The best metaphor I have for the cultural “free speech crisis” we’re facing is that we have let the arsonists into the marketplace. We have welcomed in that which aims to destroy everything we’ve built.
I blame this blind welcoming of the arsonists on a pervasive mindset, originating from an unlikely place. The representation of this mindset (“ethos,” as I will refer to it) is a group I refer to as the Free Speech Absolutists (FSA). This term has gained some unironic notoriety online thanks to conservatives/libertarians who have taken it upon themselves to fight back against what they see as a persistent threat from far-left groups.
Free speech is in trouble, according to FSA’s. “SJW’s” and their allies are trying to silence anyone they disagree with. This silencing includes deplatforming, cancel culture, protesting/disruptions, and social media campaigns to get users permanently banned and fired/punished at their places of work. Simply put: FSA’s see any disruption or consequence of an individual’s speech as a violation of their free speech.
FSA subsist on a mutation. The mutation being a conflation of a legal right with a cultural value. It originates from a neo-libertarian view of public discourse. This neo-libertarianism focuses on preventing any restriction to the individual, at the expense of critiquing unhealthy cultural assumptions, lifestyles, and rhetoric. The most freedom for the most people is the highest goal. As long as you’re not hurting anyone with your behavior or lifestyle, you’re ok.
This view stems from the base foundation of libertarianism: the government is the ultimate threat to individual freedom and flourishing. To justify the exclusion of government from private matters, libertarians took an all or nothing approach. The government should only prohibit the violation of life, liberty, and property. This view was unfortunately coupled with the assumption that if you criticized the private realm (lifestyles, cultural values, social value-systems, etc), it was only a matter of time before you called for government intervention to fix the problem. This picked up steam during the fight for marriage equality. Many right-wingers saw marriage (and homosexuality) as a private matter. Libertarians saw government involvement in marriage as unnecessary. Culminating in a distaste for leftist meddling in the status quo of the private realm, especially if it required government intervention. As this neo-libertarian ethos distilled through cultural avenues, it transformed into catch phrases like “live and let live:” general denouncements of judging and criticizing other’s lifestyles, opting for a coexisting, “everything goes except for physical violence” outlook. Eventually this ethos ran up against alternative approaches that took toxic speech seriously, even if it’s speakers weren’t necessarily physically violent.
This is the world of microaggressions. Yet, broadly (and less infamously) it dismisses words as mere words, analyzing their usage and effects in various historical incidences, like genocide and authoritarianism.
Although discussions over the standards of acceptable speech in, say the workplace, is an appropriate one to have, this neo-libertarian foundation distorts the conversation. Plenty of employees are punished by their employers for what they say and do in and outside the workplace. Legal action might be required, but this is not a free speech issue. The relationship between a person and/or group to their employer is vastly different than to the government. The differences should be evident, yet are largely brushed over (or continuously elaborated over and over again to no effect) because this ethos is so prevalent.
The FSA’s neo-libertarian foundation perceives speech as mere words to be brushed off by a thick-skinned receiver. Responsibility is never on the speaker to accept the consequences, it is the receiver’s responsibility to avoid. If words are perceived as merely words then the receiver is never truly injured; they’re choosing to feel injured.
This inherent innocence of words is applied to ideas as well. Many an academic and commentator has justified dipping their toes in the waters of pseudo-science by decrying the irrational mobs who dare not touch such ideas. Ideas should be interacted with they say. Prohibiting the discussion of certain topics – even if dubious and historically flawed – is paramount to providing the kindling for burning the marketplace of ideas, they argue. The “leftwing mob” (as they like to say) has sectioned off certain topics as untouchable, topics said commentators argue has some scientific merit. When critics eventually come for their uncritical normalization of race science, the author’s cry intolerance. “We should be allowed to discuss any idea without consequences or oversight,” they shoot back. Even hosting a questionable figure is defended on the grounds of a shallow appeal to centrism.
