Episode first released on 27 February, 2021. Available here.
We interview Irish scholar-activist Gavan Titley on his book Is Free Speech Racist?
Ani White: Kia ora, hello comrades, welcome to Where’s My Jetpack?, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. We broadcast from the No Fate Project HQ, Dyer Station Antarctica, on the last Saturday of every month.
I’m Ani White and we’re on the line to my sexually frustrating co-host, Derek Johnson.
Derek Johnson: Thank you, Ani, you’re frustrating too. And hola, comrades, this month we’re interviewing Gavan Titley, on his book, ‘Is Free Speech Racist?’ which deals with the contemporary corruption of free speech as a concept mainly deployed to defend racism and other forms of bigotry. So, last month we asked if Tankie politics are racist, this month we’re asking if free speech is racist. We’re open to suggestions of a third instalment in the ‘Is X racist?’ trilogy.
But first some rec’s…
AW:On topic I’m going to recommend the book this episode is based around, ‘Is Free Speech Racist?’ by Gavan Titley. It’s a great little polemic. Often I was thrilled somebody was finally saying this stuff in print, the sort of things I’ve ranted to my friends privately, it was good to see them in book form. And the ebook starts at just $10.
Also, a YouTube video, ‘Where do we go from here?’ by Renegade Cut. This is basically about the Capitol Hill uprising, attempted coup, whatever you want to call it.
AW: Yeah. It goes into the politics of it and who was mobilising, why they were mobilising and lessons to take from it. It was a good, straight-forward breakdown of it.
DJ: I want to recommend Robert Evans ‘Behind the Bastards’ podcast, parts one and two of ‘Mark Zuckerberg should be on trial for crimes against humanity’, showing how deadly Facebook’s hiding behind free speech truly is, and how inconsistent enforcement of the ToS (Terms of Service), that tends to punish the marginalised and the left, while giving cover to violent racists and Holocaust deniers, and enables election tampering, fascism, genocides, and persecutions around the world.
AW: An interesting example of that recently, the Capitol Hill attack, obviously after that, some of these social media giants were finally forced to do something but in New Zealand we saw some people echo talking points. I saw someone comment on a news thread saying: ‘we should be doing what they are doing at the Capitol here in New Zealand’ and I reported that comment and it did get taken down, unusually. But then soon after the National Party meme page – and this is the opposition party, kind of the equivalent to the Republicans – their meme page posted the same thing! Just saying, we should be doing the same thing here, we should assault parliament. That was reported by a lot of people and not taken down. So it’s interesting, this one random person on a news thread – saying it was illegitimate, but the meme page for a major political party – saying it was legitimate. That was a very interesting case of Facebook’s very often strange inconsistent Terms of Service enforcement.
We also recently saw Facebook strangely ban all news websites in Australia in retaliation against a law that sought to charge them for hosting news. So while I’m all for campaigning to no platform fascists, the fact that such a pernicious corporation is able to mediate access to information for so many people is certainly a problem.
But off the factual, I guess, my pop-cultural rec this month is the classic Spike Lee flick, ‘Do The Right Thing’. I think I’ve mentioned it before and to some of you, this will be very well known. If you’re cinema fans it might be well known to you. If you’re a Public Enemy fan it might well known to you. But if it’s slipped through the cracks, you’re not a movie buff or what-have-you, it’s very, very good. It’s a portrayal of a baking hot day in late ’80s Brooklyn with Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ blasting nearly non-stop and racial tensions building up to a crescendo. It’s just a movie that everyone needs to see, I think. Spike Lee can be pretty variable, I think he’s long past his prime but ‘Do The Right Thing’ is excellent. It’s firmly in my top five movies ever. So, for anti-racist cinema, ‘Do The Right’ Thing is essential.
DJ: It’s also based on a true story from before the time of that movie, inspiring police violence against a Black man. I would not just recommend this movie but recommend Public Enemy’s album, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, to go with this as well.
AW:One thing about the climax. I guess this is kind of a spoiler…
DJ: “Don’t spoil the movie!”
AW: Well you kind of already implied what happens but I guess there’s a debate about whether the riot is justifiable and the point that’s been made, I think by Spike Lee, was that, well, why don’t people talk about the event that triggered the riot? Why is it about whether the riot is justified? So I think that’s a thing to keep in mind at the end, not ‘is the riot justified?’ but about the event that triggers it.
Anyway, very, very good movie.
