Why is there such a proliferation of books about free speech? Who buys them? Who reads them? And what are they for? These were the principal questions provoked by Ulrich Baer’s What Snowflakes Get Right. Of course, people will say that such books keep our discourse alert and generally on its toes. Some will add that whatever we thought we knew about the issue of free speech must be reapproached in the light of the mass communication age: Facebook, Twitter and other platforms forcing us to upgrade our societal software on the matter.
Here is another possibility. Books about free speech proliferate in precisely inverse proportion to the extent to which that right is exercised. For free speech is not something you just talk about. Surely it is something you do. A society that talks about free speech too much is like a man who talks about sex all the time: a sure-fire sign they are not getting any.
For, after all, the foundations of the argument, certainly of the English tradition of free speech, have not changed in centuries. We know from John Milton and John Stuart Mill of the importance of hearing contrary viewpoints. We know that even if an opinion is wrong we should not cut ourselves off from the opportunity to hear it, because the worst that can happen is that the wrong opinion will keep our own knowledge limber in its self-defence. Add to this the fact that countries like the UK already had perfectly good laws against incitement and the question remains, what is bringing on this rush of concern?
There are a few possible reasons. One is that the generation growing up with the internet clearly has a slightly different view from its forebears about the proximity of speech to violence. Indeed, the elision of the two has been going on for such a long time that American students, for instance, seem to be losing the idea of free speech, frequently seeing it as some right-wing talking point. A second possible reason is that in recent years the political and cultural mainstream has received a set of body-blows for which it is still seeking explanations. The shock of the 2016 votes means that there is a certain type of professor, media figure and (perhaps we might mention) former presidential candidate, who remains desperate to prove that our politics has gone “wrong” in recent years because some nefarious internet speech loophole has been exploited and that without this the Western democracies would be happily chugging along their predicted course with a Clinton in the White House, a Blair at the European Council or Commission, and the Bushes lining up to run one of the next generation against Hillary in 2020.
It should be mentioned that a third possibility does exist: that the internet genuinely does throw up problems which those who framed the free speech tradition had not expected and that there really are things we need to consider afresh.
Ulrich Baer’s new book is an extrapolation of an opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times in April 2017 — a piece that in the words of his teenage son quoted here turned him briefly into “kind of a mini celebrity”. That piece — published in the aftermath of the standoff in Charlottesville in which a white supremacist drove a car into a group of people protesting against his ilk — argued that the question of inviting speakers like Richard Spencer to campuses was not to be defended as merely one of the costs of having a first amendment. The problem of inviting speakers like Spencer or (and watch what Baer does here) “Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others” to campus is that they fall into a different category of speech. When the views of speakers “invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good”.
It is always interesting to see what land people are willing to grab when they see an ideological advantage. In the wake of Charlottesville it was inevitable — and just — that people would seek to lay the blame for the mayhem at the feet of the odious Spencer and Co. But watch and marvel at that move of Baer’s — using the “paper of record” at that moment to silently throw in (and before Yiannopoulos, who himself is not Spencer) the name of the scholar Charles Murray. And then that second move: to claim that these people — it is suggested that all three to a similar degree — “invalidate the humanity of some people”. This is not just an observation: it seeks to use a tragedy to make a land grab and is a subtle but clear attempt to restrict speech.
And in a sense that epitomises the true problem in modern discourse about free speech in America in particular. One reason why so many students now think “free speech” is somehow a “right-wing” trope is because left-wing figures have consistently attempted, for short-term ideological or tactical advantage, to pretend that the line between words and violence, ideas and driving a car into a crowd is exceptionally proximate on the political right.
Which is why Charlottesville is a terrible place to start any argument about free speech in America, let alone on American campuses. Because it happened when it did, and because President Trump reacted in the way he did, it has become one of those modern political battlegrounds which it is impossible to win any debate over because the facts were all disputed from the start.
For instance, it should be clear that when Trump referred to the presence of “very fine people on both sides” he was not saying that actual tiki-torch carrying Nazis were fine people. He was attempting to say — ineptly or unwisely, you may well argue — that not all of the people being described as Nazis at the protest were Nazis and that not all of the “anti-Nazis” were exactly what they describe themselves as.
Charlottesville is a terrible place to start any argument about free speech in America, let alone on American campuses.
That is a subtle point and probably not best made just after an actual white supremacist has driven a car at a crowd of people who claim to be opposing actual Nazis, with one of their number being killed. One of the things that is worst about the Charlottesville prism is that it immediately eradicates two important subtleties of modern Western politics. Which is that an awful lot of people are being called Nazis who are not Nazis (which is a problem not least because it allows a number of actual wannabe Nazis to get some jungle cover) and it completely ignores the fact that a clear segment of the “anti-fascist” left in countries like America is at least as fascistic as any self-identified fascists. They just have better cover from a media that doesn’t look hard enough at things.
But it is that second issue — the one about certain people having their humanity “invalidated” by certain political arguments — which is the more interesting. What Snowflakes Get Right is really no more than a messy and poorly-ordered attempt to stretch out Baer’s 2017 opinion piece to book length. One wishes that publishers such as OUP had the time and resources to guide an author into writing the book he could have written. For Baer gets caught up in a problem which simultaneously needs to be explored and can be answered perfectly easily. This is that modern American campuses have become fatally caught up in the whole dynamic of “power” politics. Am I powerful? Are you? If so, then we can work out who can speak, where and when.
On the other hand, there are people without power. The modern way of talking about them is to claim they are being “disappeared”, among other catastrophising terms. The thing that is allegedly new in the era that we are in is that powerful voices still have the power to erase, marginalise or actually snuff out minority voices.
The reality is so much more complex and simple. Which is that hierarchies move, shift and constantly morph. For instance there are plenty of young black women — for instance — who would find it easier to get an opinion piece published or a film financed today than an elderly white heterosexual male. That is not to say that everybody everywhere is at the same level of cultural or debate access. But it is simply to point out that there is something strange about this language of “punching up/punching down”. Because some of the people perceived of as punching down are in fact (in the new dispensation) punching up, while many of those perceived to have no voice and no human existence are in reality having a very nice time pummelling those unfortunate enough to find themselves beneath them.
So what is actually happening here? The internet throws up many challenges: everybody with eyes or children knows this. But it also provides an equal number of opportunities. You might absorb a lie, but you might also download the entirety of Areopagitica at one click of a button, perhaps even read to you by someone pretending to be John Milton. These are simply things that we have to educate ourselves — and our children — to regard in a more sane and measured light.
What is more interesting than the loss of faith in technology’s ability to improve us is that the tradition we had only works if you believe that there is such a thing as truth, and that deep contestation — however bitter — will throw it up, as metal might come from the refining fire. This generation of Americans in particular appears to be losing faith, and interest, in that idea. It seems to believe that once a pursuit has casualties (or people who claim to be casualties) then the pursuit itself is no longer worthwhile and should be discouraged.
If there is a loss of belief in free speech it is because of this simple fact: that truth is less important than feelings and that feelings can ordered into hierarchies of legitimacy. A fool’s errand if ever there was one, but what an ignominious one for generally bright people to get caught up in.
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