On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

All this has made me muse on the idea that there might be public and private forms of freedom of expression

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’. Continue reading “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

On Punching White Supremacists

During an interview with ABC News, Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, was punched by a protestor.

The video of the assult was widely shared online, with many people applauding the act.

I wrote a few Tweets in response to this:

A few po-faced tweets about that footage doing the rounds of someone punching a Nazi # I’m sorry folks, but punching a white supremacist while he’s on TV *is* a form of censorship and a free speech violation # If you think that this kind of thing is exempt from our values of free speech, then you don’t understand free speech #

Doesn’t matter that a private citizen, not the government, was doing the violence. Sure, Spencer can’t sue anyone under 1st amendment… # The person doing the punching is still a censor and against free speech. #

Next, it doesn’t matter that Spencer probably wouldn’t grant free speech rights (or indeed other human rights) to others. # That supremacists & religious fundamentalists deny others their human rights is neither here nor there. It doesn’t negate their rights #

We should give Nazis and supremacists free speech rights because we are better than them. # Punching a white supremacist is to be condemned because, well, it’s just the sort of thing a white supremacist would do. # If the reverse happened, & a nazi punched an interviewee who supported the #WomensMarch we’d rightly condemn it as Trump inspired hate #

But most importantly, who gets punched in other countries when they speak their mind? # In China, the person who gets punched is the pro-democracy activist, not the white supremacist. # In Russia, the person who gets punched is the LGBT activist, not the White supremacist #

The experience of Peter Tatchell, who was beaten up in Moscow, is relevant here.

In Saudi, the person who gets punched is the liberal blogger and the women’s rights activist, not the White supremacist # In Turkey, the person who get’s punched is the Kurdish nationalist, not the White supremacist #

It’s an open question whether ABC should have bothered to interview Spencer at all. I’m sympathetic to the ‘normalisation’ complaint # If I was the editor I would have avoided broadcasting his views. # On the other hand, there is an argument that it’s better to air and even encourage bad views in order to discredit them #

I’m reminded of this Little Atoms piece by Jamie Bartlett, arguing for free speech for its own sake:

For Mill it wasn’t enough to express an opinion: the true liberal had an obligation to test it, to actively seek out the alternative view, to grill it, interrogate it, to argue it out. And that is where today’s liberal falls short, preferring to close alternatives off rather than open them up. Freedom of expression is chaotic and dynamic – not easy and timid.

More tweets:

It should also be standard practice to give a voice to someone who will refute the racist. More free speech. #

But, I say again, it’s not right and it’s against free speech to excuse a white supremacist getting punched on live TV. #

Ooh, I forgot one. Racists have a habit of twisting attempts to censor/shut them up as proof that their ideas are radical and important… # So this Spencer fellow will now portray himself as a free speech martyr and will seek to discredit antifas as being inherently censorious. #

In fact, I see he has been doing just that on his personal Periscope feed.

Since posting this, I’ve read some powerful and persuasive arguments that support the punching of white supremacists.

The first is that the situation is already violent. The fascists’ modus operandi is inherently violent and they have already ‘taken the first swing’ as @knitmeapony put it.

Now I think there is distinction between actual physical violence and concepts such as ‘microagressions’, mental distress, and ‘illocutionary acts’. There is an important legal debate to be had over when or if speech acts can be termed ‘violence’. 

However, such debates are utterly infuriating for activists, who experience the violence of the far right first hand. This week a member of the alt.right actually murdered an anti-facist protestor in Seattle. The inherent violence of such groups is not in question. Why indulge in legal parlour games?

In U.S law sets an extremely high bar for state censorship. The relevant case is Brandenburg v. Ohio in which the Supreme Court held that for speech to be prohibited, it must incite imminent violence. With such a demanding criteria before the state will intervene, those bearing the brunt of fascist abuse and violence find they cannot wait for their government to protect them. If the government will not even prosecute calls for genocide (which what Mr Brandenburg had done at a KKK rally, and what Richard Spencer has done in the past) then, say the activists, we need to take matters into our own hands.

My attention was also drawn to an interesting thread, arguing that violence against some peope can be justified, because their views sit outside democratic discourse. This tweet thread from @meakoopa is worth seeting out in full.

