An Anarchist Response to the Free Speech Debate

Introduction

Once championed by anarchists, leftists, and liberals; in recent times, free speech has become a right-wing talking point. Where the free-speech movement of the 60s opposed government sanctions on protest and dissent, the political right largely focuses on the following issues; right-wing speakers being denied platforms, social media censorship, the use of accusations such as “racist” and “transphobe” to silence” “dissenting” voices, and anti-fascists confronting far-right rallies, sometimes with violence. But the “free speech” concerns of the political right are not justified and have very little to do with meaningful political freedom.  

So far, liberal commentators have treated the principle of free-speech as a sacrosanct right. Hence, they often approach the matter by citing legal convention, arguing that private corporations have no legal obligations to host or employ right-wingers who engage in hate-speech defined as “speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, ethnic origin, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.” As such, nobody’s right to free speech is being infringed upon when they get fired or deplatformed. Anarchists would vaguely agree with this because even without state enforcement, deplatforming amounts to free association, an idea that is neatly summarized in this famous xkcd comic-strip. We also tend to oppose “hate speech” too, but would not contract the state to address it. Rather, we would rely on free association and decentralized direct action to uphold freedoms and oppose hate. The use of direct action to deplatform far-right speakers aligns with anarchist praxis since it implicitly rejects the authority of the state and also acknowledges that the state is unwilling to fight on our behalf.  

This response typically fails to appease right wingers who claim that deplatforming nevertheless silences them or otherwise rail against the “SJW” cultural norms that lead to speakers getting deplatformed in the first place. This however isn’t an argument about free-speech but rather what constitutes acceptable speech. People on the right aren’t actually being silenced in any meaningful sense, especially compared to academics on the radical left who are more frequently fired for their views and commonly loose speaking engagements. Figures like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein have been effectively boycotted by the mainstream media whereas institutionally backed status-quo warriors like Jordan Peterson are commonly on-air. However, for the sake of argument, let’s take the mass hysteria at face value and address the issue head-on.

An Anarchist Approach to Free Speech

Anarchists have historically championed freedom of speech, fighting government censorship and anti-union policies. However, we approach the issue differently to liberals by rejecting the legalism that allows private platforms to be unaccountable and forces public entities to host speakers, which routinely results in public institutions platforming openly alt-right figures such as Richard Spencer. Instead I would propose a different framework; open-dialogue as a decentralized, bottom-up, and stigmergic phenomenon grounded in reciprocal exchange as opposed to state enforcement. Anarchists don’t seek to superficially alter the statist conception of speech in terms of what is and isn’t allowed a priori but to do away with this formula altogether. By negating authority, we in turn abolish the elevated status the state has given to speech, property, national identity, and so on as well as the heavily skewed power dynamic that suppresses the voices of marginalized groups and amplifies the voices of the wealthy and powerful, a point expanded upon in Rolling Thunder:

There can be no truly free speech except among equals—among parties who are not just equal before the law, but who have comparable access to resources and equal say in the world they share. Can an employee really be said to be as free to express herself as her boss, if the latter can take away her livelihood? Are two people equally free to express their views when one owns a news network and the other cannot even afford to photocopy fliers? In the US, where donations to political candidates legally constitute speech, the more money you have, the more “free speech” you can exercise. As the slogan goes, freedom isn’t free—and nowhere is that clearer than with speech.

By stressing reciprocal exchange in speech, we emphasize subjectivity while deemphasizing absolutist forms of speech that seek to invalidate people’s identities, dehumanize them, and justify oppression. Speech isn’t a right to be granted by the state but a capacity we all have. This means everyone would be free to express themselves as they choose but nobody is beyond accountability, which may result in them being confronted or being deplatformed.

The first counterargument that comes to mind is that free speech as a bottom up phenomenon can easily translate into tyranny of the majority. I would contend that mass censorship is impossible without a centralized authority (a state) with the capacity to uniformly monitor everyone and enforce rulings. People with views that repulse society at large would still be free to voice their views online or in private; any given society has a large range of spaces that cater to a variety of viewpoints. More importantly, the active or passive silencing of certain viewpoints merely reflects the norms of everyday discourse which exists in all societies, often embodied in law. For example, the USA has laws pertaining to obscenity, incitement to violence, copyright infringement, press censorship during wartime, whistleblowing and restrictions for the incarcerated. Overall, censorship would likely be far less common in an anarchic setting.

