Free Speech and its Discontents: Part One

Introduction

Freedom of speech is to liberal democracies what air is to a person: if either one is cut off, the body begins to asphyxiate. The largely unfettered right to speak freely is a necessary and fundamental feature of modern Western political culture, without which it could not exist. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the West’s relative prosperity, technological sophistication and civic stability owe much to the long-standing traditions of open enquiry and the liberal exchange of ideas.

Despite the importance of free speech, however, recent times have witnessed various attempts to circumscribe it. Under the guise, say, of creating a more harmonious society, encouraging “responsible” discourse, or redressing past wrongs, a select few seek to outlaw or extirpate dissenting ideas — dissenting, that is, from the dominant cultural narratives they themselves have propagated. Sadly, it’s often the self-styled paragons of tolerance and compassion who support such restrictions most ardently: progressive elites, who see themselves as members of a kind of moral vanguard, moulding the amorphous mass of society in their own image.

Few Western countries have been immune. Sometimes, activists have harnessed the legislative powers of the state to silence that which they deem offensive or scandalous. Others have sought to create cultural environments on university campuses (so-called “safe spaces”) in an effort to shield students from countervailing ideas and opinions. In a sad twist of irony, they often employ hostile, even violent, methods to achieve their goal of censoring or expelling unpalatable views. Vignettes aside, the ebbing of free speech has been reflected statistically: not so long ago, for example, the Pew Research Forum found that 40% of millennials (those born after 1982, and reaching young adulthood some time in the mid-2000s) thought that insulting speech should be liable to legal sanction.

Australia, too, has been an ideological battleground for conflict over the open trafficking of ideas. Case-in-point: the ongoing debate over Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the pernicious effects it has had on a person’s ability to speak freely. Recent cases involving university students and a political cartoonist have exposed the absurd implications of that law. Similarly, 2015 saw the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania hauled before that state’s anti-discrimination tribunal, simply for disseminating literature which upheld the church’s view of marriage to parochial schools in the archdiocese  (a view which happens to conform to current Australian law). These instances are quite telling, but they are only the tip of a great iceberg — one whose ideological mass remains largely invisible, submerged beneath the welter of everyday events. They are, in fact, products of a long intellectual and cultural gestation,  representing the latest outworking of trends that now significantly shape the character of Western societies. Having been nurtured in progressive and left-wing circles, their effects are being felt beyond the confines of the academy. More to the point, they have succeeded (at least to some extent) in eroding the robust commitments liberal democracies have traditionally had to freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s important, then, to try and understand just how we reached this point, and to uncover the sources of the current ideological ambivalence — even hostility — towards freedom of speech. The above examples will serve as reference points, since their respective features so clearly distill the main currents of thought I have in mind. I suggest we ought to consider at least four main intellectual strands, all of which have gradually, yet inexorably, insinuated themselves into key areas of modern society: scepticism regarding the so-called Western project (of which freedom of speech is a key feature); the popularization of post-modernity; multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics; and a philosophical penchant, endemic within progressive politics, for trying to remake society from above.

None of these trends has operated in isolation. More often than not, they have worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing the distinctive contributions each has had to make in the burgeoning restrictions upon free speech in Western polities. It is easy to see, for instance, how a demoralized perspective regarding the West (given a fillip by Marxian-critical and post-colonial accounts of Western culture) might dovetail with the ideological assumptions that have given rise to certain strains of multiculturalism and identity politics.

On the other hand, I think post-modern thought has had an enervating effect upon freedom of speech through popular dissemination of several of its features. To be sure, it may not have independently led to the restriction of the boundaries of free speech (for one thing, post-modernism resists all meta-narratives and claims to truth, regarding them as ill-fated attempts at intellectual authoritarianism). However, the implications of its basic assumptions have succeeded, I think, in undermining the cogency of the principle, providing the ground for other perspectives — far less conducive to the maintenance of free speech — to substantively challenge this singular Western achievement.

