On free speech for fascists (An Open Letter To The University Philosophical Society)

This is a blog post I wrote on my old blog when Trinity Philosophical Society had invited Nick Griffin to address a debate. The debate was subsequently canceled due to pressure from anti-fascists. I’m reproducing it here because it says some important stuff about free speech.

Fellow debaters,

It is with disappointment that I write to complain about the University Philosophical Society’s irresponsible decision to invite BNP leader and Holocaust denier Nick Griffin to speak at a debate on immigration. Griffin’s ultra-right racist political views and involvement in fascist organising are well-documented, and undoubtedly well-known to the committee. The threat he and his party pose to immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer and trans people is both real and pressing. While in the short term, the BNP is unlikely to gain power and carry out their policy of forced deportation of blacks and Muslims, even modest success is enough to encourage hate crimes both by members of the BNP and others on the far-right, both in the UK, and in Ireland. The sense of legitimacy afforded by an invite by a debating society, particularly one as prestigious as the Phil, directly contributes to the momentum of these groups. Moreover, appearances by far-right speakers in events such as this are strongly correlated with increases in the incidence of hate crimes in the surrounding areas. These dangers are particularly acute in times of economic crisis, where ‘blame the immigrants’ rhetoric offers an easily-understandable explanation for complex socio-economic processes.

‘Free speech’ controversies such as this occur with depressing regularity in the debating community, and play out in a ritualistic manner: Some debating society, in an attempt to assert their commitment to freedom of speech and/or provoke a debate about the limitations of freedom speech (or, if I’m being cynical, to stir up controversy for the sake of publicity), invites a well-known fascist to address the house. Predictably, anti-fascist, anti-racist and immigrant groups come out strongly in opposition. The debate itself is of little importance as a debate (since an interesting, informative and nuanced debate would not involve Nick Griffin) but rather as the centrepiece of a dramatic narrative with the society’s committee in the centre defending the open society against the illiberal forces of unfreedom – immigrants, racialised minorities, and the anti-racist movement – with the fascist playing the hapless victim who just wants the opportunity to present his opinion. This inverted ontology, in which racialised minorities become the oppressors and the racists the victims, is a recurring trope of racist discourse – the ordinary white man as victim of imagined multiculturalist hegemony – and is a consequence of the elevation of abstract principles (‘freedom of speech’) over concrete realities (people’s lived experiences of racism).

Of course, we are always told, the fascist will not be given an uncontested platform, but rather will be robustly challenged by invited guests and society debaters. Having invited the fascist to speak regardless of the views of minorities and anti-racists, the debaters now adopt the pose of anti-fascism (white knights to the rescue!) and (rhetorically) confront the fascist as principled defenders of multiculturalism. By taking on both the anti-racists and the racists, the debaters consolidate their self-image as supremely rational intellectuals, through their performance elevating themselves above the vulgar irrationalism and illiberalism of the antifascist struggle, brave defenders of universal values against the murky contingencies of subjective struggle. If only these minorities would rationally argue that they shouldn’t be deported en masse to the Third World because of their ethnicity, rather than trying to undermine our free speech utopia!

This is a perspective steeped in privilege. It’s easy to be in favour of free speech for fascists when you’re not the one whose humanity is called into question, and when you’re not the one whose life and safety is under threat from the growth of far-right groups. Posturing aside, there’s nothing particularly brave about forcing other people to take the risk in order for you to maintain your consistency in applying an idealised schema of rights and freedoms. Only in a worldview that invisiblises racial hierarchies does it make sense to conflate the ‘right’ of fascist groups to organise with the concept of freedom.

In any case, have we not been here already – dozens of times? Have we not already had the meta-debate about the limits of debating? Have we not already explored the boundaries of freedom of speech through the performance art ritual of the fascist in the debating chamber? Can we not have a debate about a complex issue like immigration with descending into Marilyn Manson-esqe transgressive theatrics? There’s plenty of people with important things to say whose perspectives we’re ignoring because we’re too busy focusing on the fringe lunatic, not least those for whom racism is a daily lived-reality rather than an opportunity for a publicity stunt

  1. Darren said:

    “This is a perspective steeped in privilege. It’s easy to be in favour of free speech for fascists when you’re not the one whose humanity is called into question…”

    This is an excellent piece, and brilliantly phrased throughout. Very convincing, I enjoyed it very much.

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