Friday, November 10, 2017

Freedom of Speech for Fascists?

I just finished reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s profile of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.  I don’t know how accurate it is as a portrayal of Bray and his ideas, but it seems like a sober, fair-minded overview of the debate over anti-fascist tactics and freedom of speech.

What the article doesn’t say, however, is that there are two very different bases for opposing public appearances by white supremacist and similar groups.  One is dangerously wrong, the other, which Bray presents, makes much more sense.

First the wrong approach, that groups should not be permitted to express themselves in public if they cause emotional distress to me or other people I care about.  You hear this one a lot: speech that I find demeaning is a form of violence, and there can’t be freedom for it.  There’s no difference between saying something horrible to me and punching me in the face.  No freedom for one, no freedom for the other.

This argument has its roots in a mindset that has become popular in much of the left, that the ultimate political goal is equal well-being for all, that well-being is essentially having a positive emotional state (or not being in a state of stress/despair/fear/etc.), and that actions should therefore be judged by the emotional response they engender, especially among marginalized groups.  It’s a deeply subjectivist conception of life and politics, one that puts feelings above “objective” conditions like economic status, access to social or institutional networks, risk of physical harm, or other measurable outcomes.  In fact, the primacy of subjective feelings is often asserted by denying the very possibility of “objective” anything.  (Objectivity is said to be a tool of knowledge/power to silence the oppressed.)

From a logical point of view, the identification of personal well-being with a series of transitory positive emotional states is indefensible.  First, there’s more to life than that.  Second, and crucially, one’s subjective emotions at one moment are weak predictors of future happiness; those much-derided objective conditions do a better job on that front.  As a teacher, I sometimes engender frustration in students, temporarily lowering their emotional hedonometer.  If I’m doing my job well, this is more than compensated by increased learning, which will be of more benefit down the road than an extra hour of emotional ease.  Feelings matter, a lot, but not at the expense of everything else.  And speech that causes negative feelings can’t be evaluated just on that basis; you have to think about the other consequences, direct and indirect, of listening to it, allowing it but not listening, or not allowing it at all.

Politically, the ideology that subjective feelings are everything is catastrophic.  It’s a claim with a long history on the repressive right: if students don’t recite the pledge of allegiance each morning at school my feelings are insulted, or if they burn a flag, or if professors denounce America, or if athletes take a knee.  It’s the same argument, just a different group’s feelings being hurt.  The only counterargument of the left is that some people’s feelings (people of color, gender nonconforming, etc.) count more than others’ feelings, but really, do you want to hang your politics on this?

At the deepest level, the struggle for social change butts up against the force of cognitive dissonance.  People have made commitments to the existing order.  They have dedicated their lives to getting a job and moving up, if they can.  They or their parents or children have served in the military, exposing themselves to horrific risks of violence (and not just speech) with often horrific results.  They have supported politicians hoping to get a better break on some government policy.  Then a social change activist comes along and says, these commitments were wrong, or fruitless or not good enough.  You should make different commitments, to a different economic or political system.  Whatever else activists may say, they are asking the people they are talking with to absorb the psychic costs of seeing their past actions in a harsher light—to cope with cognitive dissonance.  In the extreme case, imagine trying to convince the parent of someone who has died in a war of aggression that this death was in vain.  It’s not easy.

Serious activism can’t elevate subjective feelings to an all-important position.  You’d have to hang it up before you even get started.  Activism always confronts denial, a defense mechanism of the emotions.  It’s based on a view of the world that there really are objective conditions that need to be changed, whether that makes you psychically comfortable or not.

But the second argument, the one that Bray seems to embrace, comes from a different place, the paradox of tolerance.  If we want a free society, at some point we may have to restrict the freedom of those who want to get rid of it.  Fascists, religious fanatics and other extreme authoritarians are what we have to worry about.  Complete, unlimited freedom for these groups to organize and express themselves exposes the rest of us to a serious risk, one that has resulted in tyranny in countries that were once freer.  This is Bray’s point, and he has in mind the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Of course, since it’s a paradox we’re talking about here, it’s important to keep both ends of it in mind: intolerance for the intolerant is also a form of intolerance.  This should lead us to keep the “good” intolerance close to its necessary minimum.

