The limits of a ban on hate speech

David Renton outlines some of the ideas in his latest book

For nearly fifty years, significant parts of the left, including the National Union of Students, have supported the principle of “No platform for fascists”. The idea goes back to the 1970s, and the physical threat posed by Britain’s then main fascist party, the National Front, to the left and to black communities.

Members of the Front attacked black and Asian people in their homes and their schools, they firebombed socialist bookshops and attacked left-wing street stalls. One NF fellow-traveller, Fred Challis, admitted that he had carried out over 300 violent attacks. Challis pleaded guilty to killing a homeless man with a gas cylinder, after which he had used the man’s blood to smear the slogan ‘NF rules OK’ on a nearby wall.

There were two ways you could justify refusing to allow members of the National Front to speak. You could insist that they were fascists, committed to the creation of a one-party state and the removal of everyone else’s right to speak – that is, defending the principle of free speech for everyone, just not for fascists. Or you could say that their speech was hateful, and likely to cause distress to the black people who were the Front’s main victims.

In the 1970s, these two justifications tended to coalesce – people banned the Front from speaking because they were fascists and because they were racists – and anti-fascists would slip from one explanation to another without seeing that they pointed in different directions.

Fifty years later, and under pressure from a right which is using free speech as a wedge issue to split the different components of the left apart, the left needs to be much clearer about who we can expect to no platform, and who should be doing the banning.

The “hate speech” justification for removing speech rights is extremely broad. It treats society as a series of isolated individuals each of whom is entitled to say “if X gets to speak, their language will be so violent – so hateful – that I will be treated as nothing. Surely my right to live must override their right to speak?”

This manoeuvre, the declaration of vulnerability and the need for protection, is a very old step in politics. It long predates the present time, and is a move which the far right is well versed in using for its own ends. Think of the far-right myth of white genocide – that the mere presence of black bodies in Britain or Europe or America is such an assault on white domination that somehow white people are behind excluded from their homes.

Or remember the way in which the Dutch far-right agitator Pim Fortuyn, presented himself in the 1990s – as a gay man, as the inheritor of the liberal and tolerant traditions of Dutch society, its acceptance of women’s rights and of gay male sexuality, all of which he said were under attack from Islam. He had to speak because, if he wasn’t permitted to organise, gay rights could not survive in a multinational and increasingly religious Europe.

Or think of the way in which interwar fascism justified the torture and killing of Communists (because otherwise they would destroy Italy and Germany), or the expansion of Italian military power into Africa (because Italy had no colonial possessions of her own and was a “proletarian” nation), or the use of weapons of mass destruction (the V2 rockets were Vergeltungswaffen or “reprisal weapons”), or even the Holocaust (which were justified by references to an imagined world conspiracy of the Jews).

On the left, we have what sounds like an easy answer to that point. We say that you need to look at the real power dynamics. Of course, there is no such thing as white genocide, of course the presence of Muslims in Europe is in no way an attack on LGBT rights, of course the political and racial fantasies of the interwar fascists were all myths.

But that raises the real question, which is – who are we addressing our appeals to? Can we trust them to see through appeals made in bad faith to grasp the reality beneath?

The supporters of no platform in the 1970s had a vision of student and working class and community power. If fascists were expelled from workplaces, this would be at the behest of trade unions, and over the objections of management. And the same principle applied to universities, and to multicultural communities in opposition to the police: this was the oppositional politics of people at war with capital and the state.

These days, hate speech arguments calling for the silencing of racists, sexists, homophobes, etc., seem to be directed at a much broader set of audiences – not just insurgent protest movements, but managers, courts, the owners of the social media platforms, etc.

What these bodies lack is any sympathy for the left’s insistence on the relationship between hate speech and social power. Think for example of the American political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher, who, annoyed by the claim that the mere presence of black people in that country amounted to an actual or imminent “white genocide”, decided to expose the conspiracy theory by pretending to take it at face value, and tweeted in December 2016, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” His employer, Drexel University, sided with the critics, calling the professor “utterly reprehensible” and “deeply disturbing”, and placed him on administrative leave. After multiple death threats and threats to attack his family, Ciccariello-Maher resigned his university post.

I am not arguing that every time a group of people living in a particular area are faced with a Holocaust Denier or similar in their community they should be obliged to debate with them. Such people have devoted their lives to a lie – they can be defeated in debate, but only by people who have spent long hours preparing for it.

Nor am I arguing that the victims of hate speech should be expected to sit in silence and tolerate speeches crossing the line into violence. Think of Milo Yiannopoulos, the British-born but US-based provocateur, who during a 2016 speech mocked a trans student, or at a 2017 event encouraged attenders to call immigration enforcement on local undocumented people, even publicising the phone number. If students were faced with a similar speaker on their campus, they could hardly by criticised for organising against him.

Rather, there are a series of effective strategies open to people, when such speakers are imposed on them. While recognising their right to speak, their platform can still be tarnished: by audiences slow-handclapping them, turning their backs on them, leading walkouts from their events. Protesters can book better-known speakers with a larger public profile to talk at the same time as theirs. We need to relearn how to embarrass a speaker and challenge their authority without removing a platform from them.

The problems of “hate speech” politics are intertwined – it’s not just that this approach encourages people to remove speaking rights from a wider set of people than can be justified, or that it treats authorities (police, managers, social media platforms) with greater deference than they deserve. The approach encourages both these habits.

On the left, we need to relearn old ideas of creating our own bastions under capitalism – our counterpower which we use to confront our own rulers. Banning hate speech is a weak and ineffective strategy for ever getting beyond where we are now to the future we want – where more speech is allowed, where the big monopolies are broken up, and where working class and oppressed people have the rights not just to speak but to be heard.

David Renton’s new book No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics was published by Routledge in June.

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