That Katherine Cross’ last post was “Why Punching Nazis Is Not Only Ethical, But Imperative” shouldn’t put you off of reading what this sociologist, transfeminist, has to say about free speech. After all, who better to explain the Constitution?
Cross’ post takes liberals to task for ruining free speech by supporting it as a principle rather than a weapon to be used for, and against, evil. Her opening paragraphs set a definite tone:
Nothing proliferates speech quite like a debate about a white man’s inalienable right to it.
Ever since a bit of lighting equipment was set on fire at UC Berkeley, causing the cancellation of a planned rally by Breitbart editor and professional crypto-fascist troll Milo Yiannopoulos, we’ve seen endless handwringing and finger-wagging defending his right to free speech and chastising of the evil, violent protesters. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t anywhere near this much speech surrounding the attempted murder of an anti-fascist protester at the University of Washington by one of Milo’s supporters. Apparently, a right-winger trying to shoot someone to death matters less than an anarchist smashing a Starbucks window, but I digress.
I see you there. Stop cringing. The problem for us is that impressionable people will not be put off by the obvious social justice dog whistles, the devolvement into tropes and logical fallacies, the flagrant mischaracterizations. Hold on to your brain cells, because this is a ride that needs to be taken to appreciate why people will take to the streets, engage in violence, all the while believing that they are the fighters for justice. They mean well, but this is the tripe they’re fed. And they like it.
But suspend your knee-jerk screaming at the computer that Milo is the example of free speech, and the principle isn’t defined by how much you hate him or what other things he did, or happened in the world, that have no relation to the concept whatsoever. Cross is on a roll.
We could even go more broadly and ask where these noble defenders of liberty — from eggs on Twitter to carefully manicured beards at The Guardian — were when it emerged that US Customs and Border Patrol were searching the phones of certain people of color to see if they had criticized Trump on social media?
So she doesn’t grasp that this isn’t a free speech issue at all. She’s a sociologist, dammit. Not a lawyer.
A common refrain is this: A right to free speech is not a right to a platform. But this statement needs to be unpacked a bit more because it is often misunderstood.
To speak to so vast an audience is a privilege, not a right. To speak through a newspaper or magazine column, a TV talk show, an interview on national TV, a speech at a university, or a primetime debate program, is, by its very nature, a privilege not open to all.
The same applies to Yiannopoulos at Berkeley. What people are really arguing about is whether Yiannopoulos has a right to be paid to go on a speaking tour, complete with hotels, a bus (yes, really), and an entourage. That is a separate question from whether he has a right to hold his views; he could spread them, as so many do, from street corners and subway stations. He does not have a specific right to any particular rarefied rostrum, however.
He was invited to speak at Berkeley. He didn’t force his way in at gunpoint. He was paid because someone chose to pay him. He has no right to demand the Berkeley soapbox. But he was invited to hop atop it, complete with hotels and a bus.
The larger issue is why liberals keep letting themselves get suckered into this argument again and again. It was already a pointless extravagance in years past, but in the age of Trump and his proto-fascist presidency, it is a fatal indulgence.
Here is where Cross draws the distinction between the liberal facilitators of evil and the evil itself.
One of the biggest problems with mainstream liberalism is its fetish for abstract principle over material reality. It is prone to forgetting that in a democracy, principles exist as a means to an end: the guarantee of maximal rights and liberties for the greatest number of people.
Cross assumes, as do most people, that whatever she believes is what the “greatest number of people” want and will benefit from, because reasons.
What liberalism’s fetish for abstraction does, however, is leave it woefully unprepared for rights conflicts, which are inevitable in a complex society. At some point, one person’s exercise of their rights will come into conflict with another person exercising theirs, and this dispute must be adjudicated upon. Someone’s rights will be abridged as a result, which will be necessary to guaranteeing democracy’s stated aims.
This is certainly true, but it leads her to this:
The right to free speech is essential; it is very, very far from abstract. Ask anyone who had their phone searched at a border crossing this past week. That scenario is the very reason we have a First Amendment: uniformed, armed officers of the state, searching the correspondence of a civilian to see whether they criticized the president, punishing them if offending material is found. More than anything our First Amendment exists to protect the rights of the ordinary person to criticize those in power without fear of reprisal from the state. Yet instead we debate the right of an already rich man to use his exalted platform to take away the speech rights of others.
Again with her border confusion, but that’s only to get to the point that Free Speech is critically important when it’s the Free Speech she deems good speech. Ah, to be the arbiter of good and evil in the universe. Not sure what the pay is, but the power would make it worth it.
Put aside logic and law. Put aside the conflation of Milo’s body odor with Free Speech. This is where the disconnect happened:
[Liberals are] prone to forgetting that in a democracy, principles exist as a means to an end.
Or as the converse explains, progressives only care about principles to the extent they can be used to achieve their end. This is why Free Speech, not to mention the other rights protected by the Constitution, matter. They not only protect us against “proto-fascists” on the right, but on the left as well.
H/T Rick Horowitz