Wrestling with Fighting Talk

Anti-fascist poster
Anti-fascist poster

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.

4 thoughts on “Wrestling with Fighting Talk”

  1. An evidence-based approach towards what we *know* of human behaviour shows any argument against “expecting very little of human beings” to be the risky, emotionally manipulative and intellectually dishonest effort that it really is. What exactly is wrong with acknowledging, accepting, and working with what we know is probable, rather than building our position on blind optimism about what is or might or should be possible? This disingenuous attack on common sense makes me very angry. It really is beneath contempt. Not to mention, hypocritical. You attack the ‘surrender to base emotions’ by an appeal to those same base emotions. Cheap and nasty, IMO.

    Other than that, Rob, I think I concur.

  2. If there were precisely zero examples of people transcending their ‘base emotions’ then I agree that this argument would be manipulative and disingenuous. But I mention Satyagraha as an example of something that was surprisingly effective. And the example of South Africa shows how the immediate post-apartheid state avoided the recriminations, score-settling and blood-shed that the realists said would be inevitable. The reasons for the success of these appraoches in both cases was, in my opinion, down to strong moral leadership.

    Moreover, I think I adequately acknowledge that my prescriptions are not at all easy, and that it would be stupid to simply trust that everything will be alright. As I said above, one does have to have a police presence at these events, for common sense reasons. But that is consistent with aspiring to something greater. Banning these protests means we’ll definitely not achieve anything so transformative or effective.

  3. No, Rob, this doesn’t resolve it. Showing that something is possible is not the same as showing that it is probable, per se. If there were precisely one, or even two or three examples of transcendance, the argument would still be disingenuous, because they’d still be the exception, not the rule. The only way it could be not disingenuous would be if, on balance, transcendance is as common or more common than non-transcendance. Which I don’t believe it is. And I don’t believe you believe it is either. Hence, disingenuous.

    Yes it’s good to draw attention to those examples you mention, but to poo-poo anyone who (quite rightly) thinks it’s important to take norms into account is utterly wrong-headed and counter-productive, and very naughty in my book. It amounts to attempting to silence dissent by ill-founded mockery, instead of by the facts and reasoned argument.

    You make my argument for me when you say that Satyagraha was “surprisingly effective”. Ditto for your remark about “strong moral leadership” – without which, according to your claims about the causality, presumably people would have behaved like “circus animals”, no?

    Aspiring to something greater is a waste of time if you’re not prepared to accept the reality of what tends to happen most of the time. You can mock or belittle human nature all you like, but you won’t modify, defeat or over-ride it if you’re not prepared to work with it, or give credit to those who are. So it’s not a very aspirational attitude after all, is it?

    1. I think it is your straw man that is being disingenuous, not me. I’ve emphasised more than once that the police must marshal such events because violence might break out. I am certainly not sticking my head in the sand over that possibility, or saying that it doesn’t matter.

      The difference between people and circus animals is that the former are capable, as a group, of a considered choice and open to persuasion based on rational argument and (yes!) emotional appeal. The ‘leadership’ I speak of can provide both types of persuasion, and thus lead those who might have be provoked into violence choose a better (in my opinion) response, leading to a better outcome. Lamenting a descent into violence when such leadership is not in evidence is not the same as equating them with animals, because they still have a choice. Those who say that a violent reaction to the EDL is inevitable, as one commenter I cited believes, are doing everyone a disservice. They imply that the ‘better’ choice is impossible, off limits. It is against this that I dissent.

      To condense the argument: I think a non-violent response to such marches is the optimal outcome, that will win the argument and marginalised the far right. Banning the march precludes the possibility of Tower Hamlets rising to the occasion. However, I am not so careless as to think that this is not a high risk strategy, and my recommendations also imply a high level of policing. Since ideas of free expression are also at stake, I think this is appropriate. The flame is worth the candle.

      You may disagree with me that (a) the non-violent response is optimal and/or (b) possible; and you may disagree with me that (c) the expenditure of police resources on this scenario is worth it. These are all open questions. But to say I am being “disingenuous” implies a lack of sincerity, that I am not discussing the real issue at stake. That’s certainly not the case (indeed, never the case on this blog) and I cannot see which lines you are reading between, that would support such a charge!

      If anything, the disingenuity lies with the politicians who called for a ban – are they using the veil of ‘cost’ to cover the ideological reasons for seeking to stop the march. I stopped short of accusing them of such because I really don’t know their thought processes, and it would be a fool who dismisses concerns about violence. But the commenters on Labour List sufficiently dealt with that point, agreeing that, whatever your view on whether the march should proceed, ‘costs’ are the worst reason for a ban.

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