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On freedom of speech

 On freedom of speech
"Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. The essence of political freedom depends not on the fanatics of 'justice', but rather on all the invigorating, beneficial, and detergent effects of dissenters. If 'freedom' becomes 'privilege', the workings of political freedom are broken."
 Luxembourg, Die russische Revolution. Eine kritische Würdigung, 1920,  pp. 109
It has become a cliche at this point to suggest that the left has ceded its traditional commitment to freedom of speech to the right - who, in the eyes of some commentators, may now may be considered it's inheritors. There are some who would claim that one does not need to tolerate intolerance, and intolerant speech therefore does not need to be tolerated - and in such a way attempt to diminish the importance of the idea of freedom of speech as a political right.

My contention is that both sides; those who say their intolerance ought to be respected as free speech and those who say that it should not, have actually missed the point. They are both wrong - because they have misunderstood the concepts involved and are making false assumptions about what free speech actually is - and what it actually demands of private citizens acting in their capacity as private citizens.

If Jack goes around saying "Fuck the government" and Clive then says to Jack, "I don't think you should say fuck the government"(1) - they are both performing speech acts. It makes absolutely no sense to say that Clive is not respecting Jacks right to freedom of speech if you correctly understand the concepts involved.

This is because Jack's right to free speech is a right not to be a victim of violence co-ordinated, directed by, or otherwise arising from the state, as a result of his speech. This could be legal, social or political violence. Whether it is morally permissible to physically or otherwise oppose certain speakers is a separate issue. One that has nothing however, to do with the issue of freedom of speech.

The important point is that the right to free speech is not an ethical or a moral commitment or command directed to individuals. It does not instruct private citizens to act - it instructs the state, and only the state, on when not to act.

The rule for states to follow can be formulated like this; in so far as people disagree, they will air their disagreements and may do so forcefully - do not intervene on either side to prevent either from expressing their view.

The reason why is because, for the state or government to take a position on what is the correct speech means that the state or government is making an assumption about what the correct view is and would be committing itself to a vision of how it's citizens should live. It relates back to the idea that the best kind of government is the one that governs least. Or, not at all - as the case may be(1).

There will be situations in which the state can intervene in cases of what may initially be understood as speech. The classic example given is that of the man who shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, there-by causing a rush for the exit which could endanger lives. This is called the 'public order exception'.

The second kind of speech that is excepted is threats to the person. So, if Clive gets really annoyed with Jack shouting all the time and turns to him and says "If you don't stop saying that, I'm going to rape and murder you!" - at this point the state can intervene on Jacks behalf and Clive should expect to be imprisoned for making threats to kill and rape. He can't at this point make a plea that his freedom of speech be respected. The same goes for planning a crime, so if I am caught discussing how to rob a post office - I can't claim a free speech defence.

These are the classic examples. As an actual matter of law, in the United Kingdom, there are a number of other exceptions including incitement to racial hatred and various ones related pretty specifically to Islamic inspired political violence - although they are being used more against neo-Fascist and racist groups - but more on this soon.

As another I cannot claim that my right to free speech is being violated if I am not in public. So, for example if I am in someones house and I claim that when they kick me out, for saying the food was shit and their taste in soft furnishings awful, my free speech is being violated. I wouldn't be able to anyway because they'd be acting as a private citizens but whatever you get the point - it only applies in public and only instructs the state.

Now, to make the issue slightly topical, or at least bit more relatable to dem' millennials. Is Twitter public or private property? Private, clearly. All of the major social media websites are private property and the owners of them are free to enforce whatever speech standards they choose because you are on their property. I know it feels like its the internet equivalent to the public square or speakers corner - but trust me on this, it's not.

So now I've cleared up some common misunderstandings notably perpetuated by the Spectator and the Economist - as well as some early 2017 internet phenomenon who managed to sink his own career not long after it had begun by being well up for statutory rape - let me turn to the issue I want to talk to you about.

It could be controversial - but there was a reason I put that quote up at the beginning of the post.


The contention is that making, distributing and particularly possessing violent extremist propaganda should not be punishable by law.

Not because I agree with the content of it, the message of it, the aims of it or the version of the world it wants to see achieved. Precisely because I don't, and would value the opportunity to challenge it on its own terms - if people are allowed into the castle they will be able to see for themselves that this particularly ugly emperor has no clothes.

Relying on the state to produce counter narratives to those of violent political Islam will always involve the narrative containing assumptions of the state - because it is produced by the state.

