Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Free speech

It was this news that got me to revisit an old draft post that I never got around to finishing. It seems to be time to start thinking about free speech again.

Freedom of speech, thought and conscience is central to a civilised society. If you doubt it, look at any country without it or where it is severely curtailed, where people are murdered for trying to tell the truth, locked up and facing a show trial for reporting the inconvenient resistance of an outraged people, or even worn down with the daily banality of pretence at obeisance to an official truth, as beautifully described by Czeslaw Milosz:
Informing ... is the basis of each man's fear of his fellow-men. Work in an office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labor required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears. After work one goes to political meetings or special lectures, thus lengthening a day that is without a moment of relaxation or spontaneity. The people one talks with may seem relaxed and careless, sympathetic and indignant, but if they appear so, it is only to arouse corresponding attitudes and to extract confidences which they can report to their superiors.
So why then are we being so pusillanimous about defending free speech, why are we so feeble in the face of those who would destroy it, why do we accord the same status to lies that we do to truth, why do we invite its enemies on to Question Time?

For me the answer is that the liberalism of our days is not robust, combative, radical; it is complacent, lazy, deluded. It thinks that you can effectively confront fascism with reasoned arguments.

Have these liberals learnt nothing from history? Reasoned debate can only take you so far. And, though they happily quote John Stuart Mill they don't seem to have thought much about what he actually had to say.

Mill's essay On Liberty offers a splendid defence of freedom of thought:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
This is superficially straightforward. One person's right, by definition, imposes a duty on others, and specifically on governments, to respect it. Here the right to free speech imposes a duty not to deny such a right to anyone, whatever their opinion. However, it does not entail a duty to broadcast their views. These two are often confused. Just because you may not criminalise views you despise, it does not mean that you have to put them on your TV screens.

The right to free speech implies a negative duty to refrain from suppression, censorship and prosecution. It is not a positive obligation to promote, facilitate and host opinions that you, or any institution you may be a member of, find obnoxious. And that applies as much to a public body. The law may insist on a party political broadcast, but appearing on a politically based entertainment programme? No, that is not a legal obligation, it is, rather, an editorial choice. And there is a suspicion that audience size may just have been a factor in the decision.

But there is more. Mill provides three main utilitarian justifications for liberty of speech. The first two, that its restriction is an assumption of infallibility on the part of the censor and that the opinion suppressed may, in fact, be true are commonplace. It is his third that I find the most interesting.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience
In other words, Mill has a dialectical theory of truth; it emerges, develops and is refined by the conflict of ideas. More than that, without contest, it dies. So what duty does this impose on others? I would argue that it most certainly doesn't insist on quiescence, let alone acceptance, instead it creates a duty to be a partisan on behalf of truth. Freedom of speech is an active and combative concept.

So how is that combat to take place? I am certain that Mill had in mind the civilized contest of the debating chamber and the printing press. These were the instruments of his time. I am equally sure that he was talking about the necessity of contest in doctrine rather than the disputation of clear and incontrovertible empirical fact. However, in his reliance on human reason alone, he is on much weaker ground. Reason founders on the rock of irrational belief and malign ideologies. Truth may win out in the long term, as I think Mill assumed, but in the short term it can be overwhelmed, leaving behind a pile of corpses.

An example. The Civil Rights campaigners of the 60's did not sit with white racists in the TV studios and debate with them until they saw sense. They sat at segregated lunch counters, registered to vote, took to the streets, faced the beatings and the jailings, and risked their lives until they forced the federal government to confront the reality of segregation and take action as consciences stirred. That activism was both an exercise of free speech and of the duty to confront. Out of that struggle came desegregation, if not equality. Engaging with peoples' emotions, their gut instincts, their consciences, is a way of springing their reason into action.

The BNP is searching for legitimacy. It is their tactic, as it was Hitler's during his accession to power (together with control of the streets by force). The act of denying them legitimacy, as in not inviting them to appear as respectable guests of TV programmes, does not infringe their free speech, no one is stopping them printing material, holding meetings on premises where people are prepared to admit them, or removing their sites from the internet. No, it is in itself a symbolic act of free speech. It says that 'your views are not acceptable', 'you may have won seats in elections, but we will only give you the barest minimum that the law insists on', it says to the whole of society, 'they are illegitimate'. It is a militant assertion of common values. It is, once more, the exercise of the duty to contest.

