What is Free Speech and what is it good for? English political philosopher John Stuart Mill in his oft-cited book On Liberty used the phrase “the marketplace of ideas”. It is a metaphor that compares the competition of contending opinions in the public square with the competition between commodities in the market. An evocative imagery that quite deliberately – and as we saw in Part 1, falsely – connects the development of imperialist capitalism with universal human rights. If there is any connection it is only that the depredations of this expansive economic system inspired its victims to fight for the right to speak, publish and organize for its reform or abolition. 

What is perhaps more important is that there is no evidence the metaphor corresponds with reality on either level. The mythological underpinning of classical economics is the village market (more accurately associated with feudal and other non-capitalist economic systems) where numerous independent artisans hawk their wares to similarly numerous crowds of buyers. If one shoemakers’ goods are found to be shoddy or over-priced all the custom will flock to the booths providing good quality at reasonable prices, etc. Hardly an even glancing approximation of globalized financial capitalism today or indeed at any point in its long development; based as it was on the genocide of Indigenous populations, the labour of enslaved Africans, rural expulsions at home and colonial expansion abroad.

Nevertheless, the image falls apart even more when considering the interchange of ideas. The real world is not a debating club where the best argument wins, either by applause or a straw poll of the audience. It may appear that way to a wealthy and privileged white man like Mill, and his similarly situated antecedents and successors, who face no actual threat from bad ideas propagating in the public sphere. For marginalized and targeted people, however, the implications can often be a matter of life or death. 

Furthermore, as has been accurately pointed out, “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. As long as economic resources are so unequally distributed as they are, there will never be a level playing field where ideas contend on the basis of their merits. 

There are at least three other significant complications to consider when determining the best strategic approaches to the questions that arise with regard to Free Speech. Firstly, while free expression is indispensable to the fight for social justice, we cannot have a naïve and un-nuanced understanding of its limitations and even dangers. Liberation will not flow from somehow winning “the debate” and driving the false and dangerous ideas of the right from “the marketplace”. Yet without it we cannot refine and improve our own ideas, strategies and tactics for social change, broaden support, build alliances and coordinate mobilizations that bring pressure to bear on the structures of power. But does that mean fighting for everyone’s free speech without discrimination?

Civil libertarians would argue in the affirmative. Certainly, it is a legitimate concern borne out by hard experience that any restrictions governments enact against the right will rebound many-fold against the left. One example is the weaponization of anti-hate laws to target supporters of Palestinian rights in the face of the brutal and illegal Zionist occupation; a bizarre inversion of reality that nevertheless has greatly influenced policy makers. 

It is on this ground that the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) took on cases like defending the right of Nazis to march through Skokie Illinois in 1977, with its population being around fifty percent Jewish (It should be noted the organization is finally re-thinking it’s absolutist position in the wake of its similar support for the deadly Unite the Right Rally in Charlottestown, Virginia in 2019.) 

However, there are several obvious problems with this stance as it has been rationalized:

  • There was no question of a general state prohibition on neo-nazi marches but a very specific and limited response by local officials to pressure from those they represent to a particular deliberate provocation;
  • There has never been any reciprocity – as the ACLU may have hoped – whereby far-right elements would return the favour by supporting the civil rights of progressive movements. Quite the opposite! We’ve seen how on their own and in collusion with the state they consistently and violently attack and even murder our activists; 
  • The ACLU won in court but in the end continued community opposition and mobilization forced the Nazis to call off their march anyway. In return they were allowed to demonstrate back home in Chicago. However, there is no evidence this legal precedent subsequently lessened state repression of progressive “speech”. Not then or in the ensuing decades leading up to Standing Rock South Dakota, Lafayette Park in Washington DC – or Black Lives Matter protests anywhere. 
  • Understanding that those pushing for expansion of state powers of repression (ultimately aimed against social justice movements of course) may use popular revulsion at the far-right as political cover, it may be advisable at times to speak out against such government over-reach. But unlike the right with its billionaire backers, progressive organizations – including civil liberties groups – have limited resources. There being no shortage of victims of state repression to support and defend there is no justification for spending one dime, nor one minute of a lawyer’s time, defending fascists. Let them fund their own cases and hire their own lawyers

The Jewish residents of Skokie had it right, perhaps inspired by the example of East Londoners in 1936 or the Warsaw Ghetto resistance of 1943. Put your bodies in the way of fascists, not your lawyers or politicians; and certainly not the cops. If any of those choose to involve themselves one might say something like: “thank you very much for the support but if you try to turn around and use your bylaws or injunctions against us, you’ll get the same response we were saving for the fascists.” 

The second contradiction in classic liberal ideology around free speech is this: on the one hand liberals will argue that words, no matter how objectionable, are just air (or ink or bits in cyberspace) and so are incapable of real harm and therefore, should not be restricted in any way. Yet almost with the same breath they will argue free speech is so important to democracy – so powerful in its effects – it must be protected at all costs. Strange how free speech absolutists – right-wing or liberal – want it both ways and alternate between these “heads I win, tails you lose” arguments depending on circumstance. 

Sure, much comment and debate is harmless – even the most outlandish. Promoting flat earth theories can be tolerated so long as airline pilots don’t over-ride their “great circle route” flight plans and begin crashing their out-of-fuel planes into the ocean. Conspiracy theories about the British Royal Family being shape-shifting, baby eating, alien lizard beings are also unlikely to have any real-world implications; except perhaps promoting newsstand sales of the National Enquirer. 

However, when vaccines are rejected due to widespread disinformation, people die: tens of thousands in Canada, over a million in the U.S. When ideas like “The Great Replacement” intersect with widely held and deeply felt racist cultural tropes we get mass shootings like at Tops in Buffalo, New York. The dictum attributed to Voltaire: “Those who can persuade us to believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities” captures this connection precisely. From the largest genocides to so-called lone wolf attacks, the foundation is always laid with “just words”. 