The state is precisely the body that those initially attracted to violent political Islam(3) are pretty sceptical of in the first place - otherwise they wouldn't be listening to these people or seeking them out to begin with. It's like if I found out that someone didn't like me because they thought me vain and braggadocios, so I took it upon myself to explain to them why I am the best and they should love me as I love myself.

This is what one might call an instrumental argument - basically, violent political islam needs to be defeated in a battle of idea's. The least well equipped people to do this are the government - because the way that they will argue against violent political islam is in such a way that alienates those who would be susceptible to the narrative it presents in the first place.

By preventing access to the arguments that advocates of violent political islam use - it leaves people ill prepared to challenge them when they come across them. It is precisely by preventing an organic discourse from taking place that the idea can gain traction. A sealed chamber necessarily becomes an echo chamber. If you expose it to the air it will wither and die.

Essentially the detergent effect that Luxembourg speaks of can be applied in this situation and it might be put to use in cleansing(4) the world of an odious political position.

The above is an argument for a course of action based on what I think would be effective, there is another way to argue for this which is also suggested by the quote.

"If 'freedom' becomes 'privilege', the workings of political freedom are broken."
Luxembourg, Ibid. 
Essentially what this means is political freedom is only freedom when it is a universal freedom. If I am free to say certain things but not to say others than what I have is not freedom. It is a privileging of the positions that I am allowed to say.

Freedom is not something that we should have to argue for in terms of utility or what it is going to get us. We do not wish to be free so that we may take a particular course of action, freedom has no purpose - it has no end. It is an end in itself.

If you take freedom away from certain people because you believe that what they have to say is wrong then you have missed the point. This is particularly the case if you are the type of person who is of the belief(5) that "they" hate "our" freedom. If you deprive people of freedom to preserve freedom you're a fucking idiot.

To quote Benjamin Franklin out of context(6);
"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
Benjamin Franklin, Letter to the Colonial Governor, 1755 



(1)Which is my view on how it should take place - although I don't reject the use of violence out of hand. It might sometimes be appropriate, especially where the kind of speech practiced is itself a form of social violence - in that it fosters attitudes that negatively impact on the quality of life of those it victimises, or can be interpreted as a threat even though it is not phrased as such. As in the case of the word "Nigger" in the United States, or the word "Paki"in the United Kingdom. Given that I do not consider the state to be any kind of moral arbiter or to possess the legitimate monopoly on the use of force I am happy to accept that this may be done in ways that do not involve recourse to the state.

(2)That's why it's a 'liberal' position - because it is a negative position. The instruction is to be liberal, in the sense of liberty or freedom - or lack of something. If you're reading this from America(If you are Hi!) this may confuse you. Without getting to deep into it, using liberal to mean large state doesn't make sense. Classically - and in Europe it still is the case, liberalism is a limited not a large state political belief system. Basically, when Americans says 'Liberal' they ought to say 'Social Democrat', although even that would be a misnomer - basically they should use a different word, and they should work out for themselves what that word should be. Like I said I don't get involved in American Politics.

(3) For the purposes of this discussion I am going to focus on Violent Political Islam - and I'm deliberately avoiding using the word extremism or terrorism because I want to be precise in the discussion and those terms, rightly or wrongly, are loaded with meaning and assumptions that I don't want to bring along in the discussion.

(4)I'm not wholly comfortable with the cleansing analogy - because the corollary is that people who subscribe to this version of political islam are 'scum' which I don't believe is true or a helpful way to talk about it. It's just that the analogy is forced by the language of the quote. I believe that violent political islam is a horrible world view and the people who believe in it/practice it are mistaken. But we all make mistakes the point would be to talk them around.

(5)A horribly naive position, imagine anyone anywhere saying they hate "freedom" - it would be like saying they hated kittens, no one would say it. Autocrats even pay lip service to freedom, they generally just try and redefine what it actually is.

(6) According to this article, the letter was about taxes rather than political rights per se - I actually disagree with the author of that article that the way the quote is now used is inappropriate. The American founding fathers took liberty from taxation to be a political right in the way that free speech is - thus I believe the authors of this article have got it the wrong way round. It's not that the quote isn't getting at what people think it is it's that the founding fathers had a broader conception of what a political right is than we do now. Also I'm not American so I don't fetishise dead slave owners and base all of my political beliefs on what they may or may not have wanted (I do for dead German philosophers though') so I don't really give a fuck - it's a good quote.


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