Another little caveat before we move on. It’s sometimes tempting to think that if one has uncovered the origins of an idea, development or phenomenon with which one take issue, the object of criticism has thereby been falsified. Not so. That is what philosophers call a genetic fallacy: the belief that by pointing to the genesis of an opinion, a conclusion regarding its veracity can be drawn. But exposure of origins and exposure of fallacy are not necessarily the same thing. Where the logical and philosophical roots of a particular trend are weak or febrile, I might endeavour to point this out, hoping then that doubt may be cast on the justifications used by current advocates of censorship. I shall, however, reserve more substantive criticisms of those who support such restrictions, or who see little wrong with current laws in this field, for later posts. At any rate, it is crucial that we understand the deeper forces at work within contemporary culture, and how they have helped subvert a key precondition for many of the other freedoms people in the West enjoy.

Doubting the Value of Western Culture: The Voices of Scepticism

In this opening post, I’ve adopted a fairly broad-brush approach towards the issue by surveying the diffuse manifestations of scepticism towards the Western “project” — that is, doubts over the preservation, promotion and consolidation of the fundamental freedoms characteristic of the West. It is an increasingly fashionable mode of engagement with the Western tradition, and for many people, constitutes a basic orientation towards their intellectual heritage. This is true, not only for those dwelling in the rarefied environs of academia, but for ordinary folk, who have bought into a populist version of wariness about one’s own culture. They do not simply express doubts over the spread of the West’s values beyond its traditional geographic boundaries (something that ought to be approached with due caution, of course). Rather, sceptical attitudes regarding the superiority or desirability of key  Western values within the West are on the rise.

Though now a common attitude, the source of such widespread disenchantment lies in certain sections of the Western intellectual and cultural elite. It has long adopted a doubtful, even hostile, attitude towards the values that undergird the Western enterprise — including as they do a commitment to free enquiry, pluralism and the unfettered exchange of ideas. One might call it a kind of internalised cultural antipathy. It’s not a new idea, either. Orwell was alive to this reality, and observed it regularly among the left-wing intelligentsia of his day. His essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, provides a window into his thinking. Reflecting on varieties of pacifism during the Second World War, Orwell argued that the younger breed of intellectual directed his or her opposition in a decidedly partial way, which invariably meant criticism of Western countries for their use of defensive force. According to Orwell (as I read him), the intellectual form of pacifism he identified functioned as a veneer for what was, in reality, anti-Western sentiment.

That sentiment is, even today, linked to a wider — indeed, jaundiced — view of the West as little more than a cesspool of entrenched privilege, structural oppression, economic rapacity, environmental vandalism, and pervasive neo-colonial attitudes. The academic and social theorist, John Carroll, puts it well:

“[The Left’s] carping negativity continues to thrive. [They use] neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality.” 

What so distinguishes these critiques is a suspicion, often pervasive and deep-seated, towards Western values. In some cases, it reaches a point of comprehensive repudiation. Some critiques aren’t as bold as Carroll’s rendition, to be sure. Gentler approaches may simply evince a certain ambivalence, or lack of confidence, in the Western project. But underlying many of them is the tacit assumption that, far from being something worth preserving and advocating for, Western culture is morally questionable (at best) or entirely bankrupt (at worst). Having wended its way through the academy, this view has now trickled down to the masses — such that even those who happily swim in the West’s cultural waters may implicitly view it as responsible for little else besides the creation of misery suffered by the benighted recipients of its “civilizing” mission. It’s not that this view is entirely bereft of truth (goodness knows Western actions, past and present, have been responsible for suffering). The problem lies in the fact that it is mischievously, perniciously, one-dimensional.

