A Sociologist’s View Of Free Speech

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

46 thoughts on “A Sociologist’s View Of Free Speech

  1. Wilbur

    In all fairness, Ms. Cross refers to Milo as a “crypto-fascist” above, not a “proto-fascist”.

    Neither “crypto’ nor “proto” means what she thinks it means, that it is apparently a synonym for “super dyna-whoppin”.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    And this is why ‘1984’ is flying off the shelves. It’s unfortunate that many people don’t see that the book applies to both ends of the political spectrum.

    1. Rick Caird

      But the people buying “1984” do not realize that the book is not describing today. “Brave New World” is much closer to the cacophony of today. “1984” applies only to the left’s (and Cross’s) attempt to shut down all but approved speech.

  3. bevis the lumberjack

    Nothing so lacking in self-awareness as a white female trans using free speech to direct a speech-related complaint at the free speech of a white man.

    Her article and attitude really piss me off. Under her rules, that means I can find her and punch her, right? I mean, it’s like it’s “imperative”, isn’t it? Am I getting the new rules right?

  4. DaveL

    the guarantee of maximal rights and liberties for the greatest number of people.

    That’s funny, I would have described the purpose of democracy as “to peaceably share power with assholes.” But then again, since Cross is apparently qualified to dictate when principles should be held to and when they should be discarded, I’m sure she considers herself uniquely qualified to dictate the purpose of democracy to the poor benighted proles.

    1. SHG Post author

      What she is ironically asking for, though certainly unintentionally, is overt racial discrimination toward the 13% blacks in US. It would probably make her cry if she grasped what she was saying.

      1. Sacho

        She just forgot a tiny caveat. The statement was meant to be:

        “the guarantee of maximal rights and liberties for the greatest number of people I agree with.”

    2. Cashew

      I’m inclined to agree with one of the greats, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
      — H.L. Mencken

      1. MonitorsMost

        Cashew, Cross is just invoking a different Mencken quote: “Every normal man must be tempted, at time, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

        1. Rojas

          Her augment precedes Mencken. Hers is the “he needed killing” construct. This is the age of Trump after all. Who quibbles about abstract principals when “the threatened danger is continually impending every moment and everywhere”?.

  5. neoteny

    “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.”


  6. Billy Bob

    “Nazism is democracy’s antimatter.”
    Gee, how now brown cow,… wish I’d thought of that. Mixed metaphors anyone? Political (?) science and astrophysics! No mind, never matter; no matter,… nevermind.

    “…the only personification of bad faith aforethought.”
    Where did you find this tripe? This is drivel. Is she on drugs?

    “Sociologist” would have been sufficient. But Nooo, she had to spoil it with: “Transfeminist, Gaming Critic, Opera Loving Slug Matron, and, and, and–last but not least–Itinerant Valkyrie.” Yea, this is the gal we’ve been waiting for. We cannot wait! For a date? A perfect mate!

    Before we go, we trust Hillary has a full-blown case of PTSD these days. Don’t know why that popped into our head?!? (We feeel her pain.) We trust hubby Bill has a separate bedroom, so as not to be disturbed in the middle of the nite.

  7. B. McLeod

    In the accounts I read about the University of Washington shooting, the student who turned himself in claimed that he fired in the belief he was being attacked by a white supremacist. The police released him without charges.

    Turning to the idea of fighting it out with Nazis on their own level, via street violence, I would simply note there were countries where that historically did not work. People who decide that it is a good idea shouldn’t be surprised when they get their asses kicked by Nazis who know how to do street violence better. It’s pretty much a stupid plan all the way around.

    1. SHG Post author

      One important detail: these aren’t really Nazis. These are worthless pimples who want to pretend to be something they’re not.

      1. Ray Lee

        As someone once said: “So many words. So little meaning.” They (and any others) are Nazis if I say they are Nazis.

      2. B. McLeod

        Maybe the people who are punching them as well? (Suggested by their having to sneak up behind a fake Nazi).

  8. Scott Jacobs

    Not sure what the pay is, but the power would make it worth it.

    [Homer is elected union kingpin]
    Homer: So what does this job pay?
    Lenny: Nothing.
    Homer: D’oh!
    Lenny: Unless you’re crooked.
    Homer: WOOHOO!

  9. DocPenn

    Please note, she’s a graduate student not a professional. I’ll be surprised, and appalled, if CUNY gives her a degree based on the quality of writing and analysis here.

