- The pen is mightier than the sword. No comparison can be made between racist speech and actual physical violence.
- We support freedom of expression. Muslims must integrate to the dominant culture.
- Cartoons of Mohammed are just a joke and Muslims who feel attacked by them are being over-sensitive and censorious. There is an irresolvable clash of civilisations between the West and the Islamic world – satire is one of our key weapons in that struggle.
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.
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
Contains some discussion of psychological responses to crisis pregnancy which may be triggering. Some of the links may also be triggering in other ways.
Over the last few days, a number of those awful Youth Defence posters that have been appearing on billboards all over Dublin have been ripped-down, paint bombed, stickered over with Joyce quotations or otherwise vandalised. (Video here.)
The story was picked up by Broadsheet this afternoon and predictably the comments section is filled with the usual tedious liberal bleating about freedom of speech. Here’s a couple of randomly chosen examples:
Hate this. Am very pro-choice but I also believe in free speech. Just like I don’t agree with the BNP but I hate they way people attempt to stop them attending debates but have no problem with radical leftists attending similar debates.
This is against freedom of expression. Very naive thing to do even to God bothering moral nazis.
First of all, we need to recognise that Youth Defence have deliberately designed these posters to evoke feelings of shame, guilt and distress in order to bully women into doing what they want. Crisis pregnancy and termination can cause acute feelings of distress and anxiety in women, much of which can be linked to pervasive conservative ideas about the immorality of abortion. These posters are designed to be deliberately triggering for women who have been through traumatic situations (triggering here means provoking extremely strong or damaging emotional responses,for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves – see here for more).
For that reason alone these posters shouldn’t be all over the city forcing themselves into people’s consciousness without their consent, and people are right to rip them down. The potential for actual tangible harm to vulnerable people trumps whatever abstract rights Youth Defence can lay claim to.
But we should also think about what exactly free speech means, who gets to lay claim to it, who benefits from it and so on.
Liberals conceptualise freedom of speech in negative terms, as the ability to say whatever you want without any coercive force preventing you from doing so. That’s a useful freedom from the point of view of those with access to the political, social, economic and cultural capital to turn their negative freedom into positive expression. It’s really useful for groups like Youth Defence, who are given massive funding by wealthy anti-choice individuals and groups in the United States, and who operate in a country in which patriarchal Catholic conservatism is embedded culturally and institutionally, but for those without access to those forms of power, their voices remain excluded.
In her testimony to the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, Andrea Dworkin criticised the (liberal) ACLU because “they have convinced many of us that the standard for speech is what I would call a repulsion standard. That is to say we find the most repulsive person in the society and we defend him. I say we find the most powerless people in this society, and we defend them. That’s the way we increase rights of speech in this society.” (source)
In Ireland, people don’t come much more powerless than women in situations of crisis pregnancy – doubly so if they are children, or victims of rape, or in institutional care, or undocumented migrants, or simply too poor to travel to England for an abortion. Every attempt by women to pursue the access to free, safe and legal abortion in this country, either through the courts or through parliament has failed. It’s been 20 years since the X-case ruling established the on-paper right to lifesaving abortion in this country, but since then, actual legislative remedy has been prevented by kicking it back and forth between committees for two decades. In this society, for women who have found themselves, may one day find themselves, or currently find themselves faced with situations of crisis pregnancy and whose voices are routinely dismissed and ignored by state institutions, vandalism like this is their speech and should be defended.