I just finished a PhD diss abt “reason” in relation to the public sphere so w apologies I might risk a short thread re: punching nazis – # – bc there is an unstated self-evident logic that I feel like might be clarifying. Feel free to mute or unfollow or w/e # 

every liberal democracy realizes early on there are some positions which must prima facie be aggressively excluded from public discourse # u can’t even articulate WHY they are unreasonable bc to articulate WHY they are unreasonable is to itself open the possibility of reason. # this is why u can’t allow “just hypothetical” questions abt whether Jews or blacks, as Spencer posits, are innately inferior/destroyable. # 

Nazi theorists like Carl Schmitt VERY QUICKLY diagnosed this weakness in liberal democracies – # U can collapse a democracy by insisting the democracy had a right to end itself: Hindenburg to Hitler, “the peaceful transition of power.” # Intolerance cannot be tolerated, bc this corrosive effect means the law can be co-opted by, and so protective of, fascism. # Fascism wriggles into democracies by insisting on right to be heard, achieves critical mass, then dissolves the organs that installed it. # WHICH MEANS the stronger it becomes, it cannot be sufficiently combatted with reason. Bc “reason” becomes the state’s tool to enforce. # The Overton Window becomes weaponized – as we are seeing in @KellyannePolls and @seanspicer‘s “alternative facts.” The state decides. #

I wrote a little bit about the Overton Window here.

Liberalism literally cannot see this – its insistence on rule of law, not genocideal lust, is what turned the German people into good Nazis. # some positions must be excluded from discourse. Some positions you do not listen to – u can only punch. # A society that begins to entertain why some members of its polis might not belong invites catastrophic decay. Those voices must be excluded. # 

TL;DR – punching a nazi is actually a supreme act of democracy bc it will not tolerate a direct affront of a fellow citizen’s citizenship. # 

the term to interrogate in “should you punch a nazi?” is SHOULD – what is the status of that “should”? Legally: no; ethically: fuck yes. # 

All of American history is an exercise in one debate: “who is the ‘we’ who are the people?” # (the thing that used to solve this debate – “God decides what is reasonable” – is not on the table anymore, and was always a deferral of Q) # 

(if you’re looking to read more, a slim, elegantly articulated place to start is Horkheimer’s ECLIPSE OF REASON): https://t.co/wzVmtno252 #

I do not think that punching anyone can be a ‘supreme act of democracy’ but this is powerful: ‘a society that begins to entertain why some members of its polis might not belong invites catastrophic decay.’

Quoted in the Bookseller discussing free speech and the alt.right

I was quoted in The Bookseller today.  The report by Katherine Cowdrey gives all the context.

English PEN has said Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of expression must be respected, amid the furore surrounding the far-right editor’s lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster US.

“Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored,” said Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for the free speech organisation. He added that demands for S&S US to cancel the deal were tantamount to “censorship”.

“The right of Mr Yiannopoulos to write and to offend is integral to the principle of freedom of expression,” said Sharp. “Likewise, Simon & Schuster US has the right to make an editorial judgment over whether to publish his book. Demanding that the publisher cancels the book deal amounts to a call for censorship, and should be resisted.”

British Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News based in the US, known as a publisher of “alt-right” articles, and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. He was banned from Twitter for the racist trolling of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, reportedly received a $250,000 advance from S&S US for his book Dangerous, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster US in March 2017, but there are no plans for the UK arm to publish it, The Bookseller reported last week

Sharp emphasised the difference between criticism of the deal and calls for the book deal to be reversed. The latter, he argued, would set a terrible example to authoritarian governments.

“However, we must remember not everyone expressing dismay is asking for the book deal to be reversed,” said Sharp. “Many have simply expressed a negative opinion about Mr Yiannopolous writing and politics. Outrage is not in itself a form of censorship – it is also a manifestation of free speech.

“PEN campaigns for the victims of censorship in many countries around the world. Often, the people we seek to support have been branded as ‘dangerous’ or corrupting to society.  If we seek to silence people like Milo Yiannopolous on the same grounds, then we set a terrible example to more authoritarian governments.

“Anyone angered by this decision should use their own free speech to counter the ideas they disagree with. Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored.”

A few people were dismayed by this statement, saying that English PEN should not be giving me support or succour to the alt.right.  I hope to write more on this in the coming week.