Free speech vs hate speech

greer foul mouth.jpg

By Ani White.

Recent months have seen a revival of debate about ‘free speech’ and hate speech. As readers are no doubt aware, antifascists in the USA mobilised to ensure white supremacists cannot march unchallenged. Mass mobilisation in Boston led to the cancellation of many white supremacist marches.

Commentators such as Chris Hedges declared suppression of fascism to be a violation of ‘free speech’ principles.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended the right of fascists to ‘free speech’, prompting the Onion headline “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.” Philosopher Karl Popper once addressed this self-elimination as the ‘paradox of tolerance.’ Popper said that tolerance of intolerant ideas would ultimately lead to its own elimination: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.”

The resurgence of fascism poses a special threat to democracy, the left, and to minorities. The contemporary US administration tacitly supports the white supremacist movement, so self-organised communities must defend themselves.

As an ultra-right movement, fascists perpetrate hate speech on every front; primarily racist, but also homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, and so on. However, fascists are not the only propagators of hate speech.

It may be necessary here to define hate speech. Hate speech does not refer to anything inflammatory, or anything somebody disagrees with. Hate speech targets social minorities for abuse. Hate speech is violent, and nobody is obliged to tolerate violence, either psychological or physical.

The no-platform tactic, where activists refuse to host hateful speakers (or pressure an organisation to do so), was originally developed to stop fascists. More recently however, no-platform tactics have been controversially extended to others, particularly transphobic ‘feminists.’

Critics like Angela Nagle (author of Kill All Normies) accuse pro-trans and no-platformist activists of “tumblr liberalism”, aswell as denying “free speech.”

However, notions of ‘free speech’ and ‘liberalism’ are not well-defined by critics. When European radical liberals first fought for free speech, they meant the freedom to criticise the state. This sense of ‘free speech’ is still relevant, as states continue to restrict radical critics. This is an entirely separate issue from whether private citizens should tolerate violent groups, or whether private organisations should offer a platform for hate speech.

There is a further complication to historical notions of ‘free speech’, and of ‘freedom’ more generally. Under the liberal regimes that emerged after the French Revolution, freedom only meant individual freedom from the state. Karl Marx argued that this limited notion of freedom meant, in part, the freedom of the “egoistic” individual, the freedom from social restraint:

None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man… that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community… Society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence.

Ironically, critics of “tumblr liberalism” such as Angela Nagle argue precisely for the egoistic liberal ideal of freedom from the social world. This crude liberalism tolerates abusive alt-rightists as they increasingly run rampant, poisoning the well of free discussion (Nagle actively mocks those who focus on fighting hate speech, fascist or otherwise).

Controversy over transphobic ‘free speech’ has played out in New Zealand. In 2016, trans-exclusionary feminist blogger Renee Gerlich was refused a platform at Wellington Zinefest. In 2013, the Queer Avengers ‘glitterbombed’ transphobic feminist Germaine Greer. Greer has often been targeted by trans activists internationally, leading to accusations of suppressing ‘free speech.’

Defence of Germaine Greer often implies that her transphobic comments are ancient history. Yet Greer has consistently promoted transphobia over the decades, from caricaturing trans women in The Female Eunuch, to attempting to exclude a trans woman from a Women’s College in the 1990s, to describing trans women as “men with painted faces” during her 2013 visit to New Zealand. If Greer renounced her views and apologised, that may open the door to forgiveness and tolerance, but her continuing and unapologetic attacks on trans people are intolerable.

Even when Greer’s defenders acknowledge her ongoing hateful views, they do so in a confused way. The Australian socialist website RedFlag made two apparently contradictory claims about Greer’s views in an article criticising no-platformism:

Greer’s comments about the legitimacy or otherwise of trans women’s claim to the label “woman” are indefensible and utterly disrespectful… we must be able to distinguish between errant ideological currents within the left broadly defined, and the ideological representatives of the oppressors, which Greer is not.

On the one hand Greer’s take on trans people is “indefensible,” yet on the other she must be defended as part of the left. Is transphobia left-wing? Is bigotry acceptable on the left? Why do many leftists support no-platforming Zionists, but not transphobes? With friends like these, who needs enemies?

RedFlag’s reference to “errant ideological currents within the left” raises questions separate from the tolerance of transphobia in wider society. What sort of discussions should be hosted in left-wing spaces, with the ostensible aim of liberation from oppression and exploitation?

There is a certain amount of ‘soft prejudice’ that necessarily must be debated. For example, nationalist opposition to free movement is dangerous, but so strong within the workers’ movement that internationalists must debunk it rather than attempting to suppress it in every instance.

However, outright abuse cannot be tolerated. Hard racists who happily use slurs are not operating in the realm of reasonable debate. Germaine Greer is a ‘hard transphobe’, with entrenched views that have led her to actively harass trans women. Her hateful views are well to the right of contemporary mainstream liberalism and feminism. Tolerating these ideas on the left implies that outright abusive bigotry is acceptable.

Debate can only be constructive if blatantly bigoted ideas are shut down. If the left is stuck debating whether oppressive violence is acceptable, this hinders more complex debates about how to actually dismantle oppressive power structures. Meanwhile those harmed by oppressive ideas may drift away from the left, exhausted by the tolerance of hate speech, ultimately undermining the unity needed to transform society for the better.

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