On the Freedom of Speech, and the Death of Criticism

“They have fought a failing fight for life… stunted by the death of criticism.”

– W. E. B. Du Bois

The war on free speech and open criticism is being waged, with many a battle won, by the new group of regressive, liberal, leftist youth. They have support, obtained by social blackmail, they have defense, in mob justice and safe spaces, they have weapons, in form of slander and labels. Important, complex, and current issues cannot be properly faced, and not for lack of trying, by those who have something more than merely good intentions while the regressive left go on trying to prevent free-thought and free speech in the name of equality.


Part One

“Well I know this, and anyone who’s ever tried to live knows this: that what you say about somebody else, you know, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you; I am describing me.”

– James Baldwin

Racist. Sexist. Supremacist. Fearmongerer. Bigot. If you want to induce bias in anybody who might hear a discussion you are having with one with whom you do not agree, or if you seek to corrupt the chances of an opposing point of view having the opportunity of platform in the future when you may not be present to shout it down, there is nothing quite like a label. And preferably not an apt one. However, you may find those who you do not get through to taking that label and your act of using it as a small window into your own person.

Of course, Baldwin’s quote that starts this section does not always apply, need not be taken to the extreme – it is quite possible to describe another person or group fairly objectively, and to not be guilty of the thing you mention or worthy of the title with which you are labeling them. Fully in context, he is discussing the invention of “the nigger” by White America, how it is something that he has always known, agonisingly known, was not him, that it came from another persons fear and had been invested in him, by them. Now, I am not lumping the problem of race in America, and the history of that particular term, in with things like arguing on social media, the issues of college safe spaces and no-platforming of contrarians, or issues like Western feminism and gender identity. Nor am I comparing the throwing around of words such as ‘racist’ and ‘misogynist’ by regressives with the use, historically or presently, of that particular term. However, the speech, found here, inspires interesting thought on the psychology behind the act of reactionary, defensive, mass labeling, and the complete writing off of others that comes with doing so.

You do not need to have an ingrained contempt of women to find yourself criticising any or all of Western 3rd wave feminism. To criticise ideas within the religion of Islam is not to racially discriminate against and pre-judge those with brown skin. And so to throw, with abandon, and at the first sound or hint of simply the beginning of certain lines of thought and query, the words ‘misogynist’ and ‘sexist’, ‘Islamophobe’ and ‘racist’, is to engage in this tactic, used by both the far right and the far left – who, having both retreated stubbornly, eyes shut, fingers in ears, yelling at the rest of us, so far from centre that they now stand back-to-back, on perversely common ground.

Powerful words need to be reserved if they are to keep their power.

‘Misogyny’ is a very extreme and unpleasant, uncivilised thing, and diluting it by doing this –

disagreement misogyny; highlighting of issues facing men and boys misogyny; humour misogyny; nonacceptance of doctrine that does not stand up to scrutiny misogyny; women who are anxious about or do not want feminism internalised misogyny

– is to allow real chauvinistic sexism to get off lightly, and to alienate those who have a concern for women and girls, and may even wish to identify as ‘feminist’, yet refuse to tiptoe around or completely avoid the criticism, whether ultimately right or wrong, of the movement and its subscribers.

‘Islamophobia’ would be an irrational fear of Islam. Islam being an ideology, a doctrine, and not an ethnic group or race of people, and fear being a state of mind, whether irrational or otherwise, ephemeral or permanent, and not an act of violence or passing of law, Islamophobia is not racism. Racism is racism, and a new word need not be coined, particularly when all it ends up being used as is a tool for the daily conflation of actual racists and hate speech with concerned minds seeking to honestly explore a complex and important topic.

Powerful words need to be reserved if they are to keep their power.

The English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under her pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre, speaking on behalf of the subject of her book, Voltaire, but wholly in her own words and not his, laid out the preeminent quote on free speech and criticism:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Were Voltaire a modern regressive leftist, the English author S. G. Tallentyre, mere pseudonym of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, may have come out with a quote more along the lines of this:

I don’t know what you were about to say, but I will sentence you to death for attempting to say it.


Part Two

“Everything is very simple, childishly simple… Because that is what protects our nonfreedom, which is to say, our happiness.”

