It has been interesting watching the right struggle with their concept of free speech recently. Over the past few years “free speech” had been a rallying cry for far-right trolls demanding sufficient latitude on online platforms to lie, bully and harass others. As such trolls navigate willingly and unwillingly to their own bespoke platforms, they discovered that they also needed rules and restrictions on how they interacted. I discussed some specifics in this post but I wanted to revise some things that I said then.
Meanwhile, in the arena of American professional sport, players are kneeling during the playing of their national anthem in a very dignified and respectful protest against killings by the police. Donald Trump (who strange as it may seem is President of the USA) has called for players protesting in this way to be fired. The right is piling on in support of Donald Trump despite this being clearly a case of the US government (in the form of its highest officer) attempting to stifle the speech of citizens. It is notable how rarely the right even mentions what these players are protesting and instead claiming they are protesting against “the flag” or the “national anthem” rather than “the state murdering citizens”. It as if circumstances have conspired to create the easiest ethical test for anybody claiming to support freedom (a short, non-violent, respectful protest against state-sanctioned killings) and the right consistently failing that test and siding with the suppression of freedom.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice is attempting to access identifying information from internet providers on subscribers to an anti-Donald Trump website – a move that should alarm everybody, indeed a move that should alarm everybody on the right if they stopped for a moment and considered that the POTUS won’t be a far-right Republican forever.
And for an extra topping of ironic-juxtaposition sauce, Jess Sessions is unhappy at the idea of people protesting him when he gives a lecture on free-speech: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/09/26/jeff_sessions_speech_condemned_by_georgetown_law_professors_who_kneeled.html
Ethicists and political scientist often struggle with making sense of the apparent contradictions on the far right or within fascism. In part, this is because there is a tendency both within logic and within ethical reasoning to assume a degree of universality within principles. When the alt-right et al says “free speech” it has only the appearance of an appeal to a general principle whereas the principle they are appealing to is more akin to this:
“I (the specific rightwing individual) or my kind (flexibility defined) should be able to say what we like, when we like without any restriction and without any criticism or protest or consequences as a result.”
The “free-speech” they crave is not a universal for everybody but rather a specific lack of restriction on them which in turns implies restrictions on the speech of others. Understanding this resolves the apparent contradictions in somebody like Vox Day demanding the right to call innocent people ‘pedophiles’ on the internet while also demanding that social media platforms do their utmost to prevent others calling him a ‘pedophile’ for similar political motives. Or, take Andrew Torba the CEO of Gab praising Donald Trump’s call for protestors to be sacked while claiming his site is a champion of free speech. Torba has rationalised this publicly by saying that the protests are protected speech only “from the government” and not from “fans/biz owners” even though he doesn’t make this distinction when it comes to the “biz owners” of Twitter.
The logic knots come not from their underlying concept of free speech (see above) – which is nasty & evil but not logically inconsistent – but rather from their need to appear to be appealing to some kind of universal principle. Universal principles despite their abstract nature are more rhetorically appealing because they offer something to everybody. Torba, in particular, can’t sell a business on the principle of “free speech for specifically Andrew Torba,” as that offers his consumers nothing. Vox Day is more clear that his comment sections are only ‘free speech’ for his own in-crowd but still tries to claim that he is following some kind of less solipsistic principle because of his flawed cosplay as an intellectual.
Yet this flim-flam around “free speech” works for them. It draws in libertarians and some liberal defenders. It also appeals on a more intuitive level. Having to be careful about what you say is stressful – it taxes your working memory. Yet in any sane society, we all have to navigate how we talk to people around us just out of basic manners. Which takes us to the idea that marries the faux free-speech narrative, the alt-right, trump and trolls. The principle they want is not free speech but bullies speech – the principle of all bullies that they get to say what they want and everybody else doesn’t.