, we certainly can’t rally around political leaders in order to show “unity”… risk looking like we’re united with them? Not in this lifetime. The ‘world leaders’ have done more to curb free speech that any terrorist ever will.
At the same time we cannot drop the idea that free speech is a fundamental human right.
In order to help us feel more united, as a movement and within ourselves, I wanted to think through how Charles Johnson’s conceptions of thick libertarianism (http://c4ss.org/content/16146
) might apply to a specifically left-libertarian vision of ‘thick freed speech’, i.e. something more than vulgar “free speech fundamentalism”.
Thickness in entailment
First and foremost let’s make sure we’re being consistent when we advocate free speech.
Yes, free speech includes the right for us to say things that will shock and offend but it also protects other people’s right to criticise us for that. Free speech does not come with a free audience, it does not include a positive right to be heard and accepted, it doesn’t protect you from getting laughed at and it doesn’t stop people deciding they don’t want to hang out with you anymore. Libertarians should commit ourselves to not crying; “but, free speech!” to anyone who is outraged at hearing our more… surprising… ideas about the world.
A consistent defence of free speech must ensure that it comes with all that it entails. It must guarantee everyone gets to say whatever they like without the fear of punishment, even if they are angry and seem to hate us. In order to be consistent we must stand against all attacks on free speech whether they are sporadic or systematic, public or private. Let’s not stand up to terrorists without standing up to the state, let’s not stand up to the state without standing up to the boss at work and let’s not stand up to the boss at work without standing up to the authoritarian at home.
Thickness in conjunction
As mentioned in Charles’ original article, this one rests on a shaky foundation at best, it hardly qualifies as a thickness. What other commitments might defenders of free speech want to advocate just because they’re good too?
If I have anything to offer here it is the simply suggestion that we each apply both the non-aggression principle as well as the ‘don’t be an asshole’ principle to ourselves. I’m a firm believer that anarchists should be able to police themselves, mutually and horizontally and also on an individual level. It’s hardly controversial. Yes if someone was stood over me detailing to me exactly what it means to ‘not be an asshole’ and instructing me not to be one “or else”, I’d be the first to tell them to go and shove it up theirs. This is different though, we all know when we’re being an asshole really and a little wisdom does no one any harm.
Thickness for application
If we are to fight for free speech (and I say “fight for” not ‘defend’ purposefully, we’d have to have freedom of speech already if we were going to defend it) what else will we want to promote in order to encourage its proper application?
A realistic analysis of where it is being threatened most would be a start. As usual the application of any libertarian principle needs an open mind, some books, some sources for news and the ability to think clearly and logically. Without these, the chances of applying the principle drastically fall. It follows that advocating free speech and hoping people will stand up for it without also advocating that people gain some learning and context just isn’t good enough. The result? The usual; people being quick to stand up for their own free speech and being neglectful or even hostile to others’.
In order to promote the proper application of free speech we must also recognise the difference between ‘privileged’ speech and true free speech. What I mean by this is that just like in our so called “free- market system” system, (actually existing), capitalists are protected from the full costs and debts that their system incurs so too are some people protected from the costs of the words that come out of their mouths. Didn’t Edward Snowden prove to us all that the political class believe that they are entitled to certain ‘enhanced’ freedoms when it comes to speech? Don’t intellectual property laws grant certain people’s self-expression the privilege to extract rents from anyone who copies it? To pursue the libertarian of all speech will protect some and will remove the special protections others have got used to!
Thickness from Grounds
It’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into the main philosophical grounds we might all hold for a belief in freedom of speech. Safe to say that left-libertarians, and libertarians in general, hold free speech to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be a free individual.
What specific grounds we bundle it up with do matter here though. It is sometimes, rightly, said that freedom of speech must include the right to offend otherwise it is pointless, inoffensive speech will never come under attack! To an extent this is true but the incessant focus on the right to ‘offend’ raises some interesting questions about the positions in society those people who advocate this the most strongly hold. Causing offence, for me, leads my mind to assume that we are talking about smashing political correctness here… the right to be a racist? The right to be a bigot? Would I defend you to the death for these rights? Yes… if yours was the last cause available to defend. If I could find literally anyone else hoping for someone to come to their defence first I would leave a racist to their fate and I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Assholes should go to the back of the queue.
Better ground to stand on, if we are to really know our enemy, is to bundle our right to free speech up with the right to protest, the right to punch upwards, not downwards. If we can accept that the freedom to talk about the weather and ask what we all got for Christmas is unlikely to come under attack then talk of free speech is automatically focused on speech that we believe could genuinely put us at risk of coming under attack for it. Yeah if you’re a right wing nut who believe that feminists and immigrants pose the biggest threat to your freedom you can jump up and down and scream when someone tells you not to use offensive language, those of us in the real world will continue to jump up and down and scream when those with authority try to tell us what to do, with the power to enforce it!
The question of how much we use our speech to promote fear and division is not directly covered by a thin conception of free speech but it matters in a thicker one.
Even if we managed to liberate speech to the radical extent that we want to, how long will it take for our freedoms to erode if there is a climate of fear and division? Fear is the enemy of free speech, it gives people grounds to give up on their own freedom and to suppress the speech of those who they are afraid of too. A strategic approach to free speech says that saying things that promote fear and division is anti- free speech in itself.
On top of this a society stratified by class is always going to tend towards infringing on the freedoms of the working class speech. In a society stratified by class divisions those who hold the reins of power are in a constant battle to maintain their grip on them. There can be no doubt that this demands that they do not allow us to say whatever we want. In a society of equals there will be far, far less incentive for anyone to monitor the speech of others and try to enforce rules about what they can and can’t say. The question of hierarchy and what kind of society we will have is also a question of whether we will be able to express ourselves however we want without fear.
Thickness from consequences
As I’ve said above, we don’t have free speech, we’re not there yet. But what would be different if we’d always had it?
What kinds of things should we support because in another world, the world that could have been but never was, we would have talked about if we’d been able to express ourselves openly and freely? Creativity, innovation, philosophy, science, leaning, wisdom, spirituality a better understanding of who we are and the world around us, for many of us the pleasure of having conversations about God that are liberated from the authoritarian myths that freedom haters have tacked on to the conversations we’re often having now. Good stuff. Because that’s what we’re relying on; that freedom, real freedom, produces good things, nice things, not destruction and hate and cruelty and fear and suspicion and petty attempts to establish hierarchy over others.