What is Free Speech? What is this concept that both the Left and the Right fervently accuse each other denying? What foundations does it stand? And can this concept withstand a fervent shaking of itself?
The inability of this fascistic individual, Milo Yiannopoulos, to speak and enact his racist mind, and his blocked entrance to UC Berkeley prompted a “national conversation” regarding Free Speech. Though it is the opinion of mine, as well as many other anti-authoritarians, that the disruption disallowing a fascist individual wasn’t even about free speech, his strategic picking of targets is perfect. Milo Yiannopoulos, a “self-professed troll” as reported by the SFSU newspaper, isn’t interested in free speech as much as he is in quelling it.
How then, can it be said that Yiannopoulos is merely speaking his mind, and that his ‘offensive’ material from only speech – speech! – be unacceptable to a ‘regressive left’? The ability of liberals to unquestionably and amazingly go on Yiannopoulos side is due to this important distinction: because liberals ascertain speech as separate from action. For them, the reality of words, and the reality of action, are not the same – they are not together, and they nothing to do with each other. What’s even more questionable is the logical conclusion that the political State reserves the right to protect the individual to speech. As long as he/she does not act out his words, then it is ok. The Government will allow it. The Government is hailed as the Protector.
Never mind how rights from the State are essentially crumbs of appeasement to those who demand recognition to their views. Free Speech, at least as how the Berkeley Free Speech Movement aimed to do, was to question power, from the bottom-up. But from the view of those in charge, Free Speech seems like a logical thing to do – a way to hear the masses, their viewpoints, and perhaps adopt some views to make their rule more efficient, and more ‘humane’, and therefore legitimate. Everyone knows that bullets everyday on a rebellious people is politically unsustainable. When the people demand Free Speech for recognition and resistance, the State allows it to adapt and evolve its rule for its own sake.
Yet, a more radical approach of Free Speech, as it pretends to do, or imply, is an exchange of ideas. There is a strong part that echoes the concept of accompaniment, something observed and written about by Andrej Grubačić in The Zapatistas and the Wobblies. A genuine exchange or transformation inevitably, or more likely, creates a change, a transformation of perspectives of the individuals involved in the dialogue, whether it is merely by “speech” or not.
The radical approach has no room for false dichotomy, as the liberal logic of the state does. For a genuine transformation, speech is not simply words – speech is action. Speech. Speech is the means to action; it acts as a predecessor, and its expression; it is the active describer of it. The debate over “offensiveness” that is created by specific fusion of language isn’t what is at question. It is over a different paradigm entirely. For liberals, calls for genocide should not worry – only actual physical killing of whole of group warrants their own words to action. Yet, for those who question the State itself, for those not interested in the farce of “rights”, and for those who see speech and action as one and the same, Yiannopoulos has already begun striking before even speaking at UC Berkeley. Unfortunately, fighting the concept of “Free Speech” does a disservice to those of us who question the validity of and from the State. In the eyes of both the mainstream left and right, both of whom are encaged by the logic of either Hobbes or Rousseau, an attack on the State is portrayed as an attack of the illusion of freedom that it offers. I think that this spectacle, however, is fueled by the media, that simply can’t see outside the logic of the State. It puts these ‘controversial’ actions in the appearance as an attack of Free Speech, not of violence itself. When dissected, one can see the media reinforces this narrative, and the liberals are quick to distance themselves from “them”.
That language itself is not violence, nor action, is contradicted in its use of control and domination of other groups of people throughout history. The Kurdish people, for example, faced linguistic extermination by the Turkish State. In many ways, the Turkish language was modified to assimilate or utterly deny the Kurds of their ways life. Nicholas Glastonbury, who studied the effects of language upon the Kurds, noticed how their presence was denied by calling them “mountain Turks”. An effect of dehumanization, by language, and by seemingly unmeaning words.
This relates to Yiannopoulos in much the same manner. He is not concerned with his own rights, or the rights of others, for Free Speech. The SFSU paper noted he self-professed as a ‘troll’. Yet, I think it’s interesting to look at what that means. It literally means someone who is not interested in genuine argument, except provoking emotional outburst. When there’s a stage, where there is an exchange, the troll steps in, only to take the attention away from the real issues. A troll is loud, obnoxious, and disrespectful. A troll is not interested in Free Speech in neither the conception of the elites nor the radicals, nor anything in between. Hence the name, troll. A carefully built straw house of language between formal ‘speakers’ is always burned by a troll. If that isn’t true, then note his controversial statement of “Drop the ‘T’ in LGBT”. Is he not already engaging in an active erasure, or pushing for the extermination, of the transgender community?
Yiannopoulos’ conception of his own ‘free speech’ is construction of rich authoritarian contradiction. He would have us force his ideas on a laptop, and if we closed it, we’d deny his Free Speech; if we ignored it, or turned it off, or turn the other way, he too would claim his denial of rights happened, again. If one looked at it, then one would be forced to read or watch his immature and contradictory ideas with a disdain even higher than before. With the spectacle, and with the genius that Trump would embody, Yiannopoulos’ targets would always be a lose-lose. His engagements would turn to either one of these two tactics. That’s why, whether we like it or not, the turn of events at UC Berkeley was doomed to fail. For the Spectacle, who would portray the question of Free Speech instead of the long history of threats and violence by Yiannopoulos, would only post the mainstream thoughts again, and again.
The rise of a neo-fascist wing in the US is utterly disturbing. But the line between reactionaries who think they will be on the right side of history unfortunately fall into fascist ranks as they defend free speech, and in the meantime fascists acquire and gain power. Never mind Yiannopoulos needs the reliance of the State to act against other oppressed peoples, sometimes encouraging audience members to call ICE and get undocumented individuals deported. Never mind that his arguments on why hatred and abandonment of the transgender community is self-justified. Worst of all, never mind the liberals that defend him. What we have here is the State in all of its glory, and all of its contradictions coming out to save it. Both must go.