DJ: Also, I would recommend the Innuendo Studios ‘Alt-Right Playbook’ series on YouTube. It’s very good on how the alt-right is basically carried forward and gotten the same playbook that fascists have probably been using from the ’20s and ’30s, just updated it for the internet and meme culture.
AW:Yeah, it’s a lot of the devices that we’ll be talking about tonight, the ways that they win over normies. So it’s definitely worth a look – the very effective – unfortunately – talking points that they’re able to generate, I agree.
So these recs are linked at the blog post for this episode at Jetpack.zoob.net
For your meat-space recs: get vaccinated if you can, reach out to somebody if you need to, wear a mask over not under your nose. I see a lot of people wearing it under their nose.
DJ: Wear two masks they’re saying now.
AW: Right, well, at least cover your nose, and don’t talk to cops.
Derek Johnson: This month we’re interviewing Gavan Titley from Dublin, Ireland. Gavan is a senior lecturer in Media Studies in Maynooth University and a research fellow in the Swedish School of Social Science, at the University of Helsinki. His most recent book is ‘Is Free Speech Racist?’ by Polity Press, 2020, which forms the basis for this discussion. Other works include ‘Racism and Media’ by Sage Publications in 2019, ‘The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age’ with Alana Lentin, Zed Books, 2011, and the co-edited ‘After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, Racism, Free Speech’, Zed Books, 2017. His academic commitments have always been shaped by his engagement in youth work, anti-racist education, and campaigning.
Welcome to the show Gavan!
Gavan Titley: Thank you very much Ani and Derek, it’s a pleasure to be here, you know what I mean by being here but I’m here!
Ani White:Thanks for coming on. So, we’ll start with, what does free speech mean? And does it mean just one thing?
GT: It’s always good to start with a nice easy one. So, I’ve written this book with this not-at-all provocative title, ‘Is Free Speech Racist?’. But of course, a large part of the discussion in the book, or a large part of the clearing I need to do in it, is to find ways of thinking about free speech. Because I think that one of the ambiguous problems when it comes to thinking about free speech is we often talk about it in the abstract. We talk about the principle of free speech, we talk about the normative idea, and then when something happens, when there’s a conflict or an antagonism that seems to be about freedom of speech, it very quickly becomes a debate about the principle and we might lose what’s going on in the concrete conflict or antagonism. So it can be both an abstraction and a bit of a sacred object. When you start to think critically about what free speech means you immediately run the risk of being seen or being painted as being anti-free speech, which happens quite a bit.
So let me say at the start that I have a lot of sympathy for the way in which people, all of us in many ways, orient ourselves to the idea that free speech is important and free speech is good. Of course, it is. We wouldn’t be doing something like this if we didn’t have that kind of orientation. When we think about our personhood, our social being, we have that orientation in very basic and very valuable ways. So it’s a good orientation. But I think that the problem is the political abstraction of freedom of speech prevents us thinking about a number of things, not just what forms of freedom we’re talking about, but also a question which is considered far less which is, what do we mean by speech? When we’re talking about communication what do we seeking to valorise, what does it do in the world and how do we understand that?
So. one of the things is that if we think about western capitalist states, liberal social democracies, it’s broadly the liberal tradition that provides the touchstone vocabulary, the kind of ideas that people come back to and that circulate constantly in public debate for thinking about freedom of speech. But when we dig down into that tradition actually one of the things that we see is that freedom of speech doesn’t mean just one thing, very, very quickly we see very little of the cartoonish absolutism that you see as a position in contemporary political and media debates. So we can say that freedom of speech if it means one thing it means, I suppose, a kind of presumption of as much liberty as can be mustered for speech, and within the broadly liberal tradition that means speech within legitimate constraints. Again this is often left out of the picture when you think about capitalist property relations such as copyright – that’s regarded as a legitimate restraint. When we think of legal processes – perjury or criminal solicitation, these are regarded within these polities as legitimate constraints. The right to privacy and a good name, so in terms of laws on slander and libel, the same. So the notion of liberty for speech is already made possible by the kinds of institutionalised legal invisibilised restraints, if you like, which are placed on forms of speech. And so when we start to drill down, if you like, into this broadly speaking liberal tradition we start to find differentiated understandings of what free speech means very, very quickly. So speech is not just about speaking, obviously. If we think of controversies over symbolic gestures such as ‘taking the knee’ or, obviously very differently, Nazi salutes in public. These are recurrent free speech controversies which are non-verbal. And the freedom to speak is not the same as free speech. In other words, free speech requires a kind of dimension of publicity, the intent to communicate propositions to an audience and that’s what begins to forge the link to questions of democratic life and procedure very, very quickly.