– Yevgeny Zamyatin

Dangerous ideas need freedom and room in which to either live or die; to incarcerate them, preemptively sentenced by a biased judge bought and bullied by the unlikely authoritarians – the liberal leftists – and trapped, deep, behind PC walls topped and barbed by intellectual cowardice, is to let them fester and deform. Now they are fated to break out, or to be freed by those who would use them, ideas institutionally hardened into the ideologies that you believed you were shouting down, the racism you thought you decried, the imagined call to violence and discrimination against which you viciously and false-righteously railed, all now freed and realised that could have been communally dealt with. Preying on the lost, the bewildered, the poor, the angry, the alienated, and the precariat, are those you really ought to have been fighting against, breezing through the breach you created when you shut down the truly liberal exploration of dangerous ideas.

In an arena of thought honest and clear, truly bad ideas can only die. But the opportunity for life must be there, and it must be real. Collective, diverse, scientific and thorough conversation, and yes it can still be impassioned and loud, is the weapon and the path to choose if you want to protect, and to progress: not the restriction of speech which you do not like, or are afraid of; not the no-platforming of any and all dissenters; not the deliberate misrepresentation and demonisation of (often barely) radical thought.

That arena, however, unfortunately, tends to not be entered by those whose ideas could really do with dying. In fact, were many of those ideas to enter that arena, instantly they would be dust, so thoroughly and plainly defeated as they already are. Yet, as it stands, holding their unwelcome bodies ever together are the distressingly resilient spectres of extremism and fundamentalism, spun savagely through the gaps left by fear and the holes bored by the noise that passes itself off as discourse outside of that arena. Evolution is only still deniable in that context; the acceleration of the natural process of climate change directly due to human activity in the twentieth century is only still deniable in that context; the threat to any kind of international human society by that context is only still deniable in that context.

Another quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin (all quotes attributed to him here are from his novel We: an earlier, and, I think, superior, Nineteen Eighty-Four) reads:

“Knowledge, absolutely sure of its infallibility, is faith.”

And faith, over knowledge, is so rarely the best position to take. (A deliberate and considerable understatement.)


Part Three

“Hello, little girl – wondering if your dolly can ride the monorail for free?”

“Hardly. I’d like you to explain why we should build a mass transit system in a small town with a centralized population.”

“Young lady that’s the most intelligent question I’ve ever been asked… Oh, I could give you an answer. But the only ones who’d understand it would be you and me.”

– The Simpsons

Firstly, an aside: if anyone is thinking that a quote from The Simpsons does not belong among quotes from thinkers and writers like Hall, Baldwin, and Du Bois, and important literature like We, then you, my friend, are categorically incorrect.

When it isn’t indignant, righteous, and angry, the rhetoric thrown by regressives is supremely condescending, parental, and either unwittingly or deliberately insidious. Presented with all sides of a topic or debate, and given clear and fair explanations, children will confidently present queries and questions and thoughts which many adults, young and old, are now afraid even to whisper even to those who know them well. I do not believe you can cause a child to come to a conclusion that we know to be factually incorrect or morally dubious without lies, misrepresentation, psychological steering, and plenty of condescension. Perhaps this is where the Buzzfeed Guide To Creating & Preserving Small Minds found its way – treat any and all dissenters like ignorant children in need of correction, and attempt to make them feel awfully simple and simply awful for asking.

It often seems that children are so much less likely to believe in nonsense than adults. Perhaps they lie to themselves less, or cannot yet do so. Perhaps the childish question ‘why?’ hasn’t be disheartened and embarrassed out of them yet. They would rather face a novel and dangerous idea with the question ‘why?’ than run away to the pathetic safety that somehow young adults, and even older, have been coddled into expecting and feeling entitled to.

Despite deep tribal tendency, despite the sheer volume, in sound and number, of fundamentalists and extremists, and despite how relentlessly the news and the internet work to make it seem, human beings, individually and societally, tend unfailingly, ultimately, and always toward tolerance, peace, and good ideas. The freedom of speech and the presence of criticism permeate the spaces and time in which progress on those fronts is most spirited. And for all the dystopian stories of a society of thought-crime, Big Brother government, restriction of speech, intolerance of dissent and free-thinkers, and the cultural policing and incarceration of dangerous ideas, I never once thought that it would be the liberals, out there in front, arm in arm with hate and fear, heading happily down the path of actually bringing it about.

Why?


“Children are the only bold philosophers. And bold philosophers will always be children. So you’re right, it’s a child’s question, 

just as it should be.”

– Yevgeny Zamyatin


Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s