What they really mean is ‘consequence free’ speech.
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Like much of the noise generated by 24/7 news cycles, Twitter feeds and self-promoting ideologues, the term ‘free speech’ has been reduced to a form of catechistic spectacle. The blurred line between my right to speak and your right not to be singled out by me for persecution and/or exclusion has, it seems, become an electrified perimeter fence. Whilst this is manna for media outlets thriving on lurid, emotive conflict – and clickbait for trolls and You Tubers – it has the unfortunate side effect of obscuring subtler and more important issues and of drowning out moderate voices. Indeed, ‘free speech’ may now be entered into an expanding category of similarly empty political/cultural jargon. Free speech advocacy in the social media age has devolved into yet another form of polemic theatre; virtue signal, dog whistle, or worse, an acceptable mask for frankly unacceptable agendas.
Those on the conspiracy and identity bandwagons will doubtless raise their agitant fists in defiance. They will accuse me of dismissing their concerns. Pejoratives like PC police, elite mouthpiece and sheeple will soon be applied. For these folk, freedom of expression is being stymied by a combination of government, tech giants, changing cultural norms and, of course, shadowy, nefarious elites. Indeed, this piece will surely be regarded by some as a left/right, patriarchal/feminazi assault on their freedoms.
Of course, the reality is less dramatic; for it’s not the fundamental freedom to speak, nor indeed the melting pot of diverse perspective that informs the political process and the broader socio-cultural discourse that is the focus of my concern here. Rather, it is the capture of the free speech banner by narrowly defined ideological cohorts and its use as a weapon in an increasingly infantile, mine/yours polity.
The invasion of the free speech space by white supremacists, religious extremists and conspiracy theorists has served to divert serious debate on the topic. In a world where technology is enabling seamless mass surveillance, and the ownership of media platforms (mainstream and social) is increasingly oligarchic (think FAANG in the US, BATX in China)1, we would be better served by a discussion unencumbered by identity-based paranoia and apocalyptic doomsaying. Indeed, as various regimes around the world inch towards models of tighter control and the harsher treatment of dissident voices2, we should instead be having more sober discussions about the trade-offs between security and free expression, and the line between mere opining and speech that incites hatred and violence.
At its core, the notion of free speech is central to the social contract. When we strip out partisan agendas and the spectacle of rancour, we arrive at something fundamental; namely, that as a social species we have always put brakes on personal action in order to arrive at a sustainable compromise between group cohesion and individual liberty. The current hysteria around PC overlooks the fact that social censures have always existed against certain forms of speech and action. Yet, mired in historical amnesia, entitlement and narrow presentism, the anti-PC brigade carry on as if the phenomenon of communal norms and taboos is somehow a recent invention of leftist intellectuals. History, it seems, has just become a gay/feminist/immigrant plot against them.
Thus, rather than a re-negotiation of the relationship between sovereign and citizen – or indeed a debate about how to balance the competing ‘rights’ of various groups and individuals in society – what we mostly have is a drama of refusal. Of righteous whinging and delusional nostalgia on one hand, and the censorious over-reach of identity ideologues on the other.
And, having said all this, I acknowledge that many (if not most) so-called progressives trot out equally inane catchphrases and fixate ridiculously on semantics and gesture. Just like their libertarian opponents have done with the free speech debate, they too have reduced the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice to a slew of memes and poses.
This is not to say that there aren’t well-intentioned, thoughtful people on both ‘sides’ with valid, nuanced points to make – but these are the overlooked minority. In a spectacle-based culture, reasoned and informed doesn’t rate. Doesn’t rack up the likes or stimulate the trolls.
In fact, to be honest, most of what I have encountered in the free speech space isn’t about free speech at all. Almost all the friends, colleagues and others I have heard hold forth on this topic are far less concerned about the deeper issues of censorship and evolving social values than they are about being able to state their opinions or indulge their entitlement paranoia without argument. They routinely conflate the presence of other voices with oppression and pine for an imaginary utopia (past or future) where they get to spout their views to dutifully hushed and compliant audiences. They whinge about diversity because, in truth, they just can’t stand it when once muzzled others start to speak up. They want the floor to themselves because – perhaps unconsciously – they feel that their genitals, skin colour, choice of god or glittering CV entitles them to it. They have earned their right to speak. Everyone else is just a PC/SJW puppet or military/industrial oppressor. What these free speakers really mean is: volume up for me, mute button for you.