Then again, my attempt to redefine speech as action leads me into pitfalls. How far do we go? Is terrorism free speech? By engaging with emotion do we thereby abandon reason? On closer examination, Mill's principles, too, appear slippery and imprecise. This shows that principle can only take you so far. We cannot escape the need for moral choice, to make a judgement. Such moral judgements may be based on instinctive emotion, a sense of right and wrong, but that too is grounded in real historical experience. And how much experience do we need?

I see us facing a choice between a passive and active liberalism. The one is based on the assumption that reason will prevail, it is urbane and civilised. The other comes from a sense of alarm at the power of an irrational evil that needs to be confronted. It accepts the necessity of free speech but refuses any notion of moral equivalence and equal legitimacy. Its faith in the power of reason is limited. It urges action. And every time I read and re-read Mill, especially in the light of the conflicts of his day, I am convinced that he was an activist.

So, to what Voltaire didn't say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, we should add "and I take up the duty to confront, condemn, ridicule and, if I choose, ignore or take action against dangerous lies and nonsense. And, what is more, I feel no compunction to help you spread them". It appears the BBC thinks otherwise.


Brigada Flores Magon said...

The best, most scholarly, account of the business I have read.

Will said...

on same subject



both recommended.

Will said...

PS. Don't look at Normblog on the issue -- it is fucking embarrassing.

Geras has no concept of political combat. For him it is all a matter of fucking intellectualism and bullshit 'debates'.

Needs to read some Carl Schmitt or some Lenin.

Geras has long ago left his Marxist roots behind. that explains why he posts shite about jane fucking austen.

A lost cause. without a doubt.

The Plump said...

Hmm ...

The big difference between you and Norm is that Norm (or Geras when he displeases you) is not a Leninist.

So you recommend reading Carl Schmitt (a Nazi), Lenin's Tombola (a loon) and like my post (from a liberal perspective). Just proves my point that this issue is about judgement rather than principle.

And, in this case, as we often seem to be, we agree and I reckon we are right. (I am also not a Jane Austen fan, though not for the same reason. As a novelist she is a miniaturist and I like the big bold canvas. I suppose that's why Marx himself loved Shakespeare too).

Will said...

Peter Peter Peter...there is no such thing as "principle" whaddeverthefuckthat isanyways.

And as you well know you can read cunTs (Schmitt) not in agreement but as someone to *learn* from.

Liberals are not just annoying little titheaded fuckwits but representative of something bigger and more important - i.e. a cowardly retreat from politics and passion into a jealously guarded little private sphere - which is the worst form of conservatism.

Liberals are in fact worse than conservatives. They are ineffectual cowards and not just cowards.

A quote that comes to mind is from Carl Schmitt 's Concept of the Political

Summary by Alan Wolfe at (werth reading it all BTW):


"In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt wrote that every realm of
human endeavour is structured by an irreducible duality. Morality is
concerned with good and evil, aesthetics with the beautiful and ugly, and economics with the profitable and unprofitable. In politics, the core distinction is between friend and enemy. That is what makes politics different from everything else. Jesus's call to love your enemy is perfectly appropriate for religion, but it is incompatible with the life-or-death stakes politics always involves. Moral philosophers are preoccupied with justice, but politics has nothing to do with making the world fairer."

"Economic exchange requires only competition; it does not demand annihilation. Not so politics."

"The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism," Schmitt
wrote. War is the most violent form that politics takes, but, even short
of war, politics still requires that you treat your opposition as
antagonistic to everything in which you believe. It's not personal; you
don't have to hate your enemy. But you do have to be prepared to
vanquish him if necessary."

Half the 'liberal' problem (and more than half of the wider problem of liberalism) is that they and your fellow liberals (not you like -- you are great and that) genuinely do not understand that politics is not a game but involves real enemies fighting about real things.

Schmitt was a cunt and its a great shame that the Russians didn't catch him and string him up in 1945 (see? I am being political again?) - but an absolutely honest and clear sighted one. Unlike the thick fucking scum liberal cunTs who have blogs and shit (Sauce type cunTs and that).

Wolf's article is very good - argues that in the US conservatives are (or were) hegemonic because at some level they instinctively understand Schmitt and see themselves as engaged in a dualistic life and death struggle.

