Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The left has been guilty of attacking free speech, says the left

Leigh Phillips on Ricochet writes a powerful, if avowedly leftwing defence of free speech and goes on the attack at what he calls the "anglophone left" for calling Charlie Hebdo "racist", clearly showing that those who repeat this call don't understand French, which of course is a form of what some on the left might call "neo-cultural imperialism":

The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days, as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s “obvious racism,” only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.

Now I would argue vehemently that the left has a strong history of sympathising with those who support censorship, including soft peddling many regimes that would imprison or murder those who expressed political dissent.  Given its strong support for state solutions to most problems or support for so-called "direct action" (a euphemism for vandalism, trespass, intimidation and threats of violence), it is consistent to support wanting to close down debate,  but Phillips seems to get it:

There is a worrying trend on the left to dismiss freedom of expression as part of the colonialist project, to repudiate free speech as a meaningless elite piety. In recent years, the liberal-left, particularly in the anglophone world, has taken to demanding the censorship of “offensive” or “triggering” speech, and student unions, theatres, universities, schools, municipalities, art galleries and other public venues have increasingly shut down a wide range of speech acts. Even many traditional civil liberties groups appear to be cowed. Demonstrators go beyond protesting those they oppose, and now try to actively prevent them from speaking, as in the case of efforts to disinvite Bill Maher from UC Berkeley last year — ironically during the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement protests. In 2014 in the United States, campus protesters prevented commencement addresses by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, attorney general Eric Holder, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. According to campus free speech group FIRE, 39 protests have led to the cancellation of protested events on campuses since 2009. All this is contrary to traditional leftist defence of freedom of speech and must be strongly opposed. The politics of the speaker should make no difference here.

 We counter bad arguments with good ones. The minute that we begin embracing censorship, it will be our own ideas that sooner rather than later will be deleted by the censors. And the irony is that while these calls to censorship frequently come from the “social justice left,” it is precisely as a result of the liberal foundation of freedom of expression that the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle and gay liberation have achieved all that they have.

The difficult Phillips has is the intellectual tradition he is aligned to has a firm belief in the control of language to control people and behaviour.  It has used the words "racist" "sexist" and now "Islamophobic" as a catch-cry for "shut up, your opinion is worthless, go away and be grateful we can't lock you up".  Those who criticise this get thrown the same word, because the "liberal" left thinks it has a monopoly on morality.

In actual fact it has embraced a form of collective group-think that those who lived under China's Cultural Revolution or the totalitarian Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe would recognise instantly.  It is why the term "politically correct" has been coined, albeit it too has been overused by some on the right to conceal their own bigotry.

Critics are labelled and consigned to the dustbin with that label, and there is a refusal to engage, and the most recent usage of the "check your privilege" claim is a way of focusing not on the content of speech, but on the background of the person speaking.   This, of course, is exactly what umpteen totalitarian regimes have done and still do.

I fear that the likelihood of the left in the English speaking world accepting free speech for those that reject many of its arguments, is not great.  The desire to restrict, regulate and control many aspects of people's lives, of businesses and to spend their money, runs through so much of what is advocated.  If you are going to continue to ban "hate speech", then you are going to continue to place free speech vulnerable to wider demands as to what is "hate".  After all, how many on the left would ban "hate speech" based on professions? i.e. banning vilification of say, bankers.

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