Immediately following the mass-murder of fifty women, men, and children at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, do you think that Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, or Ben Shapiro had a queasy moment scrolling through Twitter, hoping to assuage themselves that the festering maggot-infested slab of rotten meat who killed those innocent people hadn’t in fact been inspired by some cavalier Islamophobic bigotry those authors had once offered up? We all know that that beast in the White House doesn’t care, his whole goal from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh has been the wink-wink nudge-nudge stochastic terrorism which he hopes yet might still save him from the legal justice which the Constitution of the United States demands of his criminal presidency. But what of those more “moderate” commentators, not so easily classifiable as members of the right?
I’m not speaking of the openly fascistic, ghouls like Australian senator Fraser Anning or American representative Steve King, not to mention the denizens of the so-called “alt-right.” Men like Steve Bannon clutch copies of Jean Raspail’s fascist novel The Camp of the Saints while probably dreaming of the exact sort of horror that was enacted in Christchurch. That they’re in some way responsible for the global network of white nationalist terror which is arising seems undeniable. Articles such as this one always need to have that moment du jour where the author emphasize the evils of Islamic terrorism, as if there is anything not gauche about bringing that up in an essay about Muslims who’ve been murdered by a Christian terrorist. Of course, Islamic terrorism is evil, all terrorism is evil. But what also bears some repeating is that Islamic jihadism is not a significant threat to the vast majority of Americans. The good people of Peoria may fear Muslims, they may fear the mythic Mexicans of the President’s bogus border “crisis,” but what actually threatens the freedom and security of the United States is white nationalism. According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League, of terrorist attacks committed within the United States from 2009 to 20018, only 23% were perpetrated by Muslims, and a paltry 3% by the left, with an overwhelming 73% committed by right-wing zealots. So, let’s not forget that.
I won’t waste time conjecturing about the empathy of people like the American President – he has none and deserves less. Such a figure has ceded his responsibilities when he can claim straight-faced that violent white nationalists constitute “a small group of people.” For the powerful figures of hate who trade in fascistic rhetoric, and benefit from it, there can be no redemption. Asking such a person to condemn the white nationalism which is the base of his support is a fool’s errand; when the puerile, trollish manifesto of the mass murderer extols the current occupier of the Oval Office as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” I’ll take that infernal text at its word. Trump would never disdain such a man – he doesn’t want to alienate the last group to consistently support him.
No, I wonder about the so-called “respectable” pundits, those commentators who (with the possible exception of Shapiro) flit largely without problem among the denizens of polite, liberal society. Think about those heart-sinking moments after CNN breaks in with news that yet more innocents, human beings like three-year-old Mucad Ibrahim, teenager Sayyid Milne who loved football, or Hosne Ahmed who sacrificed herself so that her handicapped husband might live, have been slaughtered. Imagine that you’d often loudly declared, continuously, and with no sense of shame, things like Dawkins’ 2013 tweet which claimed that “Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today,” when Maher claimed without evidence that “hundreds of millions of Muslims… around the world” support so-called Islamic State (even when most victims of that evil cult are Muslims), or when Shapiro shrieked that the “Palestinian Arab population is rotten to the core.”
Now ask yourself, if you’d traded in that kind of dehumanizing rhetoric, if it had contributed to your spacious villa in Beverly Hills, would the moments after you read about the dead in New Zealand cause panic for you? Would your heart race, would you hear the pounding of blood in your head? Would your stomach drop? Would you have one moment of humanity when you prayed “Oh God, I hope that the murderer hadn’t been inspired by me, hadn’t quoted me, hadn’t tweeted me?” In those heart-sinking moments of worry, when one first learns that yet another group of human beings has been extinguished by a sociopathic moron hoped up on the drug of white nationalism, do the “respectable” partisans of casual prejudice towards Muslims ever stop to worry if it was their words that put the murderer on the road of terrorism?