Digging deeper, what we find beneath their veneer of rationalisation is a largely irrational basket of fear and pre-pubescent egocentrism. The extension of rights to others is an attack on them. We should all tread lightly around their fragility while they remain free to voice all manner of vicious, Essentialist nonsense. They mock rivals for their identity slogans and then promptly employ similar ethnic, gender or ideological assertions under the ‘motherhood’ umbrella of free speech.
Aside from being a form of tantrum, most of the free speech rhetoric I hear also appears to gloss over and/or ignore some fairly basic considerations:
- If I am free to speak, surely others are too (even if they disagree)
- Whilst I may be free to say what I will, are not others free to ignore me, or ask me to shut up?
- If I claim the right to espouse supremacist views, is it reasonable for me to expect my so-called ‘inferiors’ to lie down and take it?
- If I assert my right to a be a bigot, surely others are at liberty to assert their right not to have me be a bigot on their payroll, social media platform or football team?
- If I elect to use coded language to encourage violence or discrimination against others, am I prepared to take responsibility for the cruel and inhumane outcomes of my speech?
- Is it not obvious that our world (culture, polity, economy, workplace, environment, etc) is a shared space; and that although we are all technically free to do whatever we want (including rape, kill and persecute) others are free to stop us if we go too far?
In addition, there is the utter absurdity and rank hypocrisy of self-proclaimed free speakers moaning about how they are being systematically silenced while, simultaneously, running You Tube channels, doing speaking tours, authoring blogs and droning on endlessly to anyone within earshot.
Quite how conservatives contrive to feel out-spoken in an era of neo-liberal economics, deregulation, and Trump/Brexit/Balsonaro/Duterte/Putin/Orban is simply bewildering3. Likewise, for Assange cheerleaders and others in the leftist conspiracy scene. Even if Julian rots in US custody (which would be an egregious sovereign over-reach in my view), it’s not like this would be met with deafening silence. The media (so reviled by ideologues on left and right) would erupt with noise and drama, and Wikileaks doppelgangers would spring up all over the internet (if indeed they haven’t already)4.
What all this points to is a serious lack of perspective. So self-absorbed in their respective silos of discontent are the vast majority of free speech noisemakers that they have lost sight of the fact that just because they wish to speak doesn’t mean I have to listen. Whenever I am subjected to the freakshow of wealthy white guys insisting that they’re being castrated and censored by PC queers or ‘coloured’ women, (despite being amongst the most comfortably off, unenslaved cohort in human history), I am struck by how like petulant children they sound. And god forbid I should have to endure another tirade from a supposedly awakened (but systemically oppressed) truth warrior who appears deaf and blind to the fact that their poison world paranoia is literally dripping from every internet portal and apparently alternative bookshop.
Indeed, for most of these supposedly suffocated free speakers the only genuinely oppressing force in their lives is the incessant din of their own oft-repeated slave narratives. Because the free speech You Tuber is always the righteous hero, the fearless iconoclast or the ‘poor me’ victim for whom we should feel so awfully sorry. If they weren’t polluting the airwaves and distorting the discourse, the spectacle of their ideological ranting would be laughable and pathetic.
Yet, beneath the populist cacophony, there are serious challenges waiting in the wings for citizens, corporates and governments alike; because once we eliminate the juvenile drama of libertarian placard waving, we arrive at the core issue surrounding the notion of free speech. Principally, this revolves around balance: how to strike it, how to keep it flexible in the face of rapid tech developments and demographic shifts; and how to resolve the inevitable disputes between privacy and public interest, prudent security and healthy discourse, and free expression and social harmony.
Clearly, the risk of over-zealous clampdown is a moribund cultural climate and the increased likelihood of a safety first, untrusting social space that will not only calcify politics but discourage risk and innovation. Privacy-free, super-states and data-mining corporate juggernauts are in nobody’s interest long term. The costs of a top-down political, economic and cultural monologue far outweigh any reputed benefits. People who know (or feel) they are being watched pull in their horns, or resort to snitching to court favour; neither of which engenders a sustainably civil and vibrant society.
Yet, to be fair, there are circumstances when it’s appropriate for the sovereign to keep secrets, or for companies to insist upon certain confidentialities. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect governments and CEOs to take umbrage when their private documents get splashed across tabloid news – just as you and I would if all our dirty laundry received an airing in prime time.
