Against ‘free speech’ absolutism.
Since protesting Jacob Ress Mogg’s publicity event at UWE in February, we’ve been contacted by everyone from the student community to the Jeremy Vine show, asking us to explain ourselves.
The most common allegation which we have been asked to defend ourselves against is the accusation that we don’t support the right to Free Speech. This isn’t true- we do support the right to free speech as well as the right to a free life for all people. But we do not believe that fascist’s right to free speech should be valued more highly than the rights of fascists’ victims to live free from harm. We’ve outlined our arguments against free speech absolutism below.
1) ‘Free speech’ doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Speech has consequences. When hate speech is permitted then marginalised groups get attacked as a result. When Tommy Robinson speaks, for example, the Darren Osbournes of the world all prick up their ears.
When Jacob Rees Mogg is given a microphone at UWE then the bigots and homophobes in the audience are legitimised and embolded. Militant antifascism isn’t concerned with free speech so much as with self-defence, and the defence of marginalised communities from the real, physical threat of fascism. And if you can’t see the threats of violence implicit in fascist and right-wing rhetoric, it’s probably because you’re not the one being targetted.
2) Fascists don’t believe in free speech either. They don’t hold marches and rallies because they want to contribute to the broad spectrum of views, they do it because they want to recruit, show their strength, and build their power. Fascists on the rise are dangerous to everyone.
This is true of the parliamentary Right as well as the far Right on the streets; Jacob Rees Mogg doesn’t do speaking tours of universities because he cares about students, he does it because he wants people to vote for him. We’ve read our history, and we all know what happens when fascists are allowed to take power. Again, this is about self defence.
3) Governments use violence all the time to keep power and defend their interests. If ordinary people can’t use violence to defend themselves then there’s no opposition.
4) Politics is a struggle, not a debate. Anyone who believes that words and ideas hold the key to political victory has fundamentally misunderstood how power works.
5) Free speech absolutists assume a level playing field for ideas which simply does not exist. The parliamentary Right have armies of press, journalists, publishers and media to help spread their message. All we have to get our voice heard is our ability to disrupt and shout.
6) Free speech absolutism has consistently enabled fascism’s ascendancy throughout history. Even in Nazi Germany, bourgeoise academics were content to watch Hitler’s rise to power without any opposition more stringent than clever words . We’re not going to sit back and watch this time.
7) True free speech can’t exist in a society which isn’t free. The state isn’t some neutral arbiter of free speech; it has it’s own agenda. It’s not enough to sit back and hope that the police will protect us from street fascism and our democratic processes will save us from the fascists in power. They won’t. True democracy means freedom to act, not just to speak, and especially the freedom to defend ourselves on our own terms.