“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
That phrase contains all the hope and promise of political freedom of speech. One pictures intellectuals and workingmen alike discussing ideas unhindered. There is no idea so sacred, no value so widely held, that it is beyond critique. Without the power of the state guarding some official truth, only reason and logic can test their strength.
That’s the theory, anyway. But the theory and the real history of free speech are very different. The modern era institutionalized free speech as a safeguard, not as an ideal. Acemoglu and Robinson are two economists specializing in institutional development. In How Nations Fail, they discuss how various interests vied for power following Britain’s Glorious Revolution. Agreements between these factions to uphold the rule of law were self-serving. After all, the emergency powers you allow your friends one day are ones your enemies can usurp the next. Further studies seem to show the same behaviour at work. Democracy and its freedoms are “a way of committing to reforms when the likely alternative is the guillotine or the firing squad.”
The thing about this model is that the incentives are different. In the idealist vision, people commit to free speech because they desire a tolerant, liberal society. In the latter one, it’s because people don’t want to risk being silenced themselves. Problem is, it only takes one bastard who thinks they can get away with it to tear the whole thing down. The conditions which foster free speech on a political and cultural level are fragile indeed. As we’ve seen here at Social Matter, we’ve got a whole gang of bastards at it this time. The internet has been a haven for free speech. Campaigns have been fought to protect those freedoms from governments and businesses alike. Who’d have thought that its well-established denizens would be the ones using the internet to limit speech?
Free speech doesn’t just function as a constitutional right; it also defines the great game of politics. It introduces a rule which players in the game have to follow. Those on the top can’t use their power to limit what their opponents say about them. Those trying to get to the top can’t use silencing tactics on their way up. Like any game, there are a variety of strategies which players – parties, political leaders, activists, etc – can use to try and gain political power. What are some of them, and how does each strategy affect the resiliency of free speech?
First, each player could agree to respect free speech norms. That means that no one undermines anyone else’s rights to free speech. No rallies howling for the silencing of the enemy, no secret plans to invoke emergency powers. Each player incurs a cost upon gaining power because their opponents will be able to criticize them. But the benefit is that no other player will be able to silence them either. That’s pretty big, especially since the majority of people usually don’t hold political power directly. Free speech remains stable. The system functions.
What happens when a player stops following the rules? Well, that depends. In stable democracies, openly saying you oppose free speech erases any hope of gaining power. That’s why politicians have to play a careful game. It’s common to hear that certain speech infringes on other rights: it’s racist, it offends religious rights, it undermines national security, and so on. Even Communists and Fascists invoke the security of the state or the people. It takes a pretty ballsy authoritarian to straight up deny the right to speak. In stable liberal democracies, destroying your chance to gain power is a huge cost. In unstable regimes, like Britain during 1688, Weimar Germany, or Greece today, the game is a bit different. If things get bad enough, you might find yourself being the only one willing to stand up for free speech. In that case, the costs to you are high (since your enemies can speak against you) but the benefits are low (you will be silenced if you lose power). In Britain, players took this into account and stabilized the situation by accepting open criticism. In Germany, radical groups ended up battling it out until Hitler and his allies emerged victorious in 1933. Greece’s ultimate fate is yet to be determined, but it doesn’t look great.
None of this is radical thinking. But here’s where it gets interesting. Since it’s in no one’s favour to oppose free speech, how can one avoid the costs of free speech without openly opposing it? Let’s look at Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement (FSM) helped spark the student movements of the 1960’s. Their vision of free speech was certainly not restricted to the government. This was the dawn of the New Left. As Jacobin Mag explains, the Old Left was never a fan of “bourgeois freedoms” like speech. It reeked of the capitalist liberal democracy they sought to overthrow. So the very name of this student-led rebirth of Left-wing theory seemed to repudiate the old militancy. Nevertheless, strong ties remained between the student movements and the Old Left. Barbara Kay recounts the history of Bettina Aptheker, former Communist Party USA member, radical left activist, and student leader of the FSM. She was raised in a radical home, where “Party line” was a serious matter. Her father believed in Comrade Stalin and became his staunchest defender on the American Left. Despite supporting free speech in America, she was by her own admission not such a fan when it came to free speech for the USSR. For the record, the CPUSA was one of those critics of “bourgeois freedoms”. From a former member:
“Discipline in the Communist Party is voluntary, but in the silent background is the sword of excommunication. Without the power and religiosity of expulsion, the Communist Party could not exist as it is. Before the moment of the Khrushchev secret speech, expulsion from the Communist Party was akin to eternal damnation, the body alive but the soul already dead for eternity; and so powerful had this conviction of the membership become, and so widely and sincerely had they promulgated it, that millions of non-Communists considered anyone who bore the label of expulsion from the Party as a lost and damned soul, a corrupt and dangerous human being who no longer owned the right of admission to the society of men of good will. To a sincere and devoted Communist, expulsion was almost as bad as death – and sometimes worse.”
