Edgelords with thin skins: on the difficulty of free speech absolutism and “the right to discuss ideas”

DC Miller contemplates the nuances of libel law. Peter Marshall / Alamy Live News

A brief tale that might illustrate some of the difficulties of free speech absolutism as an ideology:

A few years back, a gallery called LD50 invited a range of far/alt-right and anti-immigrant speakers to address a conference. This drew protests from antifascists, who felt that the words of speakers were likely to have harmful consequences in the real world, as illustrated by the fact that Brett Stevens, once of the invited speakers, had been cited as an inspiration by the fascist mass-murderer Anders Breivik.

These protests were then counter-protested by one Daniel “DC” Miller, who held up a sign saying “the right to openly discuss ideas must be defended.” Fair enough: I don’t agree with the kind of free speech absolutism that says free speech is an absolute good that must be upheld above all else, without any regard for other considerations, but I have some respect for anyone who can stick to it as a consistent principle.

Earlier this year, when Nina Power – who, just to stress, I have a lot of respect for based on her past writings and activity, even as I find myself strongly disagreeing with some of her recent decisions – revisited some of these issues, she phrased it as “the question of what can be discussed, and where, and by who. Can we all talk about anything everywhere?

Well, now we have an answer of sorts. Miller and Power are now raising funds to sue one of their critics, an antifascist named Luke Turner, for libel. Apparently they feel that Luke Turner calling Miller a nazi is the sort of speech that could have harmful consequences in the real world, and so the law should be used to prevent Turner from being able to talk about his belief that Miller is a nazi anywhere. In other words, Turner’s right to openly discuss his ideas on this subject must be suppressed, not defended.

Being generous, I hope that this will be a moment of learning and growth for Miller. After all, now that he’s not a free speech absolutist anymore, perhaps now would be a good time for him to rethink the LD50 argument, because if he finds Turner’s speech to be so harmful and distressing that he wants to prevent it, then maybe he’ll be better able to to understand and appreciate why other people might want to prevent fascist and anti-immigrant speech and organising?

Because the alternative would be for him to end up at a position where free speech is good and must be defended if it involves fascists and white nationalists saying horrible things about immigrants, but bad and must be suppressed if it involves antifascists saying horrible things about him and his friends. Readers can draw their own conclusions about how to characterise that sort of position. But be careful about saying them out loud, because you might get sued.

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6 Responses to Edgelords with thin skins: on the difficulty of free speech absolutism and “the right to discuss ideas”

  1. ninapower says:

    “Turner has repeatedly claimed that I’m a violent neo-Nazi under police investigation for making death threats against him. Turner has also claimed that I’m the author of an article entitled ‘Towards a Hitlerian Disability Politics’ in which I call for the state-mandated euthanasia of disabled people.”

    If you think lying in the name of ‘anti-fascism’ is about ‘free speech’, I don’t know what to tell you. Do you think this is acceptable if you are committed enough to the cause? Do you think Turner is a sincere ‘anti-fascist’?

    • First off, thank you for taking the time to reply – I recognise that we have pretty major differences here, but, for whatever it’s worth, my criticisms of you genuinely are coming from a place of respect and compassion (or at least trying to be as compassionate as possible, of course I don’t get to choose how my words are received), so I hope we can still discuss things respectfully.
      I don’t think “free speech” is a particularly helpful concept to use in most situations and I try not to rely on it too much, but yes, I think that most defences of “free speech” involve a willingness to defend speech that is “bad”. I did not think that Miller’s defence of LD50, or yours if that’s a position you now share, was based on claiming that everything Peter Brimelow or Brett Stevens said was true or defensible.
      I don’t really know Turner at all so I’m not best placed to judge his sincerity. In general, I think it’s good to assume that people are acting in good faith unless there’s very good reason to do otherwise – of course, assuming good faith and sincerity in people very much does not rule out them also having poor judgement, behaving in totally counterproductive ways, being generally difficult to get along with or be around, and so on.
      But maybe my phrasing was too polemical and provocative, so I’m happy to rephrase if it helps. Making that phrasing less loaded, I’m still worried that Miller, and you, seem to be approaching a position where free speech is good and must be defended if it involves people saying horrible things about immigrants, but bad and must be suppressed if it involves people saying horrible things about you and your friends.
      I’m not claiming that all of Turner’s speech is good speech that I want to stand by, but I am still troubled by what seems to be a double standard where you can legitimately object to the harmful consequences of Turner’s speech, and seek to prevent it in order to avoid further harmful consequences, but people who object to the harmful consequences of Brimelow’s or Stevens’ speech, and seek to prevent it, are just malicious authoritarian cancellers or whatever. Can you see where I’m coming from there?