We already know how one of those folks responded to such a scenario, when it was revealed that a terrorist who killed six worshipers in a Montreal mosque in January of 2017 was particularly enamored by Shapiro’s Twitter feed. With more than a touch of defensiveness, the pundit said that this was a “terrorist attack that had nothing to do with me,” and that any criticism of his frequent Islamophobic comments was simply “nonsense generated by the left specifically in order to shut down free speech.” Now, if you’d found out that a rabid fan of yours had shot six humans of the faith which you denounce continually, wouldn’t there – assuming that you’re a person of even marginal compassion – be at least one private moment when you think “Fuck…?”
When copycat violence resulted from both Anthony Burges’ 1962 classic dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, as well as from its 1972 Stanley Kubrick adaptation, the author said that it was a “novel I am prepared to repudiate.” Burgess valiantly led the fight to censor his own work, and while I’m not claiming that such a task is required or even particularly useful, I do think that that reaction is evidence of an uncommon moral core which Shapiro is clearly lacking. Perhaps charity compels us to argue that Shapiro’s defensiveness is merely a form of rationalization, an attempt to avoid the possibility that his words unleashed such ugliness. Even if that pose is understandable, it’s hardly admirable. One would hope that had the word salad of the Australian terrorist quoted Shapiro, or Dawkins, or Maher, that such men would pause a moment to take stock, and maybe shut the fuck up for a bit.
Were Maher to find himself quoted with admiration by such a terrorist, he could demonstrate some contrition with sack-cloth and ash in his eyes, and maybe taking a Trappist vow of silence. At least without speaking he’d finally ace the comedic timing which has so-far alluded his stand-up. Because Shapiro said it all: this is supposedly all about “silencing” and “free speech.” Such issues having become uncharacteristically the great crusade of the right and of “politically incorrect” liberals who think that being a dick is the same as being Lenny Bruce. Before offering any number of my own disjointed and inchoate thoughts on what the ethics and ontology of this fabled idea of free speech are, it’s worth puncturing some of the simpering pieties of conservatives who’ve suddenly pretended to be great defenders of free expression. When it’s their dogmas that are being screamed, those who fulminated about Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano all of sudden become speech anarchists.
As an appeal to ethos, I offer all of these observations as a literal card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. So first off, and it’s a little fucked up that this needs to be repeated, but apparently it does, free speech doesn’t mean the right to say what you want free from repercussion or consequence. It doesn’t mean that fascist public speakers are owed a platform, or the money from a university’s student activities fee. It doesn’t mean that, in true Orwellian fashion, the current administration should have the right to censure “anti-free speech” universities when they freely decide that they wish not to host certain speakers. It doesn’t mean that the massive platforms of Twitter or Facebook, whose cynical algorithms have contributed to the fascist radicalization of young white men, couldn’t vehemently police occurrences of hate-speech – which they currently don’t. Tech bros like Mark Zuckerberg can wring their hands about free speech, or Silicon Valley libertarians might say that deplatforming Nazis is counterproductive, but private organizations have the ability to define the parameters of acceptability on their sites. People can say whatever they want in their basement, or even wherever passes for Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner in America, but we don’t have to hand them a megaphone and thank them for the honor of screaming at us. The U.S. First Amendment only guarantees that government can’t intervene in censoring speech. Full stop.
That’s a profound legal reality, and one worth defending of course. But it’s also one that can lend itself to over-extension, misinterpretation, and category mistake. Those are the arguments that invoke the “spirit of free speech” as some kind of nebulous defense of saying whatever the fuck you want to say. It’s what allows Shapiro to be a bigoted little shit while pretending that he’s somehow Mario Savio. I’ve known, perhaps been, the well-meaning liberal who refuses to scrape the racist bumper-sticker off of a brick wall, worrying that such an act is tantamount to censorship. What I’ve subsequently learned is that in my living room I’ve no obligation to listen to an insane street preacher, and I’ve an obligation to try and protect those threatened by him.
I can’t be the only one to think that the bad faith conservative arguments about free speech have become tired; if I have to hear that sanctimonious bromide about Voltaire hating what someone has to say but defending it regardless, I’ll eat a beer bottle. “Spirit of free speech” defenses generally take four major forms. We’re told some combination which claims that unregulated speech is an unmitigated good because 1) if we don’t allow the Nazis to speak now, well then perhaps our own speech will be curtailed in the future, 2) that society requires a marketplace of ideas where every idea is given a turn, 3) that the only cure for bad speech is simply more good speech, and that a laissez-faire approach guarantees this, and in what is the most erroneous and insidious of claims that 4) speech doesn’t actually do anything anyhow, that words are irrelevant and language doesn’t matter. All of these bad-faith arguments are worth tackling in turn.