Stepping back further from the contemporary polemic, what we see is the primary challenge of social organisation. Just how do we balance rights with responsibilities, and what mechanisms do we employ to adjudicate disputes? The intricacies of this equilibrium are complex and ever shifting and are indeed worthy of our attention and debate.
However, we need to extricate these discussions from narrowly defined self-interest, fascist nostalgia, knee jerk anti-authoritarian sentiment, and the clutches of megalomaniacal jihadis. Sadly, in the age of social media vomit, we are a million miles from anything resembling rational. Commonplace free speech activism is mostly entitlement, fragility and doom-mongering in acceptable disguise. Furthermore, it has been hijacked by extremists of all persuasions. The upshot is that the current free speech debate – if indeed it can be called that – is dominated by intemperate, self-seeking noise.
Yet perhaps what we most need to tease out is precisely what we mean by ‘free’ speech.
- Do we mean simply the ability to speak truth to power without risking death, confinement or blanket censorship?
- Do we also mean the ability to speak without being tracked and profiled by the state or other vested interests for either commercial or political ends?
- Do we mean the ability to say anything whatsoever, whenever we feel like it, regardless of whether it’s true/false, fair/hurtful, or may be used by others as an excuse for violence?
Although some of us understand the nexus between freedom and accountability – and how they are effectively meaningless without one other – garden variety libertarians, fundamentalists and conspiracists appear either blissfully ignorant of this, or are cynically manipulating what they hope to be our disconnect (and discontent). I simply cannot recall the last time I heard a free speech advocate talk about the need for moderated, respectful speech, for taking ownership of the consequences of their freely voiced opinion. What do these people think it means to speak? Do they believe that their promulgating happens in a vacuum; that so long as they get heard then all is well in modern democracy?
True free speech is accountable speech; not just pissed off harping. It does not come with a guarantee of audience, media interest or hero status. What’s more, it accepts the possibility that it may be wrong. That others may condemn it.
What we all need to admit is that our words can (and sometimes do) result in harm and cruelty. Claiming the right to speak and then walking away from the consequences (even if genuinely unintended) is either foolish or a deliberate evasion.
Of course, none of this means we should become complacent. The institutions of government, big business and media are reliably human. As such, self-interest, error, myopia, herdthink, empire building, favouritism and vanity will always feature. But so too will a measure of reason, ethical consideration and basic humanity. In short, the details of the social contract are always being re-negotiated, subtly or seismically. Genuine free speech is a crucial piece of this puzzle because it ensures that the error-correcting mechanism of tribal dialogue can happen without the smothering presence of hard-wired orthodoxy or thought police.
The other obvious thing about free speech is that, if we’re honest, we should be arguing about it – not simply stating that whatever I say is free speaking and whatever you say is censorship and control. In this era of unfiltered social media fist shaking and live-stream massacre videos, something more honest, nuanced and humane would serve us significantly better than yet another identity zealot, apocalypse peddler or self-obsessed nostalgist wanting us to venerate their right to yell at us from their wi-fi enabled soap box.
1: FAANG = Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google. BATX = Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi.
2: As I write this piece – mid 2019 – we are witnessing the ‘creep of control’ in jurisdictions as diverse as China, Turkey, Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Even here in Australia, we have had Federal Police raiding journalist’s homes and the offices of public broadcasters. Point being, there is an ongoing and very real tension between states and citizenry around what constitutes free speech and/or public interest and what is legitimate in the so-called national security space.
3: In this country (Australia) we regularly endure the spectacle of conservative victim narratives; this despite the fact that their party of choice (or begrudging preference) has held office at the national level for 48 of 74 years since the end of WW2 (1945-2019). In a democracy modelled on a two-party duopoly, what more do these people want? Is a 64.86% win rate not enough for them? (Likewise, Republicans have been in the Oval Office for 23 of the last 39 years, and Tory PM’s have resided at No 10 for 26 of the last 39 years. In Germany, the Christian Democrats have held the Chancellery for all but 23 of the last 70 years. And so it goes…)
4: Beg your pardon, comrades – but the web appears to be well stocked with anti-vax, anti-fluoride, anti-Rothschild, anti-Western, lizard sponsored cyborg doom scenarios and all manner of ‘shocking video evidence’ of everything from chemtrails to 911 inside jobs. If indeed we’re being hoodwinked by the 0.1% and the uber-secretive puppet nation states they apparently control, well, it’s not much of a secret is it? Either way, I can’t recall a single one of the many conspiracy crusaders I know ever being hauled off to gulag or rounded up for water boarding sessions.