Building on the discussion of ideas for idea’s sake, FSA’s believe debate is the only legitimate avenue for discourse in the marketplace of ideas. And even then, they will complain that they’re being unfairly targeted. The issue with debate, besides its entertainment-focused, IQ masturbatory format, is that it normalizes the issue at hand. To debate holocaust deniers, white supremacists, or race realists is to acknowledge their position as potentially correct and worthy of a platform to defend/share their views. Calls for debate are Trojan horses, providing a spotlight for malicious views disguised as an earnest gentleman’s dual. A call for debate also acts as blood in the water; shark meat. We all act like we know its pure entertainment; we pretend debates are proving grounds, or productive avenues for combating toxic and erroneous views.
This boundless platforming and interacting with toxic ideas is defended with the slippery slope fallacy. To restrict a toxic individual is to set in motion a series of events that will eventually affect us all. FSA’s therefore label any speech and platforming restrictions as authoritarian. The implication being, society is unable to set boundaries for what is and isn’t acceptable speech and ideas.
Unfortunately for them, society has thousands of established standards for what isn’t accepted. Generally speaking, it is unacceptable to use racial and ableist slurs, say a plethora of expletives, and burn the American flag. It is also semi-agreed that discussing politics, religion, and sex are problematic in most social engagements. I’d argue this position is inherited from a bourgeoisie value-system that values a guise of social placidness. Yet, this social expectation, although at times suffocating to specific minorities and groups, has not led to the eradication of all controversial topics at social gatherings. Certain individuals and groups disrupt this standard, or carve out space to safely discuss “off limit” topics.
This is why dismissing attempts at implementing new social standards of acceptability is insanity. FSA’s take a laissez-faire approach to speech. Unlike a laissez-fair market environment where individuals are largely free to engage in various business ventures and consumption patterns, a laissez-faire speech environment limits its members to mere indifference; censorship based on indifference. Everything goes because it’s too problematic to flesh out some standards. “Eh, who cares,” as they shrug their shoulders, “at least they’re not hurting anyone.”
The authoritarianism of indifference. That’s what FSA’s are implementing: an infinite acceptance of toxic speech and malicious ideas, built on the accusation that any criticism or attempt at gatekeeping is a slippery slope toward mass censorship. To make it worse, FSA’s focus is toward a handful of issues, all conveniently targeted by far-left activists and groups. It reeks of reactionism. FSA’s and their sympathizers argue they should be able to discuss race IQ “science,” refuse using a person’s preferred pronouns, and mingle with racists and vitriolic conspiracy theorists with no consequences. Absolute freedom, with absolutely no concern for others.
If Free Speech Absolutists are racked with irregularities and misunderstanding, and the broader culture has adopted a variant of this neo-libertarian ethos, what are some alternatives that promote a healthier understanding of toxic speech?
In researching toxic speech and its effects, I came across Lynne Terrill’s work on hate speech, and how language plays into genocide and other acts of oppression. Terrill is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, and has published dozens of papers on these and other subjects.
In “Genocide Language Games” (2012), Terrill looks at how toxic speech laid the groundwork for the Rwandan genocide, outlining how “a steady, deep, and widespread derogation of a group can be part and parcel of genocide, not only an antecedent to it.” Derogatory slurs, malicious metaphors, and “coded euphemisms” preceded the Rwandan genocide. In 1993, the extremist newspaper Kangura (Wake Them Up!) published its infamous article denouncing all Tutsi, coining the phrase “a cockroach cannot give birth to a butterfly.” Hutu radio stations conditioned Hutu listeners to extremist thinking, with broadcasts increasing their vitriolic messages against the Tutsi population. As Terrill points out:
“The context of economic distress, war, and political corruption and competition all contributed to the urgency with which the [Hutu extremists] developed their strategy to mobilize ordinary citizens to remove a minority of the population. Hutu extremists saw exterminating this minority as promising to relieve these stresses, and allow a unified Rwanda to emerge. As Andre Sibomana says, ‘The risk of a genocide gradually increased as the [Hutu] elite in power strengthened its domination by brandishing the ethnic threat, against a backdrop of economic crisis.’”
