Monday, March 24, 2014

The Expression of the General Will


I know some people will assume I’m speaking to some sad fringe here. But I have been amazed at how mainstream these anti-free speech efforts have become. I have been amazed not just because of the immorality of trying to ban free though, free expression, and free assembly, or because these efforts reverse centuries of the assumed work of the left, but because of how easily this could backfire, in a world where our movements against sexism and racism and homophobia are still so fragile and contested. Ten years ago, the Republican party ran on a platform of opposition to gay marriage, and enjoyed enormous electoral success, and yet people trust the majority so deeply that they are willing to hand it the power to ban unpopular speech. My people: we are not nearly so popular or powerful as it can sometimes seem, when we engage with those we agree with online. Sometimes, the people who are arguing against free expression know that; they recount in terrible detail all the ways in which this remains a deeply unjust world. And yet when it comes to these kinds of political debates, they seem to forget, arguing always for a retrenchment back to the already convinced, and responding angrily to the notion that it is our responsibility to argue publicly and effectively for what is right. It’s a central contradiction of this movement, and something I’ll never understand.

A right-wing British guy I know explained it as well as I've ever heard — whether through a lack of imagination or memory, or just due to impatience, people who advocate such illiberal stances always envision themselves as the ones in power, making the rules. As if on cue, one of Freddie's commenters offers up a convoluted, weasel-worded attempt to justify the heckler's veto in a private institutional setting, such as a college campus. According to this special pleading, "members of that institutional community" might have a right to "occupy" that space themselves if they object to the speech being offered. As the aforementioned Tory would sardonically expect, it apparently never occurs to our hero that "members of that institutional community" who don't agree with the mob consensus even exist, let alone deserve consideration.