It’s also of course then what connects freedom of speech to other closely related notions – freedom of the press, assembly, freedom of association – so in other words, a class of acts which are understood together. So that would be one way of saying that even within the tradition of which we mainly speak about freedom of speech, differentiations and complications start to become apparent very quickly. Of course, if we approach it from outside of that tradition, which I do largely, then we can complicate it and differentiate it much further. And I’ll just say a few things about that because I know that we’ll come back to these as we go along.
I think the first thing – because I do work in a Media Studies department and research Communications – one of the problems with the idea of freedom of speech as just one thing is that it makes speech into just one thing, and speech or communication is not one unitary thing and we don’t experience communication in this way. We don’t experience it as something which is simply free or unfree. So if you think, a lot of the times around the way freedom of speech is spoken about and something happens, and people argue, ‘well look, if there’s going to be a restraint there, that’s the slippery slope! Where are we going to end up? We need to protect freedom of speech before it becomes unfree.’ But in fact, if we think realistically about our relationship to speech and communication, just even first of all in the everyday world, what we exist within are relations of freedom and unfreedom, constraint and possibility, restraint and coercion, as well as contingent openings. So, in the relationships we have with others, the way that we speak and the way that practice freedom of speech are constrained in all kinds of reflexive but also often coercive ways. When we’re within institutions, for example when any of us are teaching a class, the way that speech is organised in that class and distributed in that class is not free because of the weight of institutional practice and the power relation between teacher and students. In the workplace in a whole range of ways what people say is in some cases scripted but it’s also something which is heavily ordered by the kinds of costs which are involved in speaking freely potentially. Everything from whistle-blowers to just the way in which one can become a subject of bullying in the workplace for speaking out of turn, or for being a union representative, or whatever it might be.
So we’ve got all of these forms of closure that we live with, and we’ve also got forms of what you could call foreclosure. If you live in or migrate to a country where you don’t speak the language and then you suddenly have to start negotiating the labour market and negotiating institutions, as you learn that language you’re not speaking freely in that language, you are foreclosed through those kinds of social-political terms as well. All of this, if you like, this more realist map of constraints and possibilities that I’m talking about is then of course then mediated by your position in the social hierarchy in all kinds of ways. Who listens? Who sees you as worth hearing or not? So, I suppose one of the things I try to lay out in the book is that speech is a far more complex terrain, it’s organised and distributed in lots of ways in all of our lives, and so yes there’s coercion, but there’s also restriction and limitation in all these shifting ways.
If we break it down that way, we can also connect it out, and this is the last point I’ll make on this one, which is that we very rarely then stop to relate freedom of speech to other freedoms or better still to wider questions of oppression and emancipation. If we do that we can see that huge amounts of people do not enjoy freedom of speech at all as a consequence of other forms of incarceration but they rarely appear to us as freedom of speech issues. So be it, incarceration, political repression, social marginalisation, any kind of meaningful access to a public space or access to or control over communication, and so forth. These differences have always been there and they’re already quite marked in different philosophical and political traditions but I think what is happening nowadays is that presuppositions and ideas about what speech is and how free or unfree it is are in collision much more intensively with each other in the digital public space, if you like.
DJ: I was just going to point out that I’ve been in the American Civil Liberties Union, I’ve been on the boards there for a while and we get into these debates about free speech. I know for a lot of people they have to explain about the limitations on the First Amendment, that we have to accept when it comes to protest, volume, and place. And what’s so funny is the arguments I’ve gotten into with fellow Americans and other people in the ACLU and other places where they’ll be like “free speech! free speech!” But I’m like, “technically in America we have no free speech but.. you know *asterisk*”, to make the distinction between what rights you do and do not have and what exceptions that we, of course, accept under the First Amendment versus absolute free speech. A lot of people tend to vacillate between First Amendment and absolute free speech arguments, not knowing or unconsciously, and they tend to lean really hard on speech being completely absolute. I think that’s really hurt a lot of this argument and I see some people jump into that.
What political purposes do contemporary calls for free speech serve in light of these kind of things and what you’re saying?