Of course, not just a few words, but deliberate, prolonged and intense campaigns of dehumanization and rage stoking. A commitment to free speech “absolutism” would have us wait until the cattle cars pull up to the siding, or the machetes are unsheathed, before we do anything to prevent imminent disaster. Or perhaps we can rely on countering hateful propaganda with our own words of reason and love. Get the haters out in the open, identify the proponents, point out their logical fallacies, and truth will win out. Don’t bet your life on it!

This brings us to the third place where defense of unrestricted free speech by both right-wing libertarians and mainstream liberals fails: the conviction that human behaviour is based predominantly, or even largely, on logic and rationality and therefore can be altered by reasonable argument. We wouldn’t argue humans don’t have that capacity or that it isn’t significant. Without it there wouldn’t be so many people now and throughout history who challenge dominant ideologies and build progressive alternative movements. But unfortunately, it does not appear to be the dominant factor in most people’s belief systems. Study after study of in the fields of political science, psychology and neuro-science have confirmed this. There is not space in this article to elaborate but here is a place to start (with some good examples and references) and it wouldn’t take much searching to further verify this assertion.

This being the case, does it matter what anyone says, or writes, or tweets? As Canadian physician, humanitarian activist and scholar James Orbinski put it: “Stories, we all have stories. Nature does not tell stories, we do. We find ourselves in them, make ourselves in them, choose ourselves in them. If we are the stories we tell ourselves, we had better choose them well.”

We need to tell true stories, not because they will convince everyone but because they are infinitely more powerful than silence. Some of those stories will be true in the rational, scientific sense. The world does go around the sun and is roughly 3.5 billion years old – and definitely not flat; extreme inequality is not only morally objectionable but is economically and socially dysfunctional; we can be critical of multinational pharmaceutical companies without rejecting approved vaccines as overwhelmingly safe and effective.   

Others may be “true” in an even deeper sense: Indigenous stories that teach that humans are part of nature and have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment, not rapacious exploiters of nature. That everything is connected, humans and animals, animate and inanimate, all manifestations of creation. This may be a hard pill to swallow for people steeped in the rationalist ethos of the so-called Western Enlightenment. But as pre-eminent scientist and cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” 

Remember, those oral histories, legends – myths as they are sometimes called – provided the basis for sustainable human communities for most of the roughly 250,000 years homo sapiens have been in existence. Yet in the few hundred years since a certain utilitarian and exclusivist interpretation of “scientific rationalism” became dominant we have been brought to the brink of potential extinction. Maybe it is time to strike a more functional balance between these two types of “true” stories. 

But what about the false stories, the ones that inevitably lead to senseless violence, genocidal hate and ‘trucker’ convoys? 

It is clearly both ineffectual and dangerous to call on governments to suppress them. Even arguably reasonable and necessary limits to free speech protections can become problematic. For example, the obscenity exception to free expression was used to harass the queer Little Sisters bookshop for years while violent misogynistic pornography continues to proliferate. We would not suggest there is any easy answer to this dilemma: argue against any blanket restrictions because they can be mis-used or oppose each disingenuous application on a case-by-case basis.

But if we can’t rely on the state to protect us what can be done to somehow limit the spread and dangerous impact of the right’s “stories”? 

The fact is we do not have the power or resources to have much direct effect. We can’t fine, or jail or in any other way preventively sanction or retrospectively punish purveyors of far-right hate messaging. We can, and do, of course counter specific channels they use. That may entail a campaign to convince a specific university, public library or privately owned venue not to host a far-right event. Massive pressure brought to bear on social media companies has led to some of the worst offenders losing their platforms. 

But there are serious limits to this approach. Even if hate-mongers find it difficult or impossible to find a venue in one or more locations there is no shortage of other avenues they can turn to; there are a multitude of social media apps and web hosting platforms; and there is always old-fashioned book and periodical publishing. Furthermore, like government restrictions of free expression, restrictive social media moderation and terms of use policies can backfire on progressive and especially radical voices. Not suggesting we halt such efforts but our watchword has to be: “handle with care”.

If we can’t shut down far-right propaganda and recruitment what is the point then? To some extent even just making their efforts more difficult, somewhat restricting their reach and impact is better than allowing them free rein. The same way that streets with speed bumps are safer than drag strips. More importantly, if these efforts are carried out strategically, with a clear perspective of using such campaigns to tell our stories, build our alliances and broaden the anti-fascist movement they can be an important part of the fight against the right.

Ultimately however, the far-right is not trying to win a debate or gain majority support (fascism and its electoral strategies is a whole other topic). At the core of their ideology and methodology is violence – whether on a mass systematic scale or by inspiring “lone-wolf murder sprees – and any possible manifestations in-between. 

Just as their story-telling is all about achieving the critical mass of support necessary for them to achieve their hateful objectives, ours must be about love and solidarity, equality and inclusion in order to build a strong enough counterforce to stop the fascists from succeeding. That is why it is crucial that progressive organizations such as unions, community groups and faith communities consistently engage in public education that includes critical thinking skills to ‘proof” their members against fake populist and right-wing propaganda. Popularizing and promoting progressive ideas that can actually address inequality, a focus on good jobs, strong social safety nets and accessible government and of course the growing threat and current reality of catastrophic climate change has to be central to this effort. 

But while stories – even the most true and powerful ones – can inspire people and build movements they can’t stop a fist or a club – or worse! That is why people serious about countering the growing far-right threat learn first how to de-escalate conflictual situations before they turn physical and then learn how to defend themselves and others in case they do. Just as the wisdom of elders and storytellers has always been fundamental to the survival of Indigenous peoples, so have been their Warrior Societies.