Free Speech is an Illusion: Why Leftists Silence

My fellow Patheos blogger Gene Veith has a theory on why leftists such as myself silence the free speech of “liberals” as well as “conservatives.”

According to Veith, it is simply a fundamental tenet of our ideology – which he calls neo-Marxism – that civil liberties, chief among them freedom of speech and expression, are bad…for some reason.  He doesn’t really get into which of Marx’s works is supposed to say this.

Probably because Marx never said anything of the sort.  Marxists and other leftists do take major issue with the liberal notion of free speech (and I want to thank Veith for distinguishing between leftists and liberals) but it is not because we are against the concept itself.  Veith lacks the self-awareness to understand that he too is a liberal, and is thus unable to conceive of something like “free speech” outside a liberal framework.

But “free speech” within a liberal capitalist framework is ultimately a sham, which is why leftists oppose it.

Liberals understand free speech as a negative liberty – it is “free” only as long as it is free from external constraints.  The positive form – the capacity for freedom of speech – is assumed to flow from the negative.

Leftists understand two things that make our understanding of free speech different:  1.) that constraints on negative liberties do not only come from the State, and 2.) that the distinction between positive and negative liberties is a screen.

The liberal notion of free speech even for fascists such as Milo Yiannopoulos (who was just shut down in Chicago because you don’t bring that trash into my city) and Richard Spencer is, in essence, utilitarian.  Freedom of speech is a right based on a “marketplace of ideas” that will inevitably see the best ideas rise to the top; this is similar to how liberals see free markets as intrinsically fair and efficient.

The problem is that  whether you are talking about a literal market or a marketplace of ideas, markets cannot exist without a framework providing the means of exchange and distribution.  The “free market” as extreme liberals (American libertarians) conceive it is a myth:  without an authority to enforce contracts, it literally could not exist.

Similarly, the marketplace of ideas has its own guardians and power structures maintaining the relations between people and their expression.  The Supreme Court has enshrined the idea that in the political arena, money counts as speech.  Thus some people have “more speech” than others.

The idea that even hate speech is protected under free speech relies on the assumption that speech cannot in and of itself be harmful.  This has a direct corollary:  free speech is limited to only that which is ineffectual, that which cannot manifest itself as concrete action.  This is why the State has been able to act against the speech of leftists in the past:  whether it is arresting Emma Goldman for printing anarchist propaganda or assassinating Fred Hampton for organizing on the streets of Chicago, their actions prove that free speech is reserved for those that do not pose a challenge to power.

Non-State institutions also play an important role in regulating speech and expression.  Colleges and universities choose whom to give platforms to, and these platforms by definition elevate the speech of one individual over others.

When groups of campus radicals – the “neo-Marxists” Veith decries – forcibly shut down speaking engagements by Yiannopoulos and his ilk, we are not shutting down the speech of our enemies; we are merely exercising our own to take away the platform given to them by powerful institutions which give more speech to certain people than others.

Veith sees this as a liberal-conservative issue, warning that leftists will eventually “target” liberals as well.  But we do not target people merely for ideology; we target people for the effects their speech has.  In the instance of protesters shutting down a speech from an ACLU official, that is simply because the ACLU, liberals that they are, protects and aids the far right.  They did so in Charlotesville, fighting for the right of neo-Nazis and Klansmen to march openly, which led to the death of one woman.

It doesn’t matter that the ACLU is liberal.  Their actions bolster and give aid to white supremacy.  That is what is meant by “liberalism is white supremacy.”  Leftists believe that white supremacy must be eradicated, by force if necessary, and liberalism simply will not allow this to happen because they mistakenly believe that white supremacy and other reactionary ideologies will eventually die out within the imaginary marketplace of ideas.

Freedom of speech within a socialist, post-capitalist, and post-liberal framework would be different than it is now, but that does not mean that we don’t believe in the rights to free speech and free expression.  We focus on the positive aspects of liberty as much as the negative.  This is why, in the 1936 Constitution of the USSR:

“…the citizens of the USSR are guaranteed by law:

  1. freedom of speech
  2. freedom of the press
  3. freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;
  4. freedom of street processions and demonstrations

These civil rights are ensured by placing at the disposal of the working people and their organizations printing presses, stocks of paper, public buildings, the streets, communications facilities and other material requisites for the exercise of these rights.”

One could of course argue over whether all of this was actually put into practice, but the point is that it puts the American Bill of Rights to absolute shame in guaranteeing positive liberties to citizens.  It recognizes that speech does not exist in a vacuum, and that for it to truly exist, platforms cannot be unfairly given to some ideas and not others.

This is why leftists silence hate speech:  we recognize that “free speech” under capitalism is an illusion, just as all “freedoms” are within liberal society.  Are you entering into a “free” exchange when you sell your labor, if the only alternative is to starve and languish in homelessness?

Some ideas are not worth hearing.  We as a society were supposed to have agreed upon this seventy years ago, when we went to war against fascism.  But that’s the problem with the “marketplace of ideas;” it does not filter out the bad ideas.  It allows them their niches, allows them to flourish and organize, and eventually to spark violence, as long as they do not threaten the interests of capital.

In a radically altered society where the means of exchanging ideas are truly democratized and speech is truly free, there is a discussion to be had about how to handle the hate speech of Milo Yiannopoulos and his ilk.  But under the current paradigm, with a wildly unequal marketplace of ideas that allows fascism, racism, sexism, et al. to flourish, leftists will always seek to silence those voices that could harm the innocent.  Liberal or conservative, we do not tolerate intolerance.

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