Fast-forward to 2014. The long march through the institutions is complete. One study found a third of faculty members admitting they would discriminate against people with conservative political views. Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor at Berkeley, now warns against “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation”…during his FSM 50 year anniversary talk, no less. The idea that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so” (Dirk) has overturned “defending to the death” your enemy’s right to speak. Now, in our model of the game of politics, this attitude should incur a great cost. Isn’t the agreement that everyone must respect free speech?
As Radish has shown, these trends aren’t the product of over-zealousness or misguided idealism. Herbert Marcuse, philosopher of the Frankfurt School and the New Left, went into detail about the nature of political toleration. He believed that freedom was only useful in the service of Social Progress and political liberation. This demands “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left”. A feminist professor physically assaulting female pro-life students (including a minor) is a pretty good metaphor for the whole thing. Roger Nash Baldwin, co-founder of the ACLU, summed up this sentiment in an infamous quote:
“I believe in non-violent methods of struggle as most effective in the long run for building up successful working class power. Where they cannot be followed or where they are not even permitted by the ruling class, obviously only violent tactics remain. I champion civil liberty as the best of the non-violent means of building the power on which workers’ rule must be based. If I aid the reactionaries to get free speech now and then, if I go outside the class struggle to fight against censorship, it is only because those liberties help to create a more hospitable atmosphere for working class liberties. The class struggle is the central conflict of the world; all others are incidental. When that power of the working class is once achieved, as it has been only in the Soviet Union, I am for maintaining it by any means whatever. Dictatorship is the obvious means in a world of enemies, at home and abroad.”
I won’t re-print the entire Radish article, but I encourage everyone to read it. The use of political freedom as a strategy to gain power is nothing new. This is the third strategy which our game must consider. In the democracies which these movements operate in, they want to avoid the costs incurred by opposing free speech. By necessity, this requires them to officially favour free speech, and other democratic rights. As Baldwin so eloquently shows, this is entryism: the player pretends to agree with the commitment to free speech in order to be accepted. Moreover, the player continues to uphold this official commitment to political rights once they have gained power. However, through slow re-definitions of those rights and freedoms, they are able to silence opponents over time. Of course we all want free speech, but can we really turn the university into an unsafe space? After all, when your ideology has not only political but also cultural dominance, your power increases exponentially. We saw above how Communist Party influence extended far beyond Party members. We’re living in a time where most people accept the values of Social Progress, tolerance, and equality. If activists and philosophers want to re-assess those terms, who’s going to say no? Isn’t that their job? Once you can get people to advocate equality of rights in the same breath they use to advocate revoking rights from certain groups, you’ve pretty much won.
This strategy is the most threatening of all to free speech. When a group openly opposes free speech, people can ally against them. The battle is in the open. But in the face of the entryist strategy above, the challenge is more difficult. One has to fight to reveal the hypocrisy of the player employing this strategy. Until their actions become too blatant to ignore, this treads a fine line between conspiracy theory and fact. When the player holds the weight of moral authority, as the Social Justice movement does for many progressives and youth, defense becomes even harder. If large numbers of people see you as a “bad person”, whose rights can be revoked without any threat to the freedom of “decent people“, then they have no reason to protest. The player avoids all the costs of openly opposing free speech while gaining many of the benefits over the long term. This would make the strategy very attractive to political actors who can pull it off. Once the facade no longer holds, cultural and political power are strong enough that it no longer matters. If you’re really lucky, maybe you can even get people to admit that free speech was a bad idea. After all, look how many bad people were able to subject decent people to their bile through exercising that right.
The most recent victory of this strategy was at 4chan. The haven/sewer of internet free speech appears to have been successfully purged of many of its moderators. Given the seductiveness of the entryist strategy, the question is how to guard against it. Those liberals and progressives truly committed to free speech must begin to examine who they have allied with. Those committed to free speech for other reasons need to consider their situation as well. Above all, pursuit of Truth – scientific, philosophical, and intellectual – demands free speech because it requires inquiry and criticism. If the game includes rights to free speech, then players have the incentive to use the entryist strategy. Therefore, new rules and protections need to be built to guard against it. Some are trying to do just that. Created in the wake of events at 4chan, 8chan is experimenting with allowing anyone to make their own board. Following the principle of free exit, if people become unhappy with the direction of one board, they can just switch to a new one. This makes it difficult for anyone to silence opponents through restrictions and purges. Even a small minority can just escape to their own board. It’s an option almost no minority – ethnic, political, or otherwise – has in real life. It also reduces the benefits of the entryist strategy. After all, once your motives become obvious, people will just leave. That’s one solution, and others are doubtless forthcoming.
More than anything else, the internet may have made the entryist strategy much harder to employ. Whether this is enough to overcome it completely remains to be seen. If one thing is certain, it’s that we are moving into a new phase in a conflict as old as politics. The game has changed.