There’s a reason that unconditional support for the concept of free speech has been a defining characteristic of left-wing thought for centuries. Beyond the principle of the thing – and the principle certainly matters – there is the matter of power. And there’s a very simple fact about power: when power is given, power will be used.
Those now making arguments against free speech, ostensibly from a “left-wing” position, are seeking to expand the authority of the system – a system they themselves on other occasions will characterize as oppressive, inherently reactionary, and so on. Yet somehow they imagine that when they give more power to that system to control speech, to prohibit “offensive” ideas, to punish verbal transgressions in a material way (such as taking away someone’s ability to make a living), that this additional authority will be used for progressive purposes only.
One is reminded of those defending President Obama’s expansion of the surveillance apparatus who were then shocked to realize said apparatus would be inherited by President Trump, desperately urging Obama in the last days of his presidency to dismantle what he’d spent years building. As it turned out, political structures that are useful to the system don’t just go away when the superficial flavour of politics changes. Systems don’t let go of power.
Every inch of ground you cede on the matter of free speech will come back to haunt you. Every “victory” against a despised individual will turn to ten people whose work you value being fired for views you never thought were controversial. Every protection against hate speech will be used to silence criticism of those who thrive on hate.
There are countless examples already. There will be many, many more as the world slides deeper and deeper into crises that cannot be resolved without systemic change.
The structures of authority in this world are not on your side. Whether it’s the government or the university board – their interests are not your interests. Yes, they will happily go along with your campaign when it’s convenient. They’ll tell you just how much they oppose sexism and racism, and how these new regulations will make everything better while coincidentally giving them more power to clamp down on expression.
Until you say something about police violence. Or Israel. Or a pipeline. Or the latest war. Or any of the dozens of topics that have gotten left-wing people fired or punished.
And do you think the far right will stay away from the tools you’ve handed the very system that helped create them? Do you think they won’t present themselves as the victims of violence and persecution? Do you think the system won’t find some “respectable” fascists who don’t deserve your intolerant liberal abuse? What could make anyone think that, when faced with an existential crisis, an inherently right-wing system will swing towards the left? When two groups are claiming to be oppressed and persecuted, why would the system ever support the one that is critical of so many aspects of society? Why not go with the law-and-order option? Why not go with those willing to defend the absolute rule of capital?
(Did you know that Germany, a country with open censorship of the arts, has a domestic security agency called the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which amongst other things is meant to fight Neonazis? Do you know what they actually do? They harass left-wing groups while funding and protecting Neonazis, even when they murder people. Germany, in many ways, is the perfect example of what English and American liberals want to create. Google “Alternative für Deutschland” to see how well that works.)
If you want to seize power and change the system at its core, defeat the opposition structurally, politically, and intellectually – go ahead, I’m with you. But if you think you can win by petitioning the existing system, by adding to its authority, then you are handing ammunition to the very forces that are going to destroy you.
Unless you compromise, of course. Those who oppose free speech most frequently do so because they don’t have anything to say.