The tough side of standing for free speech

The Nazi chant of ‘blood and soil’ was heard throughout the night as far-right groups marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. On the night before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, a pre-rally gathering was held on the University of Virginia campus grounds. Images of the large crowd, mostly male, entirely white, wielding torches and marching in unison, echo back to an unforgettable history, one of National Socialist marches and KKK lynch mobs. Such movements, infamous for their visceral race-based symbolism, have become permanently ingrained in modern consciousness.

As disturbing as such ideas are, the cause for the rally is simple to understand. The entire ‘Unite the Right’ rally was called to protest the decision by the city to remove the statue of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. The protesters felt this was an attempt to remove their heritage and erase an important part of Southern history. Counter-protesters however, argued that statues of racists that fought to retain slavery had no place in modern America.  

On the face of it, rallying against a statues removal seems far less hateful and completely undeserving of the mass media’s broad coverage. But perhaps given that the event was organised and attended by numerous far-right factions has justified their stir. Based on the numerous controversial speakers booked for the event, such as white nationalist Richard Spencer, there were many attempts to shut it down. Due to this, free speech advocates felt obligated to intervene and argue for the rally’s allowance, as a matter of principle, despite their glaring ideological differences. As a result, those who see free speech as an absolute right such as myself are usually asked why we are defending Nazis’ rights when their whole ambition is to deprive others of their rights. This obviously puts free speech enthusiasts in an uncomfortable position, being accused of Nazi sympathising.

For many, their politics are of party over principle, and they expect everyone else’s to be likewise. So, when one stands for a universal, well it can be quite a shock. The particulars of any one case, any one rally, any one speech, are not of concern when discussing general free speech principles. And yes, this does include the protection of speech for neo-Nazis and supremacists so that they can go on and spew their nonsense. As Charles C. W. Cooke, editor of the National Review Online, brilliantly put in a tweet on the rally, “Horrendous people are protected by the Bill of Rights, too.”

If we give anyone the right to curtail speech, it just becomes a matter of that person’s biases as to whose speech is banned. When we set up that kind of power, it is just a matter of time before that power is abused. It is also helpful to remember that the Nazis banned the Communists from speaking and assembling, just to be uninterrupted in their institution of a fascist state. Protection of speech for all, irrespective of their ideology, is the only way to actively combat a true authoritarian establishment from being implemented. The slippery slope will always slide towards whichever side holds power at that moment in time. So, it is best not to allow such power to be set up in the first place, even if it is to ‘defend’ against the callousness of neo-Nazi rhetoric.

For some reason advocating the allowance of their speech is somehow misconstrued as condoning the actual content of the speech, or even of the speakers themselves. Such a cynical assumption of motives ignores all nuance and ends up framing the discussion through the lense of hypersensitive reactionary identity politics. Neither of which is particularly useful. It says no more than that you agree with every use of speech than any single one, the distinctions of who is saying what are not to be taken into account, unless, and only unless, there is a direct call to violence. When we take on the burden of protecting speech, we must, in turn, protect all speech. Their position is beside the point. But yet charges of sympathising, siding with or apologising for will still be thrown about, despite such an emphasis on the universality of the principles. As you can imagine, being labelled a Nazi or white supremacist/nationalist, regardless of its level of truth, can have very dangerous consequences. Whether it be personally or professionally, even a put upon association that lacks all merit can be damning, largely due to the overwhelming sensitivity and stigma (rightly so) surrounding these types of groups.

If, as in the more extreme cases, injury or death results at or from a rally, as was the case at Charlottesville, blame can often be directed towards the free speech advocates. The charge usually goes along the lines of: since you allowed them to hold this event and this terrible thing happened, you are complicit in the violence as you fought for their right to be there. It’s all well and good speaking from hindsight, but each individual rally beforehand must be treated with the same impartiality that the universal principle of free speech calls for, even if violence is a potential outcome.

When events such as Charlottesville take place, our principles are immediately tested, because although you hate, despise, and are sickened by what they have to say, you are defending their right to say it. This can be tough and lead to lapses in an advocate’s consistency of upholding absolute free-speech. Because when you see or hear something that disgusts you beyond belief, the common response is, of course, to not want to see or hear it anymore, and to take proactive steps to neutralise the cause. But obviously, when it comes to speakers and their ideas, you can’t neutralise them, figuratively or literally! Between your reflexes, what you instantly decide as right and wrong, and your principles, a real conflict of interest occurs and it is easy to become torn. As it is entirely confined to the individual, it can be a tough war to wage, increasingly pressurised as news stories must weave their way in to show the real consequences that this principle has, both the good and the bad. This is however, just part and parcel of standing for free speech. In order to protect the speech of those with which you agree, you must also defend the moral monsters of the world, no matter how that may play on your conscience.

Free-speech feels like it should be easy to stand for, in its forefront focus are equality and freedom. However, it’s pure, idyllic notion is always poisoned when it is used to advance extremities of all forms. Although its net good is unmatched by any single principle or idea, the many less-than-amicable uses of free speech do enough to paint over its true worth with the kind of wicked dictums we see espoused when opposing militant movements lock horns.

Despite its difficulties, it’s all we have. The multiplex of issues surrounding speech make it a heavy responsibility to bear, yet a necessary one. A burden we must all take on! Because once the dialectic is set aside the only method for promulgating ideas left is violence. We must trust in modern social enlightenment and the rationality of the masses – which I admit isn’t always easy but is the only path onwards.


David Cairnie is a young student from Edinburgh living in Aberdeen.


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