Freedom?: Denial, Hate Speech, and the Freedom of Expression, part 1

It’s very banal for me to point out that argument about ‘free speech’ within the UK/US contemporary discourse has been, and continues to be, intense. This is despite virtually everyone agreeing that the abstract concept of ‘free speech’ is a Good Thing, and that if you disagree with ‘free speech’, Orwell himself should smite you from above.

It may, thus, initially seem paradoxical for there to be fighting over something which everyone agrees is Good. The crux of the issue can be seen as revolving around two very different worldviews — one generally egalitarian, the other hierarchical (if you read my post on the political spectrum, you’ll note that these are almost synonymous with ‘Left’ and ‘Right’) — which echo across all of society.

Freedom, then. As much as our politicians might wax lyrical about the ‘haters of freedom’, and about ‘freedom being a national value’, all political ideologies across the world espouse freedom. They must, by design — in any country with mass politics (and even in non-democracies, as a justification for authority), politicians and thinkers appeal to a sense of human agency in order to say ‘You are currently not as free as you could be. We will free you, if you let us’. The concept itself is nebulous — to a theocrat, we find freedom in God. To a right-libertarian, we find freedom only when the market is ‘free’ (more on that later). To a left-libertarian, we strive for freedom only when we are freed from wage labour. And if you care about free speech, you’re saying that speech should be ‘free’ — usually as a means to an end, although sometimes as an end in itself.

It’s immediately obvious here that we can see conflict between different uses of the term ‘freedom’ — for example, the leftist freedom from wage labour is not reconcilable with the right-libertarian ‘free market’. At this point, we can introduce different conceptions of liberty as originally described by 20th century philosopher Isaiah Berlin in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958). The first form, negative liberty, is the liberty achieved through a lack of restraints. This is often promoted in a Hobbesian worldview — where the ‘state of nature’ of all men is that they are created ‘free’, but accept restrictions on their behaviour — by the state — to establish order, and to halt the ‘war of all against all’.

The second form, positive liberty, refers to the ability of oneself to achieve self-actualisation, or to live the way that you would like to live. Under the lawless state of nature, i’m not able to study a degree, or visit other countries, or — in some cases — feed myself with fresh, safe food. It has taken action by the state with the provision of higher education, roads, and regulations on food safety in order for me to achieve some form of positive liberty in these regards.

We can now look at an example of how two people, both supporting ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’, might come to very different conclusions. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), constructed by Energy Transfer Partners earlier this year, runs through four different US states and pumps up to half a million barrels of oil a day over 1,000 miles. The approval process and construction of this pipeline lead to massive protests from local Native American groups, who voiced concerns over safety, water quality, and damage to areas of cultural significance to Natives.

It goes without saying that situations like this cannot be divorced from their context in such a manner — similarly, we can’t use simple platitudes (such as ‘your freedom to swing your arms stops where my nose begins’) to break down complex scenarios like this. Nevertheless, if we consider only the issue of liberty (in an extremely reductive manner), we might suggest that those who support a negative interpretation of freedom — such as ‘classical liberals’ — will tend to side with the energy firm. They reject the restriction of the freedom of the firm to build the pipeline. Conversely, we might suggest that those who support a positive interpretation of freedom — such as ‘social liberals’ — will tend to side with the protesters, as their freedom to live as they want (on lands untainted by oil spills) is being trampled on by the energy firm.

Once again, these two definitions of liberty are more guiding principles than they are flow-charts to answer questions, and the example has been framed in a deliberately reductive manner — for example, other factors in the DAPL case (such as the shutting out of Natives from consultations, and the failure of environmental evaluations to take Native reservations into account during the planning stage) could easily swing a self-described classical liberal against the energy firm.

Bringing up these two interpretations of liberty shows us how people who define themselves by their support of freedom are, in fact, saying very little. As mentioned, all political ideologies must claim to support the nebulous concept of ‘freedom’ — but without qualification, they might as well claim to be supporting ‘Good Things’. How we interpret words like ‘freedom’, ‘security’, or even ‘democracy’ can lead to radically different outcomes.

That these words are considered to be inherently Good in and of themselves can, additionally, lead to their misuse through naked deception. In April 2000, a group of far-right activists — including among them Nick Griffin (then-BNP leader) and David Duke (former KKK grand wizard) — met in Texas with the American Friends of the British National Party. Both Griffin and Duke had a reputation as ‘modernisers’ within the far-right: Griffin was associated with the ‘softening’ of the BNP compared to his predecessor John Tyndall (including a policy change to voluntary repatriation, as differentiated from the relatively hardline National Front and their policy of compulsory repatriation). Duke had undergone a similar regime within the KKK, switching white robes for business suits, and allowing women and Catholics into the group.

Both aimed to create a ‘presentable’ face of the far-right — a paradoxical aim in its own right, since any ‘respectable’ far-right agenda would reveal itself from under its mask within seconds of touching power. At this seminar in Texas, Griffin explained the future of the British far-right, by concisely and explicitly laying out this dishonest approach:

“The BNP isn’t about selling out its ideas, which are your ideas too, but we are determined to sell them. Basically, that means to use saleable words — such as freedom, identity, security, democracy.
Once we’re in a position where we control the British broadcasting media, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say, ‘yes, every last one must go’. But if you hold that out as your sole aim to start with, you’re not going to get anywhere. So, instead of talking about racial purity, we talk about identity.” [1]

With demagogues like Griffin and Duke — and many others not mentioned here — still active, it is not enough to simply accept people when they claim to believe in ‘freedom’. It is necessary to ask questions about who the ‘freedom’ is for.

In the next piece, we will apply some of the definitions used in this article to speech, as well as exploring how ideologies implicitly include and exclude characteristics — and, by extension, living people — from their utopias.