The first claim, a sort of ethical-argument-made-in-the-midst-of-a-hostage-situation, suffers under scrutiny. The idea that we should be tolerant of the intolerant, that we should allow platforms for fascists because they might be more charitable to us when they achieve their aims of dominance is a particularly imbecilic species of reductio ad absurdum. It should go without saying that Nazis are not particularly known for good sportsmanship.
The second argument, already disgustingly phrased in the totalizing metaphors of neo-liberal late capitalism, is guilty of the exact same fallacies as Adam Smith’s three century old economic theories. Just as capitalism has yet to produce some perfect brand of toothpaste that eliminates all others, so too is the logic rather shaky in assuming that truth can only be rendered by a spate of endless shouting. Absolutely nothing about competition in some imagined “marketplace of ideas” implies any achievement of ever-increasing capital-T Truth. This is the language of Hegelian mysticism, the old mythic chestnut that some engine of dialectic pushes us towards Absolute Reality. Ask yourself, what marketplace of ideas is required to endlessly argue about proven reality? Arguing and fighting against fascism is a sacred imperative, but such a task belongs not to the realm of epistemology, but of ethics. That fascism is wrong in absolutely all ways is already settled.
The third thesis is perhaps that which has the most to recommend for it, because as a matter of strategy it’s certainly true that censorship is the realm of charged frisson, of making things dangerously attractive and attractively dangerous. So much of political ideology, on both the right and left, is indebted to arguments over what’s the most subversive, what’s the most radical. As if such things were an end unto themselves and not simply a means unto the ends of greater justice. It goes without saying that this imperative of modernity, Ezra Pound’s insipid call to “Make it new!,” comes from the exact same market reasoning of the previous claim, as if ideological positions are simply an issue of marketing – of the next hot thing. But psychologically it’s true that radicalism has its own appeal, and that the forbidden will always draw acolytes by the very nature of its own prohibition. I have sympathy to the perspective that says deplatforming is counter-productive, that only sunlight can act as disinfectant. Such clichés don’t withstand the paradigm shift of technology that is social media, however, so that we need the prescience of the Renaissance cardinal who understood that without interference, the printing press would bury them. We have to recognize our new reality. When the terrorist in Christchurch instantly streams a live-feed of his atrocities we must understand that lamely misquoting Voltaire is its own sort of obscenity.
But it’s the final argument that’s the most dangerous, the most incorrect, the one that I believe in the least. To argue that words don’t do anything is an odious form of bad faith. Nobody actually believes it, because if we didn’t understand that those who string sentences together are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe, we’d never put verb after noun. You’ve probably encountered a form of bad-faith which is largely the purview of conservative political reasoning. These are the arguments animated by a profound type of sublimation, where gun-rights advocates can argue that “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” because the real argument of I don’t care if people get shot because I have a hobby is simply too awful. While such obfuscation about the actual nature of one’s argument animates the right, it’s not unheard of among liberals. When advocates of unregulated free speech claim Words don’t actually influence people to do bad things what they’re really saying is I value the idea of being able to say and enjoy what I want, and I don’t care who might get hurt in the process. Perhaps that’s even a fair claim! But let’s not pretend it’s not what’s been ventured.
Worrying about the significance and influence of art, oratory, rhetoric, and words seems to be the specialty of the scold, the schoolmarm, the nanny-state (notice the gendered language implicit there). For liberals of a certain age, fear over the influence of language on the individual human mind calls forth Tipper Gore with her demands for parental warning labels on album covers, or of Joe Lieberman fretting about violent video games. It seems moralizing, puritanical, and silly. Here is the thing though – of course music, comic books, videogames and literature have an effect on the human mind. Nothing has ever been done but through the enchanted, magical, occult power of words. I’m always amazed when writers – writers! – venture an argument that censorship is wrong because language isn’t dangerous.