GT: Yeah, it’s a really good point you’re making and there’s obviously a really complex and interesting history around the ACLU and these debates. Just to add one last bridging point, I think that’s important as well when you talk about the First Amendment, not just in its legal scope, the fact that many of the restrictions which are involved are also less debated. But also it’s a kind of a cultural sign which guides debates about how people think about free speech and how they orient themselves to it. You have versions of that in different cultural-political territories, so there are also cultural ways in which the debate around free speech is posed, I suppose, which are different while also being very transnational. The First Amendment will be made reference to all over the place, in terms of how these debates have taken shape over the last few years. Maybe one way into that is exactly the question you asked, which is what political purposes do these contemporary calls serve? One of my motivations in writing the book or in thinking about this, and it maybe wasn’t the central motivation because I’m not very wedded, as you can tell, to freedom of speech as a kind of notion in the way it’s hegemonically talked about, but it is a problem that it’s not just trivialised but ideologically instrumentalised in the ways that it is so successfully instrumentalised. And so starkly done by the same kinds of performers and the same kind of political operators, or political entrepreneurs, and the same kinds of spectacles which are shaped across a lot of different contexts around us at the moment.
So I think it’s an important question and I think it’s an important question as well for one of the things we might get into. Which is the call – which is very understandable broadly speaking on the political left, to take back free speech. Which I agree with this at a sort of emotive political level but I don’t think it’s so simple, either intellectually or politically, until we have worked through why forms of appropriation have been so successful, particularly on the political right and the far-right and then this wider sort of political instrumentalisation we’re talking about. We might get into some of that stuff, a bit of a more general answer first. I think the main purpose of it is to create political space, and the reason why I attach it in my argument and in terms of this discussion to particular kinds of politics is that it’s a very good way of creating political space, for attempting to legitimate or reanimate reactionary ideas and particularly, as we’ll get into later on, we get into race and histories of racial science and racial thought. So on the one hand, there’s this sort of political reflex but that political reflex can’t be understood without the idea that it’s also about commanding attention in a media space where communication, opinions, hot-takes circulate at speed in irrational abundance. It’s impossible for any of us to keep up with one hashtag, nevermind the totality of debates on any kind of issue. So lots of actors, lots of opinions, lots of fragmentation. We all know the cliche, maybe, of the high-profile columnist who’s been silenced across their many syndicated columns and media appearances, and it’s absurd as a performance but the hypocrisy doesn’t matter too much because what this does is it attracts sufficient attention. It’s a way of engaging and mobilising already quite partisan audiences. It’s a way of generating content through reaction, all of these things that we know. But I think there’s also maybe a moral pay-off on claiming freedom of speech in these ways. To be clear, freedom of speech where people are claiming that their freedom of speech is endangered or that they are being silenced when there is simply no material or political evidence of coercion of any kind. It’s simply about creating space and deflecting criticism.
So within that, there’s a couple of things which are useful for thinking about later on. The first is that this produces a certain kind of public positionality, which is not just that ‘I am being silenced’ – so this is about my rights and my autonomy but ‘what I have to say is being unfairly and irrationally marginalised or silenced or dismissed without being engaged with.’ So, in other words, ‘the taboo-breaking things that I have to say, the unpopular truths that I need to tell you are being silenced because my opponents can’t deal with them, my opponents don’t want to debate them.’ What you find in that is a kind of an echo of the way that in someone like John Stuart Mill, when he looks at the value of heterodox ideas and minority voices he proposes that these must be especially cherished because they have a particular consequentialist value. In other words, they test the truth, they can contribute to knowledge through the fact of the odd ideas that they might throw up that we need to deal with. They contribute overall to the kind of democratic value of freedom of speech. So what a lot of actors are trying to claim is a version of that sort of heterodox status, that what I have to say, even if it may be the same reactionary talking points about migrants or about trans people or whoever it is this week, even if we know and can predict what that content is in advance, what they’re doing is presenting ideas that have a clear history, discourses that go around and around and around with some kind of deliberative or democratic value. They’re saying, ‘why aren’t you debating me? You won’t debate me. Can we not deal with the ideas rather than the ad hominems’ and so forth.