Terrill outlines that these slurs, propaganda, and euphemisms directed ordinary people to participate in “linguistic violence.” This verbal violence worked to break down their barriers to participating in physical violence against the Tutsi. Various forms of malicious rhetoric combined to identify, sentence, and carry out retribution against the Tutsi.
But words alone do not cause violence, nor do the words exist on their own. This is where Terrill’s other works come into play. The role of language in instigating the Rwandan genocide is a complex one. In “Toxic Speech: Toward an Epidemiology of Discursive Harm,” “Toxic Misogyny and the Limits of Counterspeech,” and “Toxic Speech: Inoculations and Antidotes” Terrill discusses the makeup of language broadly, and toxic speech specifically. For starters, language is inferential: it communicates assumptions and roles indirectly and directly. What we say, and how we say it infers a certain perspective and value-system. By calling a group “cockroaches” we are communicating how we, and others, treat said group (i.e. they’re an infiltration, a pest; deserving of eradication).
Language is also a game. Terrill clarifies that categorizing language as game does not downplay its importance and seriousness. “Language games tend to be serious, purposive, and goal-oriented,” she states. Language games are made up of three major actions: entrances, internal moves, and exit moves. Entering the language game is a matter of moving from what we experience and observe, to speech. Next, internal moves are actions that progress us further in the language game, closer to our goals. They are also built on inference. Finally, exit moves move us out of language into the world. Exiting the language game is where we see the atrocious results of malicious language. The transition from toxic speech to physical violation is an exit move. It is the acting on of our perceptions, regardless of whether they’re true or not.
Where the language game gets interesting is how we can challenge and block. Challenging an internal move in the language game requires the speaker to justify and/or explain their speech, effectively moving the game backwards. Over time, enough challenges might all-together kill the possibility of the move. Conversely, blocking does not refute or demand justification of toxic speech like challenging does. It refuses to accept the presuppositions underlining the toxic speech, thereby preventing the language move from being entered into the game.
Blocking and challenging are important tools in language games. Especially since players in the language game are not all equal. Language, as exemplified by toxic speech, can be used to effective results to demote, dominate, dehumanize, and dismiss others. Your social status affects your position in the language game; like how much respect and authority your words carry, how others perceive of your speech compared to other’s similar speech, etc. This inequality of language position necessitates the more powerfully positioned to push back against toxic speech directed toward the marginalized.
This inherent inequality in language games also applies to how toxic speech negatively affects different individuals, people, and systems. In the beginning of “Toxic Speech: Toward an Epidemiology of Discursive Harm,” Terrill advocates applying a “medical conception of toxicity to speech practices.” This entails finding “inoculations” against toxic messages, making toxic inferences, how a toxin’s effects vary, and how they spread. Just like a toxin doesn’t exist in isolation, neither do the terms we use exist outside the networks of terms that infer socially sanctioned roles.
The implications of viewing bigoted and hateful speech as akin to a bodily toxin is utterly antithetical to the neo-libertarian ethos. The ethos’s indifferent coexistence cannot subsist in an environment where words have serious consequences, perceptually and physically.
In this light, Trump’s rhetoric on illegal immigration, Hispanics, and related immigration issues (i.e. visa limits, asylum seekers, and immigration bans) is partially responsible for the current atrocities in immigration detention centers. It is a path of incitement and normalization of violence.
Trump’s rhetoric utilizes inferential roles and common fearful stereotypes. The effect is both a signal to his base, and a preconditioning element for future exit moves. Trump utilized this rhetoric from the very beginning. As evidenced by this famous quote during his presidential campaign announcement, in June, 2015:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
This statement paints incoming Hispanic immigrants as dangerous. It attacks the picture of the needy and victimized immigrant looking for a better life in America, opting for one of infiltrator and criminal. A useful justification for mass detention in horrible conditions. The libertarian think tank, The Niskanen Center highlighted the implications of Trump’s contrasting language toward immigrants and ICE:
“Trump’s demonization of immigrants and celebration of ICE change policy de facto. Trump’s words have sent the message of ‘anything goes’ to ICE and ‘you should be scared’ to those who might be vulnerable to ICE. Both messages have been heard. ICE has become so aggressive in its tactics that a federal judge described it as ‘treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away.’”
