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The free speech delusion

Those who want to facilitate bigotry and shut down dissent among voices that have been silenced for too long are exploiting the language of free speech.

Oscar Wilde, who knew a few things about censorship, once wrote that he could "tolerate everything except intolerance". Today, the rhetoric of free speech is being abused in order to shut down dissent and facilitate bigotry. On behalf of everyone with liberal tendencies, I’d like to know why and how we’ve allowed this to happen.

Before we start, let's all take a deep breath and acknowledge that sometimes change can be scary. Right now, cultural politics are changing extremely fast. Right now, ordinary people can speak more freely and organise more efficiently than ever before.

That single fact is pushing culture to the left too quickly for some people's comfort, and the backlash is on – including from liberals who don’t like the idea that they might have to update their ideas. Writing on Facebook, Marlon James named this backlash "the Liberal Limit", and spoke about mainstream writers in every centre-left outlet from the Guardian to the New Republic who are:

“Tired of learning new gender pronouns . . . Tired of having to figure out how to respond to a Rihanna video. Tired of feminists of colour pointing out fissures in whatever wave of feminism we got right now. Tired of black kids on campus whining all the time. Tired of everybody being so angry because without their alliance all you coloured folk would be doomed. Liberal but up to the point where it scrapes on privilege.”

Every generation of self-defined progressives has to tackle the fact that progress doesn’t end with them. Every generation of liberals has to deal with its own discomfort when younger people continue to demand liberation.

Instead of doing that hard, important work, today’s liberals – particularly older, established white male liberals – are dismissing the righteous activism of today’s young radicals as petty "outrage". They are rephrasing critique of their positions as ‘censorship’ so they don’t have to contemplate the notion that those critics might have a point. They are enraged that they are being challenged, and terrified, at the same time, of being deemed regressive. But liberals need a reason to think of themselves as just while ignoring alternative views, and "free speech'’ has become that reason.

I hear the phrase "freedom of speech" so often from people trying to shut down radicals, queers, feminists and activists of colour that the words are beginning to lose all meaning.  So before that happens, let’s remind ourselves what freedom of speech means, and what it doesn’t. I didn’t want to have to write a listicle, but you brought this on yourselves.

Ten things "freedom of speech" doesn't actually mean, and one thing it does:

1. Freedom of speech does not mean that speech has no consequences. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be so important to protect speech in the first place. If you use your freedom of speech to harass and hurt other people, you should expect to hear about it.

2. Freedom of speech does not mean you never get called out. In particular, it does not mean that nobody is allowed to call you out for saying something racist, sexist or bigoted. At the University of Missouri, according to the New York Times, students erected a "free speech wall" because they were worried that if they said what they really felt they would be "criticised". There are a lot of words for the phenomenon of not wanting to speak your mind for fear that someone might give you a piece of theirs, but "censorship" is not one. "Cowardice" is more accurate. Right-wing students and aging national treasures are perfectly free to hold and express opinions, but freedom of speech also includes other people's freedom to disagree with them – including protests and demonstrations.

3. Freedom of speech does not mean that you’re not allowed to challenge authority. On the contrary – the principle of free speech is all about our right to challenging authority, including the authority of employers, educators and political candidates.Too many liberal public intellectuals seem to have forgotten that this process did not end in 1968.

4. Freedom of speech does not mean that all citizens already enjoy equal access to free expression and movement. The United States, for example, repeatedly congratulates itself on being a society that allows far-right racists to march, and even allows them a police escort, while young black men are murdered merely for walking down the street in search of snacks. Somehow, every modern argument for free speech in America seems to begin and end with the defence of bigotry. In fact, some people’s speech is always privileged above others’.

5. Freedom of speech does not mean that all views are of equal worth. The notion of a "marketplace of ideas" allows for the fact that some ideas are less worthy than others and can slip out of popular favour. The principle of free speech requires, for example, that we do not arrest a public figure for saying that transsexual women are disgusting – but it does not demand that we respect that public figure, or elect her to office, or invite her to give lectures. If what seemed progressive 20 years ago is  deemed intolerant today, that simply means that the world is moving on. 

6. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility for the consequences of your speech. Nobody else is actually stopping you from saying things other people might interpret as racist, or sexist, or transphobic. You are stopping yourself. And you're stopping yourself for a reason, because part of you knows that the world is changing, and it will continue to change, and you might have to change with it. You are allowed to make mistakes. What you can't do is ignore and dismiss the voices of less privileged groups and expect to hear nothing but polite applause.

7. Freedom of speech does not mean that "intellectual environments" like university campuses exist in a bubble outside politics. Universities have never been politically neutral. These are the same university campuses where young women are raped in large numbers, and  where the spectacle of young men marching into class with guns has become so routine reporters are struggling not to recycle news stories. And yet, somehow, it is not women and students of colour whose learning experience is deemed under threat – it is racism and rape culture that cannot be challenged on campus without calls of "censorship", or "political correctness run amok".

8. Freedom of speech does not mean that we are never allowed to analyse or re-interpret culture. The occasional use of "trigger warnings" on campus, for example, has been wilfully misinterpreted by those who did not grow up with them as an attempt to censor classic literature. In fact, trigger warnings are a call for cultural sensitivity and a new way of interpreting important texts. Which, correct me if I'm wrong, is part of what studying the humanities has been about for decades. Back in real life, nobody is going around slapping "do not read: contains awful men" on the cover of Jane Eyre. There are no undergraduate mini-Hitlers burning books in Harvard Yard. The people who've got carried away by outrage here are the people devoting endless column inches to denouncing trigger warnings. 

9. Freedom of speech does not mean that the powerful must be allowed to speak uninterrupted and the less powerful obliged to listen. Across Britain and America, students are organising to interrupt the speeches of transphobic and racially insensitive speakers. Black Lives Matter protesters have disrupted Democratic campaign events, demanding that their own agenda gets a hearing. Some of the most pernicious liberal attacks on the new radicalism imply that students and young people should never complain about the views of a particular speaker, educator or pubic figure, and that the place of the young is to listen, not to question, and certainly not to protest. ‘Respect My Freedom of Speech’ has become a shorthand for ‘shut up and stop whining.’

10. Freedom of speech is more than a rhetorical fig-leaf to allow privileged people to avoid thinking of themselves as prejudiced. Freedom of speech, if it is to mean anything, is the freedom to articulate ideas and the possibility that those ideas will make an impact.

11. Freedom of speech is the principle that all human beings have a right to express themselves without facing violence, intimidation or imprisonment. That’s it. That’s all.  It’s simple, it’s powerful, and it’s genuinely under threat in many nations and communities around the world. Somehow, those who are so anxious to protect the free speech of powerful white men and regressive academics fall silent when women are harassed, threatened and assaulted for expressing opinions online, or when black protestors are attacked by police. 

There is, in fact, a free speech crisis in the West. The crisis is that the very principle of free expression is being abused in order to silence dissenting voices and shut down young progressives. The language of free speech is being abused in order to dismiss the arguments of those whose voices have been silenced for far too long.

These are truths that should outrage everyone who pays more than lip-service to liberalism. In the name of free speech, those who have always enjoyed the largest platforms and audiences are defending their entitlement to do so without challenge or criticism. The free speech delusion has gone unchallenged long enough. It’s time to end this wilful stupidity.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear