My inaugral post on Labour List (cross-posted here) elicited a few responses which highlight some subtlties in the ongoing discussion around the limits of free speech – specifically, the point at which it is appropriate for the state to ban political demonstrations.
First, this from Ben Singleton:
I have no problem at all stopping the EDL marching. Ever heard of Cable Street? This is nothing new. When it comes to fascists the response has to be No Pasaran!
I do however agree that the argument about costs is a bad argument and leads us into dodgy territory. The EDL march should be stopped because they are a bunch of violent racists, not because policing is costly.
While this appears to be quite bolshy and uncompromising, it does draw an interesting distinction – between what it is appropriate for the police to do, and what it is appropriate for other citizens to do. There is something about the fact that Cable Street was not an act of state censorship, but of citizens standing up to repell the fascists, that makes it feel somehow morally better, and I think this is the reason why it has become part of modern folklore. However, this is purely an emotional feeling, and its a bad philosphical argument. If we adopt Robert Peel’s idea that the police are in fact just a particular and peculiar type of citizen, then there seems to be very little distinction between the police stopping a march, and An Angry Mobb doing the same. The question of “At what point do you step in to stop the march?” still remains, something I’ll return to in a moment.
The mention of Cable Street reminds us of Skokie, Illinois, site of a controversial march by American Nazis in 1977. A correspondent of mine e-mails to say:
[The EDL march] resembles the classic Skokie march in America. The issue there was whether or not the fascist marchers should be allowed to wear the swastika: did this constitute ‘fighting words’, which even the first amendment does not protect?
The politicians opposed to the march aren’t saying that the EDL should be banned, or prevented from meeting; they’re against a manifestation of its members beliefs which could constitute ‘fighting words’. It’s a really interesting area of first amendment law. Fighting words are different from incitement, because they are calculated to inspire a reaction, not an action.
I think this reveals my position in the Labour List article as being quite close to absolutist about Free Speech. Could such a position work in the real world? Well, with concepts such as Satyagraha and Christian non-violence (Luke 6:28, for example) in the mix, I do think it is possible to resist the urge to react to ‘fighting words’.
In suggesting this as a way out, there will be those who who accuse me of gross naiveity, but I think that just shows a lack of imagination and political ambition. It expects very little of human beings. For example, ‘A Cleo’ says:
Tower Hamlets is a complex and peaceful community with a lot of pride. If it is provoked by a bunch of thugs, it wont take it lying down. How can it?
This implies that the people of Tower Hamlets are no more than circus animals, incapable of not reacting when insulted. But the easy or obvious response, the one that surrenders to base emotions, is never the only course of action. Moreover, when a group reacts violently to ‘fighting words’, it always means they lose some of their moral high ground and offer a propaganda victory to the provocateurs. By contrast, there is nothing more politically powerful than dignified non-violence.
George Orwell said:
Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist
I don’t think that refusing to react to ‘fighting words’ is the same as pacifism. There is nothing in what I suggest to say that the EDL (or any other far-right group around now, or in history) should be just left to get on with it. A counter-demonstration, a physical presence, is essential – it signals to the communities they seek to intimidate that their views are not shared by ordinary people. And it breaks the ‘epistemic closure‘ suffered by the far-right themselves, offering an alternative viewpoint they cannot turn their eyes from.
Nor is there anything wrong with offering your fists, if and when your community is physically attacked. But – and it is a big ‘But’ – you only retain the moral high ground and win public opinion if you do this after the other side have taken the step from ‘fighting words’, to actually ‘fighting’!
So what we are left with is a form of Brinkmanship, Chicken, Who Blinks First, Eschaton. It is tense and it costs money to put the police in between the two sides, and we all wish we didn’t have to bother. But to my mind, it is essential to the political project of repelling the far-right, that they be given precisely the right amount of rope to expose themselves as the thugs they are. Pre-empting this, however good and just it feels, will only be counter-productive.