And what is that?  It’s complicated.  And people can disagree.  Which specific speakers should not be given a public forum at universities?  Which rallies should not be permitted?  The answer is not none, and it’s not “everyone who pisses me off”.  It depends on how we assess the risk to our future freedom if these events take place.  The paradox of intolerance gives us a framework for talking about it rationally.

It also gives us a basis for discussing the role of direct action—what aware citizens ought to do when their institutional authorities fail to act.  But that discussion is fundamentally political: what’s right is what has the best chance of protecting and extending our freedom in light of its consequences.  That’s the context for thinking about direct action tactics.


Thornton Hall said...

As we approach Thanksgiving, how would a family deal with a situation like this?

Take the example of: “Should Mom and Dad pay for 100% of a child’s tuition or should they pay 100% minus the amount child could contribute by working full-time each summer?”

Mary, the oldest, worked summers at a law firm and contributed $3,000 each year to Private U where tuition was $30,000 per year.
Tom, the middle child, worked summers as a life guard and contributed nothing each year to State U where tuition was $15,000 per year.
Joe, a cousin who is not invited to Thanksgiving dinner, never went to college because coming out of high school he started a lawn care business which uses slave labor from the state prison to mow rich people's lawns.

If your family is like mine, you don’t give a flying fuck about summer jobs paying for college because it doesn’t matter either way and you argue about what sort of monsters don’t care about the 4th, 5th, 6th, 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments!

Unknown said...

Take a look at Masha Gessen’s recent essay about this in the context of the Arendt Center’s choice to bring an AfD ideologue to their conference. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Peter Dorman said...

Unknown: I would distinguish between two different questions: (1) Should X be allowed to give a speech or hold a rally at our institution? And (2) Should X be invited to give a speech as part of a conference/speaker series, etc.? The first is about "freedom of speech"; the second is about what constitutes socially beneficial speech. Obviously (2) is a lot more restrictive than (1). I wouldn't invite an AfD ideologue to any program I was a part of, and I'd protest such an invitation from any group I participated in, but would I advocate that AfD be denied any public platform? No. Incidentally, this is an excellent test case, since Germany *does* have stringent policies that deny public speech to groups that want to resurrect the Third Reich, but it does not (in general) inhibit the speech of AfD. You can argue about the precise boundaries, but I think Germany is generally right in this. said...


I basically agree with your post, but it is indeed a very hard and fine line between what is to be tolerated and what is not to be. Those who want to go around banning everything in sight must be blocked, and banning almost anything opens the door to that slipper slope, if I am not badly mixing metaphors here. I do not have the ready answer, although someone who is out to instigate violence with their appearance on a campus or public place would look to be definitely over the line and needing to be blocked.

BTW, that applies to those opposing a speaker as well, such as the jerks at Middlebury who actually injured the faculty member hosting Murray, even though that faculty member reportedly disagrees with Murray. There is an egregious case for sure.

Peter Dorman said...

Just to be as clear as possible, Bark, I'm not promoting any particular dividing line. My argument is about the acceptable reasons for limiting speech. Emotional cost on the part of listeners is not one of them.

Regina Chris said...

Excellent essay!

Longtooth said...

So Peter, then what prey tell, are the "acceptable" reasons for limiting free speech?

I ask, because if emotional fears, discomfort of well-being, etc. aren't acceptable then does this mean emotional reasons that elevate peoples feelings of greater security and comfort and "rights" are acceptable? You argue that negative emotions aren't acceptable reasons but then you fail to say positive emotions should be cast in the same light.

This implies you have a particular and specific foundation for your own determinations of what constitutes positive and negative emotional feelings in people... and in particular which specific people. But since you are not "all people" you have chosen one view of that which only applies to "some people" and thus assumed that view applies to all people.

Or do you mean all subjective reasons (positive and negative emotions) should be restricted, leaving only objective, logically rational reasons to define "acceptable" speech?

And if the latter is what you meant, then who decides that which is purely objective, logically rational reasons for protected or restricted speech and how do they enforce it?,

Longtooth said...

