The last few years have seen the rise of a furious discussion about free speech, fake news, no platforming, and safe spaces and whether these are an authoritarian reaction to opinions we vehemently disagree with. The answer is quite the opposite: free speech cannot be free when you are in a position for other people to hear it. As soon as your words can impact someone else’s wellbeing, and crucially their freedom, your ability to speak becomes either restricted or restrictive. Free speech IS authoritarian.
The simplest example is threats of violence. If I tell someone not to speak, or else I will do something (inflict damage, etc.), then my speech might be free, but theirs becomes less so. Free speech is no longer universal because I’ve created an environment in which their right to say what they want is constrained by my own. Paradoxically, I have exploited my freedom and make them less free.
If we accept that, then the question becomes: how explicit does a threat need to be? If we choose opinions that are legitimately challenging to the status quo, not simply opinions that are “un-PC,” then how does the system enforce itself? Through harassment or by making the expression of opinions outside the mainstream into a sufficiently thankless task that we, ultimately, stop speaking up.
Thankless as it might be, scan below the line at the comments when people voice support for Gaza, or against police injustice, or, more recently, that maybe having a potential domestic abuser as Prime Minister is a bad thing, and you’ll find countless people exercising their free speech to overwhelm someone into presumed silence. Half of them will have “free speech advocate” in their biography.
So, again, we see that freedom is restricted by absolute freedom. Those who might challenge the status quo become frightened into silence by the free speech of the majority. But let’s abstract that further. What if what’s implicit isn’t a threat but the power dynamic itself?
Consider speech that is rooted in marginalising other people, spoken by those with power. Trump declaring Mexicans to be rapists, Modi’s attacks on Muslims, or Boris Johnson calling Muslim women letterboxes. Is that speech encouraging the freedom it claims to be rooted in? It seems unlikely as we observe that attacks on Muslims and migrants rise across the globe. As such, we leap back to our first example: free speech makes us less free.
And it doesn’t have to be political power; it can be social capital or class or race that creates a dynamic in which the ability to speak freely leads to an authoritarian environment. This might be John Cleese deciding that London isn’t English anymore, Graham Linehan deciding that trans people are dangerous, or Morrissey’s increasingly fascist rhetoric. The lasting effect of all of these talking points is that exercising freedom of speech has an effect, and that effect is to make marginalised groups less and less free.
Free speech, as it currently exists, is an authoritarian concept. In an unequal society, it becomes a tool to enforce the status quo, to protect the hierarchy. If anyone can say anything, then it follows that what is said carries with it the relative power of the speaker. In a society where white, cis, male voices dominate, then their freedom becomes pre-eminent, regardless of what is said. This is where we currently find ourselves.
The internet is in many ways a liberating tool that enables us to contact anyone immediately, to organise on a scale never before seen, and research anything we choose. Simultaneously, the proliferation of fake news, hate speech, and far-right nationalism has made that liberty a threat to other people’s freedom.
How do we handle a society in which anyone can immediately print, in a seemingly authoritative format, misinformation that is designed to further their agenda? When that misinformation influences elections or motivates people to vote for authoritarian populists, how can it be said to be an act of liberty? Even when the original source might shut down, the story is already circulating out there.
The capacity to say what we like, even if we experience consequences, is driving an ever-increasing risk of right-wing nationalism. Even as I speak, the British press is haranguing a couple out of their home for recording possible domestic violence, the American press is engaged in a debate about what we should call the cages we put children in, and journalists in Bangladesh are jailed for inciting violence even the day before they printed a news event. Many of these same voices are the strongest advocates of “free speech.”
The violence, both real and stochastic, perpetrated in the name of free speech is not done out of a Rawlsian desire to make liberty pre-emptive, but out of an authoritarian need to protect power. So, how do we create a model of free speech in the contemporary world?
The first step is to reconsider what we mean by liberty, and whose liberty should be pre-emptive. Is it the liberty of the speaker, to say as they wish regardless of the consequences? Or is it the liberty of those they impact? The former, as we have discussed, is a tool with which to perpetuate and reconstruct an authoritarian power, but what does a dialectic centred on the latter look like?
The distinction is between the negative liberty of freedom from interference and the positive liberty of genuine freedom to act, and to do so whilst not restricted by class, colour, or creed. It is tempting here to suggest that we might regulate this, place restrictions (as has already been done) on the expression of hate speech, and expressions of implicit violence (not just explicit threats), but to do so requires trust in an authority to regulate it.
The state exists to perpetuate the public, and therefore if we have accepted that there are inequalities impacting speech in society, it seems naïve to select an authority that then might reflect the flaws in the society that needs policing. Simultaneously, a “private” enforcement through the medium of communication such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube faces its own difficulties. These are powerful groups with their own interests that exist not to better society, but to generate value. What occurs when there is a conflict between profit and proliferation?
And furthermore, there is no simplistic metric to reduce positive liberty. Even a simple rule of thumb about judging speech by its ability to reproduce and encourage freedom indulges a Utilitarian foible. If the majority feel freer through speech that oppresses a minority, then how are we to declare that a failure to maximise freedom?
No, instead it becomes incumbent on us to consider, both as individuals and as a society, how we impact the freedom of those around us, and how we can best act to challenge authoritarian impulses in society.
For that I propose this: free speech should be a framework we use to engage, or not engage, with others and their ideas in which the freedom refers to speech that works to the emancipation of all. It should not be a simple right but a system by which we decide how, when, and if to say things. In doing so, we place the burden on both ourselves to make those decisions, and on those around us to choose to engage with those decisions.
My radical model of free speech is not about speaking itself but about engaging and how we engage. It refuses to make the words themselves pre-eminent, instead considering their impact, their tone, and the perception of them. It becomes not just a consideration of a single enumerated liberty but of the wider notion that liberty is an endless struggle. In doing, it requires that we examine how we listen and engage, or refuse to engage.
No platforming in this context is not censorship but a radical act of free speech. The decision to disengage from a speaker who fails to act in good faith, reproduces authoritarian ideals, or simply dehumanises others is about preserving free speech. Their actions carry weight, and by refusing to engage with them, we preserve the genuine, positive liberty of those they seek to attack.
Simultaneously, Fake News becomes a question not just of establishing veracity but of understanding why the piece exists. It cannot be taken for the simple binary “true or false” of the words on paper but needs to be examined and engaged with as what it is: propaganda. Understanding the intent becomes just as crucial as understanding why it’s fake, and in doing so, whether to simply debunk it, or whether the premises hidden behind it require dismantling.
The media becomes accountable not just for what they say but what they don’t say. The voices contained within are not simply discussed for their own weight but for who they represent and the ideas they carry with them. The papers are not just a series of facts and opinions but a vehicle to represent a world view, and that context matters.
Context is ultimately what I’m arguing for: free speech as a right is simply a tool to reproduce an authoritarian structure. Free speech as a holistic approach is a way to decide how to effectively challenge those structures, and how we might better produce a more equal, more prosperous society of positive liberty.
We speak countless words every day, and that carries a responsibility. We cannot separate free speech from that.
Tom Roberts is a trainee accountant, occasional writer and full-time politics obsessive from the UK. Tom has been writing about political philosophy for nearly 5 years, with a focus on UK and US systems. He can be found rambling on Twitter @TPGRoberts