We’ve been caught in a rhetorical trap of sorts. Any defense of free speech must now commence with an excuse for the provocation and violence said to stem from its unabated application in a civil society. After conceding this, we pivot to why the trade-off is worth it, but a better tactic may be to dismiss the question and throw it back at our inquisitors.
The fact is that the track record of censorship and those who assume the right to censor others is appalling when it comes to violence. Violence follows censorship movements everywhere it travels.
The counter-protest to the Posie Parker visit in Albert Park was organised after multiple attempts to restrict a visiting certain speaker from speaking and others present from hearing what this individual had to say. The stated aim after their failure in the courts was to drown the women’s groups out, but what became clear very quickly was that intimidation was the goal. Protest organizer Shaneel Lal’s calls on social media for more protesters to join now that feminists were ‘caged in’ removes doubt that the exercise in his mind was about terrorizing those who dared disagree with his views. The young man who repeatedly slugged an elderly feminist in the face was clearly pro-censorship or wouldn’t have attended, and felt empowered to attack her with this in mind.
Exactly who attempts to censor others is important and needs reflection. Free speech, to the extent that we have widely enjoyed it, is relatively new. For most of our history, we lived under intolerable levels of censorship precisely because our societies were far more hierarchical. Censorship is the glue that binds hierarchies together and hierarchies were often brutal in their commitment to their vision of social cohesion. Free speech allowed these ancient structures to crumble and vastly sped up their demise. Those who support censorship today, though they use the language of human rights, want to bring firm societal hierarchies back. The current push for censorship is part of a reactionary movement designed to reverse the democratic liberation free speech gifted to so many of us, especially the underclass who still understand the centrality of free speech as a progressive, movement to empower the underprivileged and allow them to be heard.
The societal censor is in possession of an inflexible mind. In recent memory, censorship was almost exclusively the domain of not just the religious in society, but the most conservative ends of a religion: the fundamentalist. Censorship was a tool to protect a ‘final revelation’. The censor is a supremacist. Fascism and communism, two extreme ideologies, supported by extreme, inflexible thinkers and, again, final revelations in their own way, naturally viewed free speech as an enemy of their respective projects and likewise terrorized their populations into silence. The speech of Martin Luther King Jr. was constantly threatened by white supremacists who, again, are uncompromising in their hierarchical views of society and how it should eternally function. All the above groups felt empowered to use terror and, at times deadly violence, to silence those who dissented from their vision.
So, religious extremists, fascists, communists, and hyper-racist movements (we can add to the list hyper-capitalists, railroad barons, corporations, etc.) are all fixed in a totalitarian worldview, and all have proved ready to use violence against those who do not share this view.
And, if we needed more proof that today’s would-be censors are the ideological descendants of these rancid forebears, they even use the same arguments in their defense. Each of the mentioned groups would claim that their calls for censorship were to create order and harmony. In their twisted reasoning the white supremacist in conflict with Rev. King, sought an order best for society – whites being on top, and blacks on the bottom. The contemporary censor intuitively knows their questionable lineage, which is why they work overtime to subvert free speech as an opponent of progress, pretending, completely ahistorically, that free speech preserves order where censorship on the other hand, would create better conditions in which minorities could flourish. Even noted Māori scholar Moana Jackson peddled this total bunk in a 2018 E-Tangata essay. It is absurd on its face, cannot be backed up by fact, and would quickly wither in any open debate.
We are being told that free speech can create conditions for violence when historical, and contemporary examples all point in the exact opposite direction: censorship – the assumption that an inflexible thinker has a moral right to silence others – is both anti-progress and normalises violence and intimidation against perceived opponents in society. It is at the root of current political divisions. Politicians who encourage or promise censorship in the name of greater harmony are objectively wrong, and reckless, and need to be retired by the voters for nudging society’s most inflexible thinkers toward violence.