Not All Speech Deserves Protection

by Daniel Gutiérrez and Antje Dieterich

Over the past days, there has been great clamor about the show of “violence” that broke loose at Berkeley when Milo Yiannopoulos, editor for the racist media outlet Breitbart, was forced to cancel his engagement due to the strength of counter-protest. And what a counter-protest: the building set to showcase Yiannopoulos and his squad of goons (the Berkeley College Republicans who had invited him, his audience, and sympathizers) was surrounded by the black bloc who did not shy from being as obstructive to the event as possible. Property was damaged, the police was ignored, and it is alleged that individuals were attacked.

For many commentators the outbreak seemed to have been a shock. Why did windows break? Should the protesters have crossed the police barricade? Were there physical attacks on others? This was all too violent for the sectors of the American public that are confused at the escalating confrontations that mark current US american society.

The testimonial account produced by Malini Ramaiyer for the New York Times sets very clearly the key contradiction that is at the root of popular concern. That is, Ramaiyer stands at this conjuncture in the midst of current political changes and is incapable of taking a side. Her upbringing tells her to celebrate the nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet the space given to Nazis is unsettling, recognizing that Yiannopolous’s “language has veered decidedly toward hate speech.” Ramaiyer understands violence surrounds Yiannopolous’s discourse, but at the same time, feels endangered by the unsettling anger of left forces on the ground. Astonished she observes the following:

Then I saw someone wearing all black walk up to a student wearing a suit and say, “You look like a Nazi.” The student was confused, but before he could reply, the black-clad person pepper-sprayed him and hit him on the back with a rod.

Seeing this direct act of violence deployed by a protester causes Ramaiyer to question the entire action, the tactic of blocking Yiannopolous’s speech by means of force, intimidation, and confrontation. What concerns us about this critique is that she puts the violence of fascism on equal footing with the attack of a bystander for looking “like a Nazi.” More pointedly, the fundamental question of her article is such:

This, of course, raises questions about free speech: Is it free speech if it makes us feel unsafe in our own skin? On the other hand, what does this campus represent if it doesn’t respect the rights of people with whom many of us disagree?

The answers to these questions requires far more than any knee jerk response demanding that we look to some fundamental Bill of Rights, laws, or even common sense. Answering these questions requires us to to stop and think.

Thinking Through Fascism

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish political theorist fortunate enough to survive the horrors Nazism who wrote such important texts as The Origins of Totalitarianism, We Refugees, and Eichmann In Jerusalem, has keen insights based on her personal experience in combination with her social research. In her analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust, Arendt meticulously observed that Eichmann was not abnormally evil. That is, when the televisions rolled, people were expecting a monster, a hideous deformation of humanity. But the observed was instead a mediocre man, who was as bland as any stereotype of a civil servant. What made Eichmann so terrifying, in Arendt’s understanding, was his normality. Instead of being extraordinarily evil, he was just a man who “refused to think for himself.” He replaced thinking with obedience. This process is what Arendt famously describes as the banality of evil, exposed through his utter lack of questioning, of thinking.

As Jon Nixon explains Arendt’s later reflections on Eichmann:

He had displayed a complete “absence of thinking”, which, as she disturbingly pointed out, “is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think”. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann’s “banality” left him no less culpable — and rendered the death sentence no less justifiable — but it shifted the basis of the argument against him: if he was a monster, then his monstrosity arose from an all too human propensity towards thoughtlessness. If Heidegger had represented the unworldliness of “pure thought”, then Eichmann represented the unworldliness of “thoughtlessness”. Neither connected with the plurality of the world as Arendt understood it. A world devoid of thinking, willing and judging would, she argued, be a world inhabited by automatons such as Eichmann who lacked freedom of will and any capacity for independent judgement.

Thinking, then, is the first step in averting fascism. Questioning, critically examining reality and interrogating it freely is necessary, Arendt reminds us, to overcoming the horror of reproducing Eichmann. After all, fascism is a project that stands against intellectualism. Fascism is a twisted deformation of the Enlightenment project, it overcomes questioning and reason through will and force.

In defense of reason, liberal thought often demands we stand behind free speech, no matter what it utters. The notion of free speech derives from Enlightenment ideals of freedom of the individual through the open and free engagement of reason. Referring to Kant, Habermas reminds us the enlightenment project was simply one that demanded that we think for ourselves, but that required the ability to question: “In regard to enlightenment, therefore, thinking for oneself seemed to coincide with thinking aloud and the use of reason with its public use”

The idea of free speech derives from the ability to think aloud and to mutually communicate, to mutually understand. In the imagination of both Kant and Habermas, the project of the enlightenment, is to be able to reason publically towards mutual ends. That no government obstruct this is the source of the liberal law.

Defending freedom of speech under every and any condition does not protect the ideal behind the demand of our freedom of speech. The ideal is not that everyone is protected to whisper, yell, and brag, but that everyone is allowed to reason — even absurd ideas.

So, now, what does the fascist want? To impose.

Reason cannot be achieved with a fascist. At a primary level, to reason with those that openly call for the naked oppression, if not extermination, of persons is to admit that point as a valid one. Indeed, the project of fascists and ultra-nationalists is not to engage in discourse meant to achieve a mutual understanding; no, their project is to end the conversation. It is to impose by force of will and strength the vision of one group upon the hopes of the all the others.

Returning to the critique against the Black Bloc, what it does is elevate the status of fascist anti-thought to a reasonable one. It demands that each voice have its space, no matter how vile.

This photo was taken from an earlier Yiannopolous’s speech that informs attendees about the identities of local immigrants. As a friend of ours understands,

Shutting the talk down constitutes the most basic form of defense work in solidarity with undocumented students, trans and queer students, muslim students, black students and others targeted by this escalating campaign of harassment and repression.

What we highlight here from our friends observation is that the violence deployed worked as “the most basic form of defense.” The reason being that, as another friend of ours observes,

for months students tried to work with the campus to shut down an event that was planned specifically to incite violence against vulnerable people. The campus responded that the only way they would stop the nazis from inciting attacks against students of color was if on the day of the event there was a threat of riot. That was what students were basically told by the university they needed to do in order to shut down the nazi attack event on vulnerable students. No other solution to protect vulnerable students was offered by the university.

Hence, there was no option left, given the failure of a thoughtless conception of free speech. Inaction would have undoubtedly led to the violent removal (or violent beating) of individuals. The tactic of nonviolence, in this case, would have failed to protect the communities targeted by fascism.

In this way, the interrogation of anti-fascist protesters unquestionably beating an individual for “looking like a fascist” must be carried out. But the far more paramount conversation we need to have is in regard to the failure of the thoughtless espousing of “free speech” to protect those targeted by fascism, or to protect democracy.