Why Do We Utilize Deplatforming?

While a stateless society is likely to reject ideas that rely on, justify, or push for domination such as transphobia, scientific racism, homophobia, misogyny, and nationalism, it is important to present our reasoning for rejecting hate speech.

1. Right-wing speakers being denied platforms and social media censorship

Speech does not always take place in a power vacuum; by empowering some voices, we may suppress others. Consider a hostile work environment where people constantly speculate about the gender identity of their trans coworker or make racially insensitive remarks. In such an instance, if an employer refuses to take action by “citing” free-speech, it is likely that impacted individuals would isolate themselves or be driven out of the workplace entirely.

In this case, free-speech is not a black and white matter of unquestioningly upholding a sacred principle regardless of what is being expressed. Rather, we ought to move past the principle and consider the underlying power dynamic wherein “free” expression can amount to oppression. Free speech is not always a neutral principle, not only because of the massive, well-funded propaganda system that propagates far-right talking points, but because the silencing effect that normalizing hate-speech has on marginalized groups.

Therefore, instead of unwaveringly enforcing free-speech, we should take a more nuanced approach and consider whose voices we want to prioritize. In other words, this is really about picking a side — who’s speech are we going to defend?

Questions asking whether the Holocaust happened or whether trans people should be gendered correctly ought to be denied a platform. Not only because of the silencing effect these talking points may have, but because these matters are not of academic relevance and add nothing to the discussion. A Jewish person should not have to intellectually debate a Nazi on whether they should be gassed, a black person should not have to refute the idea that they’re a different species, and a transgender person shouldn’t have to defend the validity of their gender identity. These debates have been put to rest and aren’t appropriate in academic contexts where Jews, black people, and trans people come to learn, not rhetorically defend their right to exist.

Mainstream social media should aim to meet the same standards. While social media provides users with the ability to form veritable echo-chambers, platforms that aim to build inclusive environments should opt to remove accounts that promote hate in order to fight back against the normalization of hate-speech. Of course, this isn’t to say hateful views won’t have anywhere else to go on the internet.

Many of the matters being brought up have been largely resolved by their respective academic fields; history, gender studies, biology, post-colonial studies, etc. Take the debate over trans identity for example; Gender and sex are not the same, dichotomous conceptions of sex are guilty of essentialism, which is best visualized as a spectrum and biological markers exist for trans identities (which may still be a small part of a far wider picture). Speakers such as Ben Shapiro who willfully refuse to acknowledge the massive body of evidence are guilty of erasure and have nothing to add the conversation besides lies.

Yale University refusing to renew David Graeber’s contract over his involvement in Occupy was not a talking point among the right-wing free-speech warriors. Yet, there is mass outrage every time dweebs like James Damore get fired over their misogynistic comments and people like Alex Jones get banned from social media for harassment. Let’s face it, while often genuine, outrage over free-speech is selectively expressed based on one’s ideological position. Today, the underlying ideology that motivates far-right individuals isn’t open academic inquiry, but hate, a fact missed by the “classical liberal” suckers (or closet racists) who clamor in support of the far-right.

A good example of this general dynamic can be found in the recent controversy over “The Case for Colonialism,” a paper by Bruce Gilley, which resulted in the editor of Third World Quarterly, receiving personal threats. My search for right-leaning responses yielded an effete opinion piece that skirts over the issue, arguing that vapid contrarianism is important to academic discourse. Yes, millions of people were killed, but what about the railways? What if colonialism hadn’t occurred? These questions serve to retrospectively justify oppression and genocide and erase the experiences of colonized peoples, who after decades of oppression are now faced with academia attempting to justify their suffering. For the defenders of this bland, watered down understanding of free-speech, there is no social context in which academic discourse takes place. Moreover, even within academic circle the paper was found to lack rigor. For a critical response to Gilley’s paper, look to Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs debunks many of his claims in “A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad.”

2. The use of accusations such as “racist” and “transphobe” to “silence” “dissenting” voices

People on the political right who come to understand the impact of these terms are unwittingly reproducing the arguments used by marginalized groups to justify deplatforming. It is certainly true that being disregarded as a transphobe, racist, or Islamophobe has an implicit silencing effect. However, while we should be wary of false accusations, there is frankly no discourse to be had with groups that promote hate because the silencing effects of unencumbered speech go both ways.