In the book I tried to look at that as a kind of labour relation, if you like, a kind of political labour relation of the digital age. Let’s talk here about racism, for example. Where people are subject to racism, one of the things that happens is that every racialised proposition or artefact that can be dredged up from the internet is then put forward as if this is an idea that doesn’t have a history. And that that history doesn’t define it and that idea hasn’t been marginalised or discredited through, not just intellectual work, but through political mobilisation and political opposition. What happens is then that these ideas are treated as if the sun rises for the first time every day and ideas don’t have a history, it’s nothing but speech and therefore you must engage with it. ‘Why won’t you engage with another debate about race and intelligence? Why won’t you engage with another debate about Black fathers? Why won’t you engage with another debate about what the Quran says?’ This kind of thing. I think that’s one of its main purposes in the way that it increases the inequalities of who can contribute, on top of the material inequalities, it increases the inequalities as to who can contribute in public and in what ways. What it also does is it detracts any kind of discussion from the way in which this is not just speech, this is speech as a form of a political act, but this is also speech as content creation. One of the things that’s happening in digital publics is that the sheer machinic production of speech, and then the machinic production of reactionary speech, is putting huge pressure on the heritage of consequentialist or deliberative heritage of thinking about how ideas circulate in public. It’s simply not possible for people to keep up with the demands for a debate and we all know if we’ve spent any time on Twitter, exactly how that works out as a kind of coercion, as a way of wasting people’s time. And racism, as Toni Morrison put it is also, very often about wasting people’s time.
AW: You discussed in your book how conflicting definitions of racism are expressed in the so-called free speech debate, can you explain that?
GT: Yeah, I suppose this is at the heart of the book in some ways, as I didn’t set out to write a book which is squarely about freedom of speech, because there’s just an enormous literature on that, though I have become more interested in some of these debates subsequently. But I wanted to try to look at this particular intersection with questions of race and racism, or let’s say more specifically the kind of politics of mobilising around naming and opposing racism in the societies that I mainly look at, which is partly the United States, much more the UK, France, the Nordic countries, that kind of thing. What I tried to set out is maybe a little complex to summarise but I’ll try to summarise it. If you think about a lot of the way in which racism and freedom of speech debates intersect, they intersect in a particular kind of way. In a lot of the academic literature, the debate is very much about racist speech and when racist speech becomes hate speech, and therefore when does it become something which is a particular class of act that it discriminates, that it humiliates, or that it can be an incitement to violence, or whatever it might be. Therefore the question becomes what are the kind of limits that should be placed on racist speech, and how is that defined, and who gets to define it, and all of these kind of debates. I’m kind of looking at something different which is to try to trace the ways in which anti-racism has become regarded as a prime form of censorship, of restricting the freedom to speak. Again, this has a lot to do with the kind of grifting I was talking about in the last question, but it has slightly more profound roots.
One of the ways I try to explain that is to think about the notion of ‘post-racialism’, which again is a highly footnoted term and a very controversial one for good reasons. But in the book I look at the notion of post-racialism as the assumption that societies, polities, institutions are opposed to racism and recognise it as an evil, and societies and institutions are officially anti-racist. However, the racism that is in question is defined in very particular terms and understood in very particular terms. A key to that is understanding it as racism as something which is largely overcome, which is largely defined by its pasts, and so the kind of political extremism, or ignorant attitudes that people might express are sort of hangovers from the past, and therefore it should be possible to reach a kind of agreement on what racism means and therefore to decide ‘this is racism and this is not racism’. And what is racism gets condemned and dealt with, and what is not racism is everything else, that’s open debate. So what’s hegemonically considered as racism is, as Alana Lentin my friend has argued in her recent book, tends to focus on some very, very particular ideas. One is that racism must be understood in primarily in biological or pseudo-scientific terms, so very much derived from thinking about the Holocaust, most obviously, but also thinking about the ‘high moment of racial science’ from the late 19th century through to the Second World War. That then racism is something which is a question of ideas, of aberrant ideas, of ‘people believe in the wrong kind of ideas’. Thirdly, racism is also something that cuts every which way, it’s sort of prejudice on the basis of appearance or skin colour, that everybody can practice against everybody else. Of course, what this hegemonic anti-racism, let’s call it as a short hand, what this does is it clashes with the way in which anti-colonial anti-racist movements have always understood racism, as something historical, as something which is constantly changing. As Sivanandan put it very nicely, and as I quote in the book, racism doesn’t stay still; it’s constantly changing according to changes in the economy. We can think about the different ways, for example, in which migrant populations become racialised over time but also it changes because of the ways in which it is opposed and the ways in which people struggle against it. Racism is understood as something historical.