  10. jane

    “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.”

    One of the biggest problems with this assertion is the implication that the liberal principle of individual rights is not only an abstraction, but a floating abstraction.
    There’s a difference.
    The “abstract” principle of individual rights is rooted in the material reality of the human mind as an attribute of the individual and our means of survival.
    Her formulation says we’re subjects of the collective, not individuals with a right to our own lives.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re not from around here, are you? The “rights” of which she, and you, speak are actual thingies in the Constitution. This is a law blog, not an existential make shit up out of whatever blog. Her statement is insanely ridiculous. Yours isn’t much better. If you want to discuss “abstract” principles of individual rights, best to do so on reddit. Here, rights are not a floating abstraction nor an abstraction of any type. Rights exist in the law. Whatever crap happens in random people’s minds is best saved for reddit.

      1. MarK M.

        How many of these links did you get. After reading that disheartening gobbledygook that probably cost her parents a lot of money to teach her to spout, this was my first thought. (Not sent with an expectation of making the cut).

  11. BannedbyBreitbart

    Poor Katherine. She fails to see that when she goes to hit a fascist she’s most likely to shatter mirrors. Hope she’s got a good supply of bandages.

  12. melanerpes

    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.

    This muddling of the 1st and 4th amendments freely bespeaks the writer’s complete ignorance of the Constitution. But after all, the Constitution is nothing compared to her shallow Utopian fantasies.

  13. Robert

    In a well constructed system of rights, rights would never conflict. The existence of conflict between 2 people in the exercise of rights demonstrates that one, the other, or both rights need to be abolished or reconstructed. The whole point of establishing rights is to allow people to get along under the greatest possible range of circumstances.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is absolutely nothing in your comment that’s remotely accurate. It’s utter gibberish, the sort of nonsense a philosophy major makes up to get his paper published in a gender studies review. There is no “constructed system of rights.” Our rights are whatever we want them to be, subject to social norms, law and Constitution. They don’t give you rights, but prevent infringement of rights.

      Your “whole point,” beyond begging the question, is similarly nonsensical. Rights conflict constantly. That’s the nature of rights, one person’s right to do as he pleases comes at the expense of another’s right to do the same. The Constitution protects rights to a neutral baseline, beyond which they are in constant struggle. Criminal laws prohibit conduct that some believe to be their right because it harms others beyond the point society is willing to accept. The Constitution protects those rights, such as freedom of religion, regardless of what society accepts because that’s the baseline the founders established for this nation. Not even the will of the majority can strip a person of those rights the Constitution protects, even if every other person in America thinks your exercise of protected rights sucks.

      There is nothing in your comment that reflects any accurate concept of how rights exist and work in our society. Your comment wins the Billy Madison award for the day, and may god have mercy on your soul.

  14. MSimon

    I’m not sure how this fits. But it seems to be going around a lot lately.

    The City vs Country divide has been a feature of human politics for 5,000 years or more. Too bad we haven’t figured it out yet.

    [Ed. Note: links deleted per rules.]

    1. SHG Post author

      If you have something to say, you can say it. Links are not allowed. But bear in mind, theoretical gibberish wrapped up as a concept is still gibberish.

  15. Rna

    I support Robert in that such conflicts point out “rights” that may not be as such. Example – no one has a right to health care. In the extreme example that enslaved doctors taking away their rights. Everyone should have a right to find or purchase health care…that’s a different right.

    1. SHG Post author

      Just when I thought Robert won the Billy Madison award, you come along to snag it away from him. I should have realized that no matter how insanely clueless a person can be, there is always someone even more insanely clueless. This means that while you may be the frontrunner, there is still time for someone to outstupid you, so don’t bask in the glory of winning just yet. And you weren’t even capable of posting it as a reply to Robert. It’s a wonder that you can breathe.

        1. SHG Post author

          Regardless of whether that’s accurate, what part of free speech makes that so? Irrational conflation does not make for a rational comment.

  16. Sgt. Schultz

    WTF? Is this post trending on reddit? Where is this insanity coming from? You’re gonna be busy today if you keep posting these crazy comments. May god have mercy on *your* soul.

    1. SHG Post author

      Tell me about it. I posted the comments just so others can see the idiocy I have to deal with on this end. I think I’ve allowed enough stupid for a day.

Comments are closed.