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.