But maybe here you can see where the problem starts to come in, that if you’re trying to describe those historical changes. Let’s say you’re trying to describe Islamophobia as a form of racism, for example, or trying to describe the way in which EU border violence racialises certain people as a problem population of refugees and migrants that need to be dealt with, you’re not adhering to ‘the agreed definition of racism’ that everybody is against because all reasonable people are against racism. What you’re doing, and this is the way the argument goes, and you can see this constantly playing out, you can see it playing out in some of the responses to Black Lives Matter, you can see it constantly in the response to somebody trying to talk about, particularly people of colour trying to talk about the racialised dimensions of everyday interactions, or the racialised dimensions of institutional discrimination, or whatever it might be. It’s only legitimate to do that if you can show that it is racism or not racism. And when you’re trying to describe something which is more motile, something which is more about how different social forces and political aspects intersect with each other, that’s not just racism or not racism, then what happens is you become the one who is ‘bringing race into everything’, you’re the one who is ‘shutting down open debate by bringing race into it’, you’re the one who is ‘restricting speech by calling certain things racist’. So, in other words, that heavy historical weight of racism, it’s argued, is being wielded to shut down open debate. And that’s the kind of political space I’m interested in. I think that that’s a very structural political conflict, but when we start to think about, for example, the far-right, or the so-called ‘dark enlightenment’, we see how some people are very, very good at navigating the possibilities of that kind of space.
DJ: Yeah, I’ve noticed that the inability, actually, to deal with structural racism by critics of Black Lives Matter has actually been really good. It’s like the kryptonite of the far-right and white supremacists. I’ve been watching all these YouTube videos, Charlie Kirk and all these other people, the grifters, and people getting dark money from white supremacist think tanks and PragerU – they literally are at a loss to debunk structural racism and they have to fall back on that definition of ‘well racism is only interpersonal animus, it’s individualised’. Therefore they can throw it back on ‘therefore you can be racist against white people’. I’ve been watching how that goes.
AW: How does this context of pluralised media or communicative abundance, as you put it in the book, how does that shape this contention over free speech and racism?
GT: I think it has a lot of do with it. There are so many continuities for a start, so I just want to point out as well that what I’m talking about here, this notion of anti-racism as something that ‘has gone too far’ and ‘reasonable people agree that racism is bad but anti-racism has gone too far or anti-fascism has gone too far’. The kind of ‘two-sides’, ‘two extremists’ that a centrist sensibility likes to produce, this is something which has been around for quite a long time. Also the idea that talking about racism shuts down debate has been around for quite a long time. The so-called New Right in Europe was very, very good at attempting to regenerate a racialising politics around culture and everyday life and the nation as our home, by sort of pointing to it’s not really the racialised migrants’ fault but it’s all the kind of multiculturalists and the race relations busy-bodies, as they used to be called in Britain, who keep ‘bringing race into it’ and ‘ordinary people feel that they can’t talk about ordinary problems that they encounter as their country changes around them’. There’s a long genealogy to some of these ways of turning anti-racism into the problem, and using that as a way of stymieing a confrontation with the ways in which racism is given different political, economic and social expression.
I was reading recently, it’s an interesting one from a US point of view, Nicholas Buccola’s book ‘The Fire is Upon Us’, which was the history of the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley in Cambridge in 1965, and that’s the same year as the Selma to Montgomery march. This is a year of gleeful state violence and repression but also resistance. But Buckley, who many of your listeners will know is the founder of The National Review, published an essay in that year called Are you racist? And what he argued in that, you could take that argument and you could transplant it into some many of the blogs and YouTube interventions that we’re talking about here. He says, well, you know, racism is bad but the word racist is used indiscriminately. Its meaning is diluted, everything’s been made into a question of racism and this prevents us dealing with real racism. And real racism for him is Hitler. But the real problem, Buckley argues, is that innocent people are being denounced. Innocent people are being silenced for simply trying to tell the truth as they see it. What he’s saying is that even in the midst of the Civil Rights Struggle, three years before the assassination of Martin Luther King, the problem is anti-racism is already too censorious, it’s too indiscriminate, it’s too uncompromising, it’s already gone too far. It’s bringing race into everything. This is kind of the playbook because a lot of these ideas have calcified, they’ve been sort of boiled down into tweet-sized arguments that lots of people can reproduce. When we’re looking at someone like Buckley or when we’re looking at the New Right, we’re looking at various conscious ideological projects which are about trying to not just reassert hierarchy and privilege, but also very much trying to find ways of disguising hierarchy and privilege. That’s why this ‘reverse victimhood’ is so important to these ideological projects.