Jordan Peterson comes to this conclusion when examining the word “Islamophobia.” In the interview he opposes things that “limit what you you’re allowed to say either implicitly or explicitly,” defending the very fundamentalist vision of free-speech I am arguing against. He goes on, “I regard [Islamophobia] as a reprehensible word, I. don’t like the word because phobia has a technical medical/ psychological meaning and that word was appropriated for ideological usage and applied to any conflict ideological or emotional between different identity groups… it has manipulation built into its structure.” Here Peterson’s observation is technically true; however, what he’s doing isn’t defending a neutral principle but picking a side. Rather than defending the speech of Muslims, trans people, and other marginalized groups, he chooses to side with the various “phobes” who push dehumanizing generalizations, deny subjectivity (from their own subjective positions) and implicitly or explicitly argue for violence by advocating for programs such as mass deportations. Whether certain ideas are up for discussion is a matter for individual forums to decide. While these talking points may be welcome in areas dominated by the political right, we have no obligation to extend the same courtesies.

3. Anti-fascists violently confronting far-right rallies

With this final matter, our discussion moves from the realms of speech to action. When anti-fascists organize in the street, they are typically mobilizing against outright Nazis, white nationalists, and the alt-right, who all endorse violence and act upon their intentions. Far-right rhetoric often consists of direct threats that we have no reason to ignore in light of recent events. Today, even rallies organized by less extreme individuals on the right are nevertheless being co-opted by the far-right who use these as opportunities to recruit and spread their message.

Across the US the far right has been responsible for 73% of terrorist attacks since 2001. At a Milo Yiannopoulos event in Seattle a Trump supporter shot and injured an Antifa protestor, in Portland a figure on the far right stabbed two people on a train, and of course there’s Charlottesville.  Earlier this month, the Proud Boys, a group with a history of violence in Portland, assaulted three individuals in New York City, who were later arrested by the police. More recently, a neo-nazi murdered 8 people at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Allowing these people to freely organize in public spaces, form networks, organize, and recruit members is not an option because they pose a threat to people’s safety. Movements constrained to the internet fail to have an impact when members are shrouded in anonymity and people can’t trust each other. Case-in-point, far right chat-rooms regularly end up leaking information and compromising members’ identities and tactics. Organizing and meeting in person are important for momentum to build. That’s precisely why the far-right have these rallies in the first place. With these considerations in mind, shutting down fascist rallies can be seen as nothing more than self-defense.

Although online fascist networks aren’t as up in your face and don’t give movements the same momentum as real world organizing, they nevertheless facilitate extremism and encourage individuals to commit acts of violence. For example, “gab.ai,” the self-described “free speech platform” that housed the Pittsburgh shooter, functions as a Twitter replacement set-up specifically for Nazis, providing them with a means to freely network. After the shooting, the site was deplatformed by its web host and payment processor. Despite the site’s founder fallaciously portraying the deplatforming as a free-speech issue, Jews, people of color, and other minorities are most definitely safer and more meaningfully free with gab.ai currently defunct.

While some of us may have the luxury of being insulated from the far-right, many don’t have the same privilege. The state refuses to shut down their rallies, often colluding with the far-right in order to prosecute anti-fascists. In Berkeley police coordinated with neo-nazis to pursue anti-racist activists and used near lethal force against anti-fascists in Portland in defense of fascists. Therefore, it falls to communities to engage in direct action in order to defend themselves against the very legitimate threat to people’s physical well-being.

Ever since the recent spate of rallies began, many people have come out of the woodwork, questioning Antifa on tactical grounds, arguing that violent tactics only gives more visibility to right wing causes, a point we should definitely take seriously. However, why not ask Richard Spencer, de facto leader of the alt-right what he thinks? Spencer personally attributed the end of his college tour to antifa and said “antifa is winning.” “Unite the Right 2″ had about 20 attendees and Milo Yiannopoulos can’t seem to hold onto venues because they’re all concerned about potential violence.

Conclusion

Conceptualized from an anarchist standpoint, free speech takes shape inside the framework of reciprocity, where parties engage in a mutually beneficial dialogue. As soon as a dialogue loses this property, percipients are free to withdraw from the social relations or defend themselves if the need arises. Today free speech, from both the liberal and right-wing standpoint, is posed as an a priori principle that is contingent on top down enforcement and ignores the fact that some forms of speech suppress others. It’s time to move beyond these narrow frameworks of free speech and understand that in reality “free-speech” is not the issue here, rather it is a smokescreen to allow bigots to gain platforms and spread their views.

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