Particularly like this:

"Schmitt argued that liberals, properly speaking, can never be political. Liberals tend to be optimistic about human nature, whereas "all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil." Liberals believe in the possibility of neutral rules that can mediate between conflicting
positions, but to Schmitt there is no such neutrality, since any rule -- even an ostensibly fair one -- merely represents the victory of one
political faction over another. (If that formulation sounds like Stanley
Fish when he persistently argues that there is no such thing as
principle, that only testifies to the ways in which Schmitt's ideas
pervade the contemporary intellectual zeitgeist.) Liberals insist that there exists something called society independent of the state, but Schmitt believed that pluralism is an illusion because no real state would ever allow other forces, like the family or the church, to contest its power. Liberals, in a word, are uncomfortable around power, and,
because they are, they criticize politics more than they engage in it."

Liberal thick cunTs again!

Will said...

ps -- i also hate and despise anarchists and shit.

really a lot.

i wood have anarchists hung from trees and shit

The Plump said...

This is where I part company with Schmitt:

In politics, the core distinction is between friend and enemy. That is what makes politics different from everything else.

This is simply a reductionist abstraction; as is the whole notion of an irreducible duality. So in economics some activities are not defined by profitability or non profitability, some are non-profit making, some mutualist, some operate as agents of redistribution of social goods, etc. You and I are friends on something and enemies on others (like hanging anarchists). On a personal level, I would always see you as a friend. Life and politics is more complex than that.

And it is the same with this:

the life-or-death stakes politics always involves

The word that concerns me is "always". 'Sometimes' or even 'often' is fine but not always. Sometimes politics is fucking trivial to the point of banality. Have you ever attended a parish council meeting? And why expend all that energy eliminating bloggers when none of us matter a jot?

The interesting thing about a dialectical approach is that it recognises conflict and sees it as resulting in transformation, not resolution or compromise. The total victory of one side to a conflict over another may not necessarily transform that conflict. What it may do is freeze it through the hegemony of the victors, whilst leaving the conflict latent. (According to your comment this is recognised by Schmitt in his critique of pluralism).

Continued below

The Plump said...


Then what about this:

"all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil."

Where's his dualism gone now? He has become a fucking monist! In politics, history and life you can find examples of spectacularly nice, decent and courageous people as well as complete and utter bastards. And there is a whole range of human behaviour in between.

I think it is better to think of human nature (and he is right that most political philosophy eventually boils down to a concept of human nature) as a spectrum of behaviours, many of which can be profoundly changed by intervention and environmental change, but not all. Once a psychopath always a psychopath.

However, it is the structure of the society or organisation that determines the damage that an evil individual can do. In a Western democratic society Himmler would have risen to a senior position in a bureaucracy, been hated by all his colleagues and certainly by his subordinates. He would have made his wife and children miserable. He would have wrecked a few careers, made a mess of the organisation and probably be paid money to leave early. A baleful legacy of a disturbed individual. However, in the context of the Third Reich he could kill millions. So, a presupposition of evil might be useful as a precaution!

But what that leaves is the classic Hobbesian paradox; if all people are evil and you support the annihilation of your enemy, then you are arguing for total victory for evil people. Now liberalism, far from resting on a facile belief in inherent goodness, recognises this potential for evil and therefore calls for checks on power.

This is where liberalism (not economic liberalism - that is something else) is important for me, not as cowardice, but courage. It stands up for an absolute and irreducible notion of human rights, often against the worst regimes and often at huge personal risk. It means people (like some I have worked for) remain as pains in the arse rather than become mass murderers.

Now, I don’t think that we are that far away from each other on this. Much of what passes for liberal sentiment is intellectual mush and where it does stand up for one thing, it fails to deal with other intrinsically related issues. So an exposure of Jihadi fascism is rarely accompanied by a similar focus on the massive racist prejudice and discrimination directed against Asians and, where it is acknowledged, it is certainly not pursued with the same vehemence and anger. This neglect means we risk seeing ‘football hooligans against the Muslims’ as the end result. And this is what this post was arguing for, a combative liberalism that does see that people are fighting for real things – and for anyone at the end of a racist attack this is a life or death struggle.

Peter Peter Peter

Will said...

I bring out the best in you.

may answer you the morra -- if can be arsed.