The Rise of the Anti-Free Speech Right

25/02/2016 14:46 GMT | Updated 24/02/2017 10:12 GMT

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of social justice. In recent times, the right of the political spectrum has identified campaigners for social justice as the new menace threatening the fabric of our society and our most fundamental of civil liberties. Currently, 'social justice warriors' rank just above international terrorists on the list of conservatives' collective bugbears, and commentators queue up to rail against their purported habit of preventing free speech with devices like no-platforming and the infamous 'safe space'. But this is disingenuous. In reality, the right is using a mixture of caricature and taboo to render constructive debate about social justice issues impossible. They manufacture an image of the feminist or transgender activist who believes in certain notions which can comfortably be identified as objectively incorrect. Everyone who associates with those ideologies, or just employs certain key words associated with them, can then be mocked and discredited in the place of genuine discourse. In their defence of free speech, they prevent true freedom of speech.

The irony of generalising about the tactics of the right in an article condemning the use of political generalisations is no doubt immediately apparent, so I shall stress that this does not refer to the entirety of the right of politics. To be more specific, it is prominent, though not universal, among anti-feminist and anti-transgenderism social conservatives; think Milo Yiannopoulos, though most people will be able to apply, if not a face, then probably a profile picture to this strand of thought. It should also be clarified that this is not a defence of the excesses of some on my own, feminist, socially-liberal side. Personally, I do not like safe spaces and I do not condone no-platforming, and I think, incidentally, these views put me in the majority not only in the population but also among students. However, it is increasingly evident that a genuine debate on the issues raised by each side is becoming infeasible, and some effort needs to be made to salvage a little perspective.

The technique is roughly as follows. The first step is to promulgate a stereotype of a particular political opponent, by identifying a series of incidents that roughly correspond to it. Once the stereotype has taken hold, they entrench it further by producing unsubstantiated generalisations in the form of comment. Take the example of feminism. Commentators have churned out a flood of articles about feminists, often feminist societies, banning certain people from speaking at universities or establishing safe spaces in which certain matters cannot be spoken of; wherever possible, they shear off any context that might make the decision appear more reasonable. Then they write comment pieces about 'anti-free speech feminism' in which they carefully smear the entire ideology with the recent, dare I say unrepresentative examples that they have dug up. Somewhere along the line, some anti-free speech impulse is speciously attached to mainstream feminism to ensure that, by implication, every advocate of feminism is a savage opponent of hard-won civil liberties.

Spurious generalisations are one half of the strategy, helping to discredit the ideology and assure its critics of their righteousness. The other half is the use of these to invent crude caricatures of campaigners for social justice to associate them more firmly in the mind with the few examples of their fellows' mistakes. Social media provide ideal platforms for this kind of propaganda. Individuals can shroud themselves in an echo chamber by following solely those conservative activist pages whose purpose is to discredit liberal ideas, such as 'Getting PTSD from tumblr posts without trigger warnings' and 'Sh*t tumblr says'; and of course posts on social media, unregulated by any journalistic standards and too brief to be diluted with any context, are the perfect format for promulgating increasingly normative generalisations and unsubstantiated stereotypes. In these conditions proliferate memes with titles like 'Feminism: Before and After', crude stereotypes that evoke old anti-suffragette propaganda (and in doing so remind us how little the fight changes). It ensures that they never have to confront any real feminist argument, but can satisfy themselves by knocking down a series of straw men erected by and among like-minded people. The same treatment is applied to transgender rights and other issues of social justice.

What this whole procedure establishes is a kind of informal safe space. A right-winger hears a trigger (a term chosen judiciously) like 'feminist' or 'cisgender', or 'privilege' (incidentally, an important academic word now reduced to farce by trivialisation), or 'colonial', and knows that they do not need to challenge their beliefs by engaging intellectually with the idea before them; tainted by one of those labels, it must be incorrect and can be met with mere derision. Worse still, perhaps, it is possible to disregard the whole range of a person's views because they are one of the dreaded host of 'SJWs', and due to this membership their opinion must be invalid. We are prevented from discussing issues when the very discussion of them causes some people to recoil instinctively and to refuse to participate.

Exactly the same tactic is being inflicted upon those left-wingers who dare to embark upon any defence of Muslims. Those left-wingers are easily dismissed as the 'regressive Left' who instinctively defend any minority even if it means contradicting their other socially liberal causes. In the case of some left-wingers, this description of boneheaded double standards is valid, but largely it simply allows right-wingers to disregard and/or mock any left-winger who tries to inject a note of nuance into the debate. The latest casualty of this approach was Jess Phillips, who for having the audacity to remind us that British men as well as migrant can be perpetrators of sexual harassment was gleefully ridiculed by right-wingers who wilfully misunderstood her comments in order to portray her as a mindless liberal drone (as if one of the few outspokenly feminist MPs in Parliament needs their instruction on the topic of sexual harassment).

Needless to say, there are far more fruitful ways of discussing these issues than through ridicule. Those who of us who passionately wish to preserve the right to offend, and indeed the obligation to be offended, could enquire into the views of those who differ from us, try to comprehend the reasons for which they hold those views; we could understand also the vulnerability of those who call for safe spaces. These are not, for the most part, bolshy prigs who simply want to shut their opponents up, but frustrated individuals who can feel the cause they love slipping away from them, and do not want to cede what progress they have made towards emancipation when so much more still cries out to be achieved. For if we understand this, we can assuage their fears and commit ourselves to wield our own free speech in defence of the vulnerable, against those who employ theirs to propagate vile and offensive views; use free speech the way it ought to be used. Instead, this potential consensus is obliterated by the stamping feet of those whose only purpose is to heighten discord and to stifle progress.

Unscrupulous right-wingers have, of course, successfully employed exactly the same tactic against asylum seekers and benefits claimants in years gone by; indeed, that still poisons the discourse on the refugee crisis today. But what truly sticks in the craw in these cases is the cynicism of using a valid defence of free speech in order to prevent their opponents from making their case. Certainly, safe spaces, especially in their most egregious contortions, contravene free speech, and should be opposed. But the people calling for them are not jack-booted authoritarians, but concerned minorities and women, victims of hatred which it is the responsibility of society at large to counter and to defeat; they deserve our vocal sympathy as much as they do our dissent. Yet this nuance is largely lost to the anti-free speech Right. And far more problematic for free speech than the safe space itself, because it affects the much wider public discourse, is our increasing inability even to use and to debate the term 'safe space' for fear of the connotations it bears of student hysteria. When descriptive terms become derogatory, debate becomes impossible, and for as long this strand of the Right demonises opinions with which they do not agree rather than actively and intelligently engaging with them, it will prevent debate and it will stamp out free speech.