Nazis and Free Speech, Revisited

Brother Rod (not to be confused with Brother Rob, and definitely not to be confused with Brother Robb) has a piece in the American Conservative today, where he writes that:

But [Richard Spencer] being attacked on the street when he was doing nothing violent, and threatening nobody, is indefensible. Many on the Left are celebrating it. I’m not going to link to any of that violence porn. You can find it all over the Internet if you want to see it. It’s not shocking that there are people in the world who take pleasure in watching people they hate be physically assaulted, even when those people are doing nothing more than peaceably exercising their right to free speech. What is shocking, though, is a mainstream magazine publishing a piece praising the act.

He goes on to quote an article from the Nation which praises Spencer’s attacker, which he calls “shocking and contemptible.”

This is something I’ve been very concerned with. Last year, I wrote an article about it. More recently, I tweeted about it in response to something from Gerry Duggan:

My issue, as you can see, is the notion that if we take it upon ourselves to the be arbiters of free speech, then it’s not really free speech. To put it another way, if we support free speech when we say something but not when someone else says something, then we don’t really believe in free speech; we just happen to run parallel to it. Obviously, this concerns me, as the defense of Liberalism (note: this kind, not this kind) is one of the most important battles we’re going to fight over the next four years.

But something occurred to me when I was discussing this issue with an extraordinarily bright philosophy professor: if threats to liberalism can go unanswered because of appeals to free speech, what does that say about our priorities? Is freedom of speech the most important element of Liberalism? Is it more important than Liberalism itself?

Is freedom of speech the goal? Or is it merely a tool? Is it the ends, or is it the means?

Is the goal of Liberalism to structure society in such a way that everyone can have free speech? Or is free speech a vital and useful mechanism to allow a Liberal society to flourish? In the same way that Amartya Sen talks about market freedom as a means towards development, rather than the end of society, free speech is a way in which societies can grow and expand.

If that’s the case, then we should recognize that there is harmful speech. There is speech that is explicitly dangerous to the goal of universal Liberalism. And when we hear that speech, we must decide what we want to defend more: the goal of Liberalism, or the tool used to defend it?

This has deep implications. When Ben Shapiro says that “I’m not in favor of the idea that all cultures are the same or that all cultures ought to be accorded equal respect,” I have a reaction of knee-jerk revulsion: Of course all cultures ought to be accorded equal respect! But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of anti-fascist action? Why are we fighting for Liberalism if we don’t believe it is superior to other worldviews? If we think all cultures ought to be accorded equal respect, why protest authoritarianism, totalitarianism, or the current kleptocracy?

Respect for other worldviews is a big part of what Liberalism is all about, but the fact that I despise fascism indicates that there is something deeper at play. If I believe Liberalism is better than fascism, then necessarily not all worldviews and cultures are equal.

But what if, like free speech, Liberalism isn’t the goal? What if Liberalism isn’t the culture we should fight to preserve, but is instead a vital tool for building towards a flourishing human society? If that’s the case, then we still have room for all cultures, all faiths, because everything and everyone has something to teach us and contribute.

As to what that society would look like, I have no idea. This conclusion is still half-formed and amorphous. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to really pursue it to its logical ends. In the meantime, don’t punch people, even Nazis.



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