The foregoing narrative comes in many forms. Critical theory, in both its Marxist and post-colonial guises, has provided much of the intellectual scaffolding for those ready to rehearse their monochromatic story. Post-modernism, about which I will say more, also informs critics’ views. Often,  these intellectual strands can be found co-mingling, making their presence felt across a diverse array of issues. Opposition to the activities of Western conglomerates is one such manifestation. Multinationals are often condemned for the apparent economic ruin they wreak on non-Western peoples (with sweatshops serving as the primary bête noire). Closer to home, Australian government policy towards Indigenous affairs is cast in a similar light, with certain strains of criticism seeking to draw a genetic link between them and historical instances of avowedly racist, colonial practice. Or what of the progressive’s ongoing love affair with dictatorial leaders, especially where they are seen to be heroically defying the alleged predations of the West? This was made clear recently upon the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The tributes that flowed from some sections of the ideological Left (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind) revealed a curious incongruity: admiration for an authoritarian ruler who ruthlessly suppressed free expression, juxtaposed with wariness — even deep and unrelenting criticism — of their own intellectual and cultural milieux.

So, what does all this have to do with free speech? At first blush, any relationship might seem rather distant. However, when a basic scepticism or suspicion becomes the overriding context for one’s thinking about the West and everything that distinguishes it, it is easy to understand why freedom of speech — one of the key markers of the Western tradition — may be treated with a certain degree of reserve.  Why expend energy upholding something (other than in a heavily qualified manner) that is intimately bound up with what is perceived to be a tainted — even morally spent — cultural system? More than that, if free and open enquiry is viewed as part of a system of moral and political hypocrisy, the progressive critic may well feel justified in trying to actively limit it in some way. Censorship, then, becomes a mark of ideological virtue. Even when the posture of doubt is characterized merely by an oscillating uncertainty towards the propriety of Western culture, that could well be enough to stifle a full-throated shout of support for free speech. And if ideas or issues happen to overlap with the experiences of minority groups (be they ethnic, sexual, or whatever), then misplaced guilt over the West’s chequered history or a fear of cultural chauvinism can easily weaken one’s commitment to it.

In contemporary Australia, themes of racial and neo-colonial dominance seem to inform suspicion of the Western tradition, and drive some of the stronger critics of unfettered speech. Nowhere is this more apparent than in current debates over the balance between liberality in the exchange of ideas, and racial or cultural harmony. It is in the midst of those debates that fundamental ideological and philosophical fault-lines have been exposed. Where conflicts over freedom of speech have touched on matters of ethnic identity, defenders have often been crudely drawn in essentialist terms, portrayed as standard-bearers for the reactive forces of cultural and racial (i.e., White) privilege.

As noted, the debate over S.18c of the RDA provides one particular window into this phenomenon. Take the academic and columnist, Waleed Aly, for example. He recently asserted that those who want to see S.18c repealed (or, at the very least, significantly amended) aren’t really concerned about the legislation. Nor are they defending a principle they believe to be right and good. According to Aly, for those (White) individuals:

“It’s [about] the message that amending it [S.18c] will send to the minorities who take heart from the thought they’re protected. And it’s the message it will send to those of the majority keen to reassert the cultural dominance they feel they have lost.”

For those wary about principles that are part of the Western tradition — connected, perhaps, to a belief in the West’s intrinsic hypocrisy, or to the shameful misdeeds of the past — a purist’s conception of freedom of speech is likely to be construed as a coded attempt to re-assert Western and/or White hegemony. A malaise about the intellectual fundaments of the Western outlook has seen critics like Aly tacitly employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in responding to advocates of repeal or amendment of S.18c. They cast such advocacy as a disingenuous attempt to aggressively silence minority rights, in a réprise of colonial suppression. In other words, a particular defence of free speech is interpreted, not as a principled stand, but as little more than a proxy for an atavistic agenda with quite different goals in mind. Aly is just one instance of this attitude (and a fairly genteel and erudite one at that). He is certainly not alone.

If the key values of the West are viewed as the instruments of oppression, and if the overarching project of which they are a part is seen as lacking legitimacy, is it any wonder that those cultural markers would be met with a basic scepticism? That distrust, whatever its source, translates well into support for restrictions on free speech. Even a demoralised attitude towards Western values — one that does not bear the hallmarks of explicit hostility, but is nonetheless equivocal — can successfully erode one’s ability to defend the principle. Whatever their differences, however, they lie along a spectrum of views. Ultimately, those views gain credence from an ideological perspective that is, at best, ambivalent to a crucial token of the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

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