Language, I’d venture, is the most dangerous thing. How many people have died and have killed because of words in scripture, because of words by demagogues? But how many people have also been liberated by equally powerful different words, have found freedom through the mystical power of language? Words have the ability to create that which was not there before, for both good and evil. As such an obvious truth, how could anyone ever claim that a song can’t affect a person to action, that a book or pamphlet can’t lead to salvation or damnation, that a poem can’t change the world? Whether we want it to or not?
If you don’t get tired of those who embody the woke “Social Justice Warrior” stereotype, endlessly intoning about microaggressions and privilege, then you don’t spend enough time on Twitter. There is something exhausting about outrage culture, a weedy stench of Puritanism in that rhetoric. Here’s the thing though – hit the kids all you want, at least they’re honest that words have power. Maher and Dawkins and Shapiro can smirk and wash their hands all they want, the so-called “Social Justice Warriors” have the balls to bluntly admit that words can kill. Maybe Shapiro, Dawkins, and Maher are misguided in mocking those activists, maybe they’d do well to embrace a writerly formulation of the Hippocratic Oath, promising only to target such invective against those in power who actually deserve it.
So, what do we do with this, how do we reconcile free speech in a world where a pustule can make himself a one-man television stream of pure evil and death? What possible defense of unfettered speech can there be? I don’t know. How’s that for honesty in 2019, when we’re all supposed to have automatically confirmed and entrenched opinions on every single position, from if Kevin Hart should host the Oscars to if Felicity Huffman should go to jail? What I do know, and what should be clear from my discussion of the legal issues, is that there are unproblematic ways in which media and technology platforms could better facilitate speech, ways in which we could stop falling for the trap which pretends a university not paying some fascist freak a stipend to give their subliterate speech suddenly turns them into Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
But when it comes to that more nebulous idea of free speech, of being the ruler of that divine kingdom of your own skull, of being regent of the sacred empire of the mind – what of that? All of the previous arguments for unfettered free speech fall short not just because they’re erroneous or ventured in bad faith, but also because their reasoning is so utilitarian. They pretend that free speech shouldn’t be regulated because nothing bad ever comes from speech, but a cursory examination of the entire history of human civilization demonstrates how incorrect such a supposition is. Presumably if such defenders would admit that reality, they’d be forced to condemn their treasured free speech. Such is revealed their hollowness, their cravenness. They love their free speech, but can’t grapple with the implications of the occasional evil it produces, and so they rather pretend that a hungry lion is always a cute little kitty cat. In short, they love not free speech.
Rather I say to you that words can do profound evil, and yet there is something still holy and sacred about the right to free speech at a deep existential level. Perhaps it has to do with the right to be profoundly wrong, the freedom to be a dipshit. Maybe it has to do with the sovereignty of the individual, a certain right to privacy whereby a human can entertain any manner of things in the domain of their own head and voice. I believe that the only argument for free speech is that it spouts from the inner sanctum of the human individual, of the unique person. All other defenses are pablum. I don’t know what to do with this. Because most fundamentally, and without this being a logical claim so much as a kind of prophetic, mystical apprehension, I feel that free speech must be connected to the powerful, beautiful, transcendent singularity of every human being, every woman and man who is in the image of their creator, every person who is but a universe of infinite complexity. Even if they’re fallen.
Here is the thing though – every human being is a universe, and evil words have contributed to the extinction of fifty of those unique universes last Friday. If we wish to engage our agency, our right to free speech, I’d like to give the last words of this essay over to nobility rather than degeneracy, light rather than dark, good rather than evil. I’d like to affirm that words have profound meaning, profound effect. I’d like to acknowledge that if such a thing is true, then we must choose words that sit in our mouths like sweet honey and that we swallow as pure milk. I wish my words to simply be the memories of those killed. Know that when that monster entered the Al Noor Mosque, he was greeted by an Afghan refugee named Haji-Daoud Nabi, and that in the last moments of his life, that elderly man exercised his free speech in an act of infinite beauty. Haji-Daoud Nabi confronted the murderer with a final two words on Allah’s earth – “Hello brother.” May Haji-Daoud Nabi’s memory be a blessing. May peace be upon his soul.
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.