Trump’s recent comments on July 14th toward New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley that “they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” build on this rhetoric. Despite the obviousness that all three representatives were born in the US (and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar became a citizen at age 17), the inferences are clear. People of color are perceived as foreigners; in Trump’s case, foreigners from trash countries. The connection to crime-ridden countries further builds on the perception of non-white immigrants as a dangerous addition to the US. Trump’s tweets on July 15th that the same congresswomen are communists, anti-semitic, and “hate their own country” reinforces this image of the non-white immigrant as subversive and dangerous. Highlighting the foreignness of the representatives one day, and accusing them of hating their country (i.e. America) the next looks like a contradiction at first. Yet, it signals the inherent foreignness of people of color in Trump’s mind. The implications being female people of color who don’t toe the line will always be the “other,” no matter where they were born. The fact that we have to debate whether Trump’s racism is racist only proves how detached we are, as a society, from the implications of toxic speech.
Building on top of Trump’s racism and xenophobia, his reaction to far-right and white supremacist terrorism only furthers the inferential language games he is playing (along with a sizable amount of the right-wing punditry, including Fox News). Responding to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August, 2017, Trump said that there were “very fine people, on both sides.” The contrast of Trump’s reactions to white supremacist terrorism, and to immigration signals a hierarchy of threats: white supremacist terrorism is not a significant threat, compared to illegal immigration and immigration from Muslim majority countries. This is in spite of an increase in far-right domestic terror attacks, starting in 2012 and quadrupling between 2016 and 2017 according to a report by CSIS. Conversely, immigrants of all stripes are significantly less violent, use less government welfare programs, and are a benefit to the economy.
Trump also has a history of inciting physical violence during his presidential campaign rallies. Comments like, “The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of,” and condone and incite further violence. You can see a map of every documented instance where Trump, his supporters, or staff harassed or attacked minorities. Trump is also no stranger to misogynistic and sexist speech, as this long list shows.
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Terrill points out, in “Toxic Misogyny and the Limits of Counterspeech,” that misogynistic and sexist speech “undermines individual and social growth and development,” causing social, psychological, and economic harms to women’s sense of well-being and physical safety. Terrill pulls from Catharine MacKinnon’s “Only Words,” that hate speech and specifically misogynistic speech should be seen as discriminatory, not just defamatory. The more vulnerable (underprivileged, minority, etc) you are in society, the more you pay for the free speech of others. Simultaneously being unable to exercise your free speech as effectively or forcefully as others (a point I elaborated on earlier in terms of the inequality of language games).
This reinforces the necessity of bigoted and malicious speech as a toxin that will eventually cause physical damage (or already has). Deplatorming, moderation, and exclusion of certain speech and groups transforms from a slippery slope to a preemptive medical treatment. It should be noted that none of this requires the intrusion of state censorship. Current issues over free speech are inherently social. Not to mention free speech, as a social value-system, has never been absolute. FSA’s have no conception of what an absolute free speech environment would look like. More importantly, the focus should not be on implementing an absolute value-system, but focusing on positive implementations of social censorship. For example, a negative implementation is the silencing of LGBTQ+ identities and trauma to upkeep a hetero-patriarchal environment. A positive implementation is permanently blocking trolls (like Milo) who threaten and harass users, and weaponize their followers to exert a tsunami of trolling.
In conclusion, the neo-libertarian ethos behind Free Speech Absolutists is unconducive to a healthy and productive public forum. A popular metaphor for the public forum is the marketplace of ideas. A safe and productive marketplace does not welcome arsonists, nor do they allow false advertising and dangerous products. This is for the benefit and safety of the buyers and sellers. The only beneficiary of false advertising is the person trying to make a quick buck before their customers figure out it was all a sham. Arson only benefits the perverse passions of the arsonist. Neither of them has a right to inhabit the marketplace. Legitimate businesses and customers do not owe them anything.
FSA’s are making matters worse by carrying water for these malicious actors. Words have implications, both for future speech and actions. Our discourse is being poisoned, and we refuse to treat and reverse it.