Free Speech Monomania In Support of White Supremacy Has a Long History

Here’s a lovely piece from the King Feature Syndicate, published across America, in 1929:

And here’s the transcription, in case it’s hard to read:

Lynchings in 1928 were fewer than in any year in fifty years, only eleven reported in twelve months which is encouraging.
On the other hand, interference with public meetings and the right to free speech increased in 1928 considerably.
Whether it is more harmful to snuff out a few lives by lynching or to discourage freedom of speech, among millions in contempt of the Constitution, is a question.
It costs many lives to establish free speech.

The author? One of the most celebrated news editors of all time, utopian socialist Arthur Brisbane.

Arthur Brisbane likely thought he sounded smart here, and all the progressives that read him and nodded their heads sagely probably felt super-smart too. They were dedicated to Hard Truths™️, after all. And the hard truth was if a dozen or so black men got lynched, that was the cost of free speech. Democracy, they hrmm-hrrm’d in their segregated smoking lounges while puffing on cigars, democracy was messy, right? And you had to stand on principle. So few people had the stomach for principles anymore.

Of course, Brisbane was horrifically wrong. And not just because he was willing to throw a few black men to the mob to stoke the fires of freedom (though that would surely be enough). He was wrong in a much more profound and disturbing way. Take his odd calculus:

Whether it is more harmful to snuff out a few lives by lynching or to discourage freedom of speech, among millions in contempt of the Constitution, is a question.

Here he presents lynching as an unfortunate consequence of supporting free speech. It’s really hard to get this more wrong. Lynching, of course, was a systemic practice to keep black populations in fear of demanding their constitutional rights, whether those be rights of association, speech, commerce, or political participation. Among other things, lynching was the mechanism by which free speech and right of assembly is denied to populations, one of the lynchpins of white supremacist practice of that age. Talking about lynching as the price you pay for freedom — well, I’m trying to think of an analogy here, but I honestly can’t imagine anything this stupid.

— — — — — — —

A prominent black academic recently detailed on Twitter the institutional support required to support an academic woman of color who dares to voice public opinions on social media. Here are some of the things your institution might need to provide:

  • A staff member or student to go through your email or DMs to remove the hate mail, triage death or rape threats, and refer legal matters to the police.
  • A desk and office far away from public foot traffic, preferably with an administrative assistant to head off any individuals heading to your office unannounced. Because again, threats of violence.
  • A help desk or assistant to screen your calls, since your phone will be rendered useless.

And of course you — you’ll have to cut through organized abuse each time you want to make a point, knowing that every success you achieve will just bring more risk and stress to you and those you love.

This is what you will live with: a level of constant noise and pervasive threat in your life that would push the average white male liberal columnist into a mental breakdown. It’s not lynching, true. But the logic here is similar: to increase the cost of speech of marginalized voices. To make what is guaranteed in principle to be too expensive to exercise in practice. And like lynching, the idea is to mob and target specific public figures to make an example of them. This was the logic of Gamergate. It’s the logic of the so-called alt-right.

And yet, what do we find on the libertarian left but a collection of Arthur Brisbanes, hemming and hawwing that they want to stop harrassment, but not at the cost of free speech.

Headline: “Twitter forms a trust and safety council to balance abuse v.s free speech”

You would think, reading a headline like this, that abuse was just people being mean to one another, and not coordinated campaigns of doxing, slurs, and death threats organized by white supremacists to deny people of color and women in tech access to Twitter’s public square.

The abuse is the free speech issue. Kicking Nazis off of Twitter reduces the platform of a small number of people who are using that platform to terrify and silence others. Leaving them on suppresses, in all meaningful terms, the voices of entire classes of female intellectuals, people of color, and any other subgroup the mob decides to turn it spotlight towards when that subgroup gets a little too uppity.

If you find yourself making the argument that free speech is difficult, and that to preserve free speech we have to protect the coordinated and systemic abuse of people of color or women with opinions when they try to participate in conversations, I would print out that Brisbane column and tack it somewhere above your monitor. Because that is what you will sound like to the world in 40 years. Not a rebel, not a realist. Not a person speaking hard truths. Just another useful idiot used to prop up the white supremacist patriarchy. Or as my friend Kin Lane put it so eloquently earlier today, just another antibody in the white supremacist system. Time maybe for a different route.