Friday, July 19

Free speech has a freedom problem…

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that many perceive free speech to have become the preserve of the politically right wing, the religiously conservative, the libertarian fringe, the anti-trans, the anti-Māori and…. well, just fill in with whatever groups or individuals you don’t like and don’t agree with, especially if you are centre-left or a leftward progressive.

On the face of it, such critique might have a point.  For it can seem it’s only ever those from centre-right positions who are wishing to claim and enact free speech so as to oppose, limit, or shut down positions, statements, and individuals or groups they don’t agree with.

Yet has not such rejection of alternatives, such stifling of nuance, diversity, and dissent increasingly become the default status quo for many who hold a centre-left or progressive position?

If once the left defended and used free speech to claim a new status quo, now they oppose and reject those who speak to question the status quo. In turn, the right now defends and uses free speech to claim an alternative status quo. Yet neither wish to have a status quo that reflects the diversity of society, rather they seek the status quo of the community.

If society means having to live and find common interest with others who are not like me, who may not agree with me, who may not like me – and I may not agree with or like them, then community is the conservative withdrawal to a grouping of common beliefs, identities,  views, experiences and interests. Too often what we hear claimed and expressed as the right to free speech in society is in fact the demand for framed speech in service of a community.

This means that what we have is not actually a free speech problem, but rather the co-opting of the term ‘free speech’ as the way to oppose individuals and groups, not ideas – whether enacted from the right or from the left, from the religious or the secular.

Such a narrowing of ‘free speech’ is deeply problematic if, as I do, you hold the position that free speech is a central element of a properly functioning liberal democracy and of a modern society.

Too often it seems the proponents of free speech want their speech and views to dominate – or at best, be able to be expressed, articulated, disseminated, and demonstrated without pushback, critique, or dissent. Similarly, it increasingly appears that the opponents of free speech also want their speech and views to dominate – or at best, be able to be expressed, articulated, disseminated, and demonstrated without pushback, critique, or dissent.

What we have is not the free speech of an open, engaged, mature society. Instead, we experience the rigorously patrolled and enforced boundary-setting framed speech of increasingly siloed, immature communities – whether left or right, whether supposedly inclusive or exclusive in their beliefs, activities, or attitudes.  That is, like adolescents lacking nuance and perspective, you can express what may be called ‘free speech’ as long as it is speech that all agree with within your community.  To dissent, to dispute, to think and articulate differently is to risk being expelled, rejected, cast aside, or cast asunder. 

These are the purity rituals of moralistic communities enforcing forms of ‘group-think’ in which the world becomes a Manichean battlefield between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.  Perhaps this is not surprising, given there’s been almost 50 years of such pop-culture Manichean mythology since the first Star Wars movie in 1977.

In the Manichean morass of contemporary culture wars, what should be ‘free speech’ is in fact too often ‘framed speech’ where the choice is presented as a moral and existential one between on the one hand the good, the true, the elect, the saved and the enlightened and on the other the evil, the false, the damned, and the foolish.  In such a conflict, to allow the other views to be expressed is in fact to risk your own purity and status as the elect and the true. In many ways, what we see is a soteriological risk: people feel their salvation- religious or secular – is at stake.

Such framed speech therefore seeks to limit any chance of proper engagement, discussion, and debate. It is rather a battle between good and evil in which the aim is the overcoming, the vanquishing, the expulsion of the opposing position and their views and beliefs. In fact, such framed speech seems too often the expression of the denial of opposing views and people to exist, let alone participate in society.

The perception that free speech is opposed to the freedom of others arises because we are increasingly unsure and unwilling to engage in a contest of ideas. I would go so far as to state that too many of both the left and right, of both the religious and the secular, do not want to live in a modern, liberal society. They would rather live in postmodern or antimodern, illiberal communities. These are the communities of framed speech.

As my wife remarked, when I discussed this with her, the problem is everyone is hyper-sensitive – but uncritical.

What we do not have is free speech as the contest of ideas, as the recognition that there is never one single, normative, binding way of thinking, talking, participating, or identifying in a society – unless we want it to be a totalitarian one.  We need to remember that framed speech, undertaken by either the left or the right, by the religious or the secular is the wilful, deliberate rejection of the modern, liberal democratic society that free speech exists to serve, celebrate and defend.