But when we start to look now, in terms of the impact of whatever we might want to call the public space or public culture, which has been changed and shaped in so many ways by the nature of digital media platforms, particularly social media platforms, I think one of the most important aspects of it, for me, in terms of thinking about questions of racism and anti-racism, is that the silencing which is often associated with ‘post-racialism’ is also something now which is achieved through noise. I’ll try to explain what I mean by that. I argue it a little bit in the book and I look at it in more detail in the book you mentioned at the start, Racism and Media, which I published in 2019. One of the things which characterises thinking about racism under these terms that I’ve been looking at, that it’s something which is about ideas and ideologies and particular kinds of acts, is that the living-legacies and the reconstitutions of racial relations, particularly under neoliberalism, have been very, very difficult to name as racism or name as something which works through racialised social relations. A lot of literature which has looked at this, particularly in the United States over the ’80s and ’90s, talk about the silencing or muting of racism. The racial dimensions are present yet it’s very, very difficult to name it as racism when racism now means this intentional form and ideational form or ideological form or action. What this cacophony and the speed and the abundance of the digital media public sphere or public space does is it adds a dimension of noise to that, which is that when anybody wants to talk about or try to analyse or try to bring to some kind of public attention or invest in the idea that public attention has political value by talking about racism in public, immediately what happens to them is that that claim becomes debatable. Not debated in the way that we associate with the kind if liberal free speech heritage of debate, some kind of understanding or resolution, but simply it just becomes a subject of debate and it goes around and around and around and around, subject to the same kind of contrarian opinions, subject to false kinds of balance, subject to forms of questioning which become often deeply intrusive and deeply troubling. Therefore to talk about racism becomes subject to a test as to whether this is really racism or not. I think that that’s what I term a kind of a noise, that any kind of claim can be turned into a focus of debate but that debate is made up of ideas and responses and actions which are very predictable and as I said before, have these long discursive histories. So it becomes very difficult to talk about or mobilise around any kind of understanding of racism under these conditions because it’s constantly subject to this sort of reflex of ‘well, we’re all against but are you sure this is real racism? Are you sure this isn’t something else?’ I think it’s constant intensification and the constant vulnerability people have to that sort of intensification of debatability that I try to look at.
DJ: That’s fascinating. I did not realise the roots in that argument in Buckley. Here you have this white supremacist supporter of South African apartheid trying to argue that, ‘oh yes, racism is a problem but, you know, we have to see proper racism!‘ We’ve seen that become, here in America, that it’s a worse crime to call somebody a racist than for somebody to be a racist.
GT: Yeah, and absolutely that’s where, as I said, there clearly are very important ideological projects that we can map out here and analyse which are about attempting to re-establish racialising ideas and sensibilities, and racialised hierarchies and inequalities but when marking their distances from the sign of ‘bad racism’. One of the ways to do that, of course, is to amplify this notion of an equivalence, that ‘actually all good people are against racism. Maybe that person misspoke, but then they were hopped on by the anti-racists who want to shut down voices and stop us from talking about certain ideas and so forth.’ As if that’s possible under the kind of communicative conditions that we’re talking about.
it basically just sounds like high level gas-lighting, and it makes
sense because people in a position of power can of course gas-light
everyone else who accurately points out that ‘hey, you’re being
racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic to me’ and they can say
How have the far-right captured the concept of free speech?
GT: When I wrote the book I was obviously thinking a lot about this. I started thinking about it around the time of the high profile campus conflicts in the US, among other obvious ways in which the far-right were attracted to a particular way of thinking about and presenting themselves in relation to debates about free speech and the values that are attached to free speech. But when I wrote the book I deliberately deal with this at the very end, in the last chapter. So I have three chapters. ‘Closure’, which kind of what I’ve been describing here in terms of this ‘post-racial structural problem’ between attempting to think about racism as something political and historical and contextual, and then the notion of racism as something that ‘good societies’ are against but frozen in time in terms of our understanding. So I talk about that in terms of this notion of closure. And then something that we might come to later on, I look at the culturalisation of freedom of speech which is something which intensified in all kinds of ways in the post-9/11 War on Terror period, where freedom of speech gets centred as a marker of national or European or Western civilisational value that problem populations need to prove that they respect. I’ll come back to that in a little while. But one of the reasons I made these arguments first is that I don’t think we can understand the success of the far-right, unless we understand these other kinds of dimensions of the problem, or the way that these overlapping but quite different things intersect with each other and the kinds of opportunity structures that they present for the far-right.