  2. ninapower says:

    There is a clear difference between saying ‘horrible things’ and saying untrue things. Have a look at the Athens Bienalle letter in response to the tactics I and others oppose: http://athensbiennale.org/en/uncategorized-en/defamation-and-false-information-an-answer-to-luke-turners-open-letter/ I think a lot of the problem at the moment is that the terms ‘bigot’, ‘fascist’ etc are being thrown around by people who just disagree, not because these terms are remotely accurate, historically or otherwise. I think we should talk to people we disagree with to convince them how and why they are wrong, not expand cancelling/no-platforming etc. to punish everyone for every last perceived transgression or disagreement. In the first place, who gets to decide who is and isn’t a ‘fascist’ and who doesn’t deserve to be heard? There is a serious authoritarianism at work in that impulse which to my mind is dangerous: we are all just people, we can talk, we can disagree. I’m a free-speech leftist I suppose: I further think that we need to be able to encounter difficult ideas outside and in ourselves the better to bring them into the open, to, amongst other things, laugh at ourselves and each other, at our mistakes and flaws, to work out whether we actually disagree or not. I think social hatred is upped the more we tell people they are ‘fascists’ or ‘bigots’ and people are pushed further into extreme positions.

    • I don’t think there is a clear difference. I think a lot of this revolves around subjective judgements, and I’m not sure there’s a clear line where we can say “these people are objectively the bigots, these are the people who are objectively not bigots, and anyone who says that they are is a malicious liar.” I think that the people calling other people bigots tend to genuinely and sincerely believe that the people they disagree with are bigoted, and even if you think their judgement is wrong on that score, I’m not sure it’s so easy to say that they’re liars. At least on that point, there might be specific factual claims that are easier to prove or disprove.
      But to come back to the “clear difference between saying ‘horrible things’ and saying untrue things”, let’s take a look at a recent article from Brett Stevens – and this is by no means the worst of his output, just a very recent one I could dig up without having to trawl through too much of his crap: http://archive.is/zbuMg “diversity plus democracy means minority takeover, which means that the faster-breeding but lower IQ population will displace, outbreed, and then genocide through interbreeding the founding group.”
      When you distinguish between “horrible things” and “untrue things”, are you defending this kind of statement as being in some way true?

      And again, “I think we should talk to people we disagree with to convince them how and why they are wrong” – I’m happy to talk to you, I think and hope it’s still possible for us to talk productively. But, if you’re serious about practicing what you preach, then you need to talk to Luke Turner and settle your disagreements amicably that way, rather than relying on the law. Perhaps it’s not possible to do that. But if it isn’t, then it feels like you’re on shaky ground telling others that they should do something you don’t think is possible yourself.

      I think that all kinds of people are constantly making decisions about who does and doesn’t deserve to be heard, and I’m not convinced that people doing that on the grounds that they think someone is a fascist is any more objectionable than any of the myriad other reasons why people decide that someone is or isn’t worth listening to, promoting, amplifying etc.

      And, of course, when you use the courts, there’s a simple answer to your question: the judge, that’s who decides which speech gets to be heard and protected and which speech is libellous and gets suppressed. I think if you really want to be open to encountering difficult ideas (like Brett Stevens’ opinions on the great replacement?), you have to accept that people will say things that you consider to be both horrible and untrue.

      Did you go to any of the climate strike stuff today? Like, I would generally recommend everyone should do that as a worthwhile thing, but I would specifically say that it might be a good thing to be for you to experience being part of a very large crowd of people, the vast vast majority of whom would have no idea who you or Luke Turner or Daniel Miller or Daniel Keller or Deanna Havas or the organisers of the Athens Bienalle (etc, etc) are.

  3. ninapower says:

    Well – I’m happy to talk to anyone, including you, whoever you are. I asked all my detractors (anonymous letter writers, people who emailed institutions to get my no-platformed etc.) to meet me (I would pay their train ticket) repeatedly. They did not do so. Talking would be a lot better than using the internet to take out people you disagree with. If people are repeatedly lying in order to smear you and many others because they disagree with you, they won’t talk or meet with you, they encourage people to lose you work based on lies, it is difficult to know what to do. Forgive me – but your ‘go on a protest! you’ll forget about your own petty life!’ thing is very patronising. It is possible to do multiple things at once in the name of bringing about a more just world, and you can hardly accuse me of not being a supporter of protest.

    • Yeah, I appreciate your situation is a difficult one. I just feel that there’s a lot of other situations where there are equally important barriers standing in the way of the “just talk it out” approach.
      No patronisation intended, it was more in the spirit of “this afternoon I was briefly part of something I found inspiring and uplifting, it’s an experience I imagine you would probably have appreciated too.” Although, having said that – phrasing it as “you’ll forget about your own petty life” makes it sound a bit absurd and unhelpful, but if we rephrase it as “you’ll forget about the fairly tiny milieu that all this is playing out in”, I don’t think it sounds quite so daft.

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