In response to @unknown you stated:

" (1) Should X be allowed to give a speech or hold a rally at our institution? And (2) Should X be invited to give a speech as part of a conference/speaker series, etc.? The first is about "freedom of speech"; the second is about what constitutes socially beneficial speech."

Who get's to define and how does it get defined that which "constitutes socially beneficial" speech or otherwise?

Socially beneficial has meaning only by somebody or some group pre-defining what socially beneficial means and clearly as time and history have shown and continue to show in the present, there's a huge range of that which means socially beneficial.

It depends entirely on for whom beneficial applies.. e.g. their social group or definition of what constitutes a society they prefer.

You assiduously and intentionally avoid the central issue entirely.

Peter Dorman said...

Longtooth: In response to your first point -- what about positive emotions? -- I don't get it. Positive emotions experienced by listeners are neither a reason for prohibiting speech or permitting (much less requiring) it. Maybe I misunderstand.

Regarding your second, well of course. I am not trying to resolve freedom of speech issues in some determinative way. As soon as you move away from absolutism (no restriction at all), you face the question of who decides, what information they draw on, how they interpret/balance/etc. I don't have answers. All I am trying to do is identify an appropriate discourse or frame for this question. This is because much of the left appears by my reckoning to have adopted a really inappropriate one -- whether the speech in question causes emotional upset to a particular set of people. But I was also heartened by the effort by Bray (and others of course) to steer the question in a better direction.

Longtooth said...

My point about positive emotions should have been more than obvious but to explain:

What appears to be a negative emotion experienced by one is simultaneously a positive emotion experienced by another. It's always two sided. You argue that liberals are using the excuse that some speech hurts (creates negative emotions) and thus they argue it should be restricted on grounds you disagree with.

I simply point out that if you disagree with those reasons (using negative emotions created in some) as liberals' reasoning to restrict some speech, then because that same speech creates positive emotions in others, then why aren't you equally opposed to that as well?

You have apparently chosen sides and thus are not using unbiased rational reasoning yourself.

To be pedantic, you can't rationally simultaneously argue against people using negative emotions to restrict speech without also arguing against people using positive emotions to restrict speech (since what is positive to some is negative to others of course).

Hitler spoke very positively to the German Volk who were not Jewish, or mixed race, or gypsies. His speeches were highly acclaimed at the time by the audiences to who directed and who were in attendance or who voluntarily tuned their radio's to his recorded or live speeches.

That is speech that creates positive emotions but only in those to whom the speech is intended to create positive emotions. Simultaneously they created negative emotions in others. You argue that those who want to restrict speech that creates negative emotions have no sound basis for restricting such speech, If they have no sound basis for restricting negative emotions speech then you are also arguing that there is also no sound foundation for restricting speech which creates positive emotions in others.

Stated simply --- if your speech creates positive emotions in some it has no more foundation for being restricted than negative emotions has as a basis for restricting speech. Thus no speech should be restricted at all for any reasons (politically speaking) due to the emotions such speech creates.

Which is why I asked what then is a justified reason for restricting speech if emotions are not justified as a basis? That is the question I'm waiting to hear you answer.

Anonymous said...

Oh look, isn't it cute when a Commie claims to be fighting for freedom.

Gotta love the euphemism - "direct action" instead of "beating up our enemies". said...

I shall repeat my earlier point that if a speech is designed to instigate violence (although not violence on the part of those trying to shut it down), then that is grounds for restricting it. This looks to me to fit the classic exception to free speech of somebody shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Longtooth said...


As you well know "designed to instigate violence" depends entirely on what "designed to" is interpreted to mean and that is only determinable after the fact so speech is allowed until it is deemed to have been (past tense) designed to instigate violence.

As you also well know instigating violence is not necessarily at all done by a single or even multiple speeches... the promotion of propaganda and emotions which over time are used to justify the use of not just violence, but of coercive subjugation is just as much a part of the use of free speech as directly advocating violence.

You don't have to advocate violence to create it.. you just have to create an emotional state which eventually induces violence. You are fully aware of this though, so you're arguing for maintaining the status quo laws regards free speech.