In Defence of Free Speech

“I don’t agree with a word you say”, wrote Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” The quote is often misattributed to Voltaire, because Hall was writing about the great French writer, but it does sum up his life, for he was a keen advocate of free speech under the authoritarian ancien régime.

Now, however, people not only disagree with any word someone else with another perspective says, but also seem willing to fight to the death to kill the right to say it. Or so that was the case in the protests in April 2017 when alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos was about to appear on campus, leading to riots and the cancellation of the event. But you can only keep determined people away so long. This Sunday, an ‘Anti-Marxist’ (read: white supremacist) rally has been planned, and next month, Yiannopoulos, along with a host of other characters such as Ann Coulter and possibly even Steve Bannon, will be coming to speak.

In my last post, I discussed a little about newly-appointed Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ’s decision to allow the alt-right speakers to come to campus and her exhortation to students to “respond to hate speech with more speech”. I think that it’s worth quoting again:

Some constitutionally-protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful.  However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call platform denial.  Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech. Respond to hate speech with more speech.

We all desire safe space, where we can be ourselves and find support for our identities.  You have the right at Berkeley to expect the university to keep you physically safe. But we would be providing students with a less valuable education, preparing them less well for the world after graduation, if we tried to shelter them from ideas that many find wrong, even dangerous.  We must show that we can choose what to listen to, that we can cultivate our own arguments and that we can develop inner resilience, which is the surest form of safe space.

Carol Christ

This, inevitably, has led to Christ being attacked by many sides. The Daily Cal wrote in an editorial:

Just three days after the racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, Christ said inner resilience is “the surest form of safe space.” Inner resilience? What about the continuing physical threat behind white supremacist ideology, clearly evidenced by the events at Charlottesville?

This is possibly the worst thing a college president could say in the current context. Safe spaces do not impede the full realization of free discourse. Safe spaces exist to acknowledge a history of systemic oppression.

I have to say that in this case, Carol Christ is right. Let me explain why in the three following points:

Benjamin Franklin once said that “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech”. In a way, the argument could be made that this is already happening in the United States. President Donald Trump, with his clear authoritarian tendencies, has made a point of constantly attacking the mainstream news media as “fake news”; Fox News and Breitbart, on the other hand, have attained a status almost equivalent to state media. The norms of American institutions does not allow the president to censor speech, but he can certainly discredit it, and he has clearly attempted to do just that.

Imagine a reverse world, however, where Donald Trump does have the ability to censor the press and to limit the criticism that people can make about him. That would essentially be a death blow to American democracy: Trump would never tolerate dissent or criticism and the (failing) New York Times would be filled with headlines about how Trump is winning so much the country has become tired of winning. The nation, essentially, would be enslaved to the presidency. Free speech, indeed, is, integral to holding those in power accountable; it is the key to the protection of liberty.

But just as we would expect Donald Trump to uphold basic civil liberties, it would also be expected that everyone does their part to ensure that these rights are protected. Indeed, free speech is not only a component of, but is essential to, the workings of any democracy. Without the exchange of opposing ideas and viewpoints, how would debates occur? I am from Asia, where many- dare I say most- countries do not observe the right to free speech. This stifles the democratic debate in so many ways; when I asked you to imagine a world where American citizens cannot criticise Donald Trump, that is the  reality that many in countries such as China live with every day.

Indeed, free speech more than anything ensures that the democratic system allows for political equality. Yes, in truth some will always have a greater platform to voice their viewpoints than others. I can write as much as I like, and I would (unfortunately) never get as many views as Alex Jones does in one of his TV shows. But at the very least, free speech means that theoretically, every person’s word is as good as anyone else’s. The lack of free speech is to allow the monopoly of power in the hands of an even more influential elite; its presence levels the playing field and allows even the smallest voices in society to be heard.

Of course, there comes a point when questions arise over the extent to which free speech should be permitted. The recent events in Charlottesville is certainly one of them, and many would argue that the upcoming events in Berkeley is another. The racist and divisive rhetoric of alt-right icons such as Yiannopoulos and Bannon is deplorable and must be condemned. But to deny them a platform to speak would be an erosion of their rights to free speech, and we have already seen the slippery slope that occurs once these rights begin to be denied. If someone can say no to Steve Bannon, could another not then say no to Bernie Sanders? What does this begin, and where does this lead us?

It is said that we should not fight fire with fire, but free speech must be fought with more free speech. After all, Oscar Wilde did once say, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself”. There is an impeccable logic to free speech: that the arguments with the most logic and power to influence should win out; if Alex Jones makes an ass of himself, it is the responsibility of everyone else to point that out. If Conway wants to give you alternative facts, then you need to give her the facts- plain and simple.

If America is to truly be the diverse, inclusive society that so many of the mainstream commentariat believes it to be, then it should not be scared of the dying gasps of a more racist, exclusive country. Instead, it should be ready to show why progressive arguments triumph over ones that harken back to a darker past. Let us harness the spirit of Voltaire: you may not agree with a word they say, but we’ll defend to the death their right to say it. And, with the spirit of Wilde, let us show the fault in their ways.

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