So, I think there’s a couple of things we could say about how the far-right has captured the idea of freedom of speech but let me just say two things and this is also something which I think shows us the slightly different political-cultural geographies that are at play. I think in the United States, this sort of campus tours and the very deliberate and well planned attempt to create spectacles-
DJ: Yeah, it seems to be coming out of the think tanks.
GT: Yeah, I think that’s the first thing, and I think this is very, very important especially with that undercurrent of the discussion of ‘how does the left reclaim freedom of speech?’ I think the first thing that’s very, very important to do is to constantly make the political economy of this kind of free speech spectacle manifest. So, who is paying for these speakers? Where does that money come from? There’s a lot of good people who that kind of work constantly. I can provide some references on it for the program notes or whatever. What that allows us to show is that the very same networks which are interested in creating space for far-right or far-right adjacent speakers on campuses are also of course involved in targeting academics for harassment, getting them fired by trawling through their Tweets and finding something that can be presented as ‘anti-white racism’ or whatever it might be. And just attempting to wreck their lives. There’s a very organised set of political groups, there’s an economy that is around this sort of intervention which is very, very important to make manifest.
But I think the spectacle works also because of weaknesses in some of the dominant understandings of freedom of speech. So let’s be clear what the far-right want from campus speaking tours. They want spectacle – and spectacle is ambivalent, it can work out for them in a number of ways. One of them is they get to go on campus and they get a platform, and they get a platform which has the imprimatur, in one way or another, of a university. They also get the publicity that comes with protests, and if they are prevented from speaking, or whether simply the university decides this is not worth the insurance risk, then they become victims whose freedom of speech has been taken away. So it’s about spectacle and what they play on here – to be a little theoretical for a moment – is they play on a very clever distinction in terms of thinking about communication that, for example James Carey has made in relation to thinking about the history of Communication Studies in the US. He contrasts what he calls the Transmission Model of Communication, which is what we’re doing here. We’re communicating ideas to one another so we transmit things, it’s like taking ideas from A to B. Very, very commonsensical ways of thinking about how communication functions – the idea is that I speak to ‘transfer’ something to somebody else’s brain or their understanding. It’s the transmission of information. But of course communication doesn’t just do that, it also has ritual aspects. If somebody goes to a religious ceremony what’s being said is not news to them, there’s no ‘transmission value’, as such. They know the liturgy but it’s about the ritual, it’s about the communality, it’s about being in space together in particular ways. So what the far-right is essentially interested in is ritual. It’s interested in knowing that these kinds of interventions will play out in particular sorts of ways. But it presents itself as only being interested in transmission. In other words, ‘we’re not racists but we really just want to talk about who the real victims in all of this are’ or whatever the talking point of the week is. So they present themselves as only being about transmission, but politically the logic and rational is all about ritual. So they win either which way.
Somebody called John Durham Peters, who’s a really interesting Philosopher of Communication, has a very good book called Courting the Abyss which is about thinking about freedom of speech in the liberal tradition. One of the points that he makes is that what happens in these spectacles or these set-pieces is very particular. There’s a kind of triangulation, he describes it almost like a Morality play, that the transgressor who wants to speak a ‘transgressive truth’ will speak and then they might run into some kind of trouble. They may be deplatformed, they may be sued, whatever it might be. Obviously also people who are subject to this particular kind of racialised or discriminatory ‘truth’ will object to it, they will protest, and then what happens is that the third point of the triangle is the liberal enabler, if you like, who says ‘well, I understand why you’re upset and why you’re offended but there’s no right to be offended, so what’s really important here are the speech rights of the transgressor’. And so what happens in this triangular structure is immediately the democratic problem becomes the protestors, those who are ‘insufficiently committed to democracy’ or who are ‘insufficiently committed to civility’ or ‘insufficiently able to deal with the robustness of democratic debate whereby everybody is expected to take offence’. So it’s a very, very, very productive structure because there’s always enough people and powerful people – journalists, university rectors and others – who will walk in and play that third point in the triangle, and who will dredge up a quote from a US Supreme Court Justice or things that Voltaire never said, and say that ‘what we do by listening to these arguments is that we strengthen democracy for everybody’. Of course what is inadmissible to that way of thinking about civil society, and way of thinking about democracy, is the distribution of cost, and distribution of harm and the distribution of risk when you bring political actors who are geared towards political organisation, claiming space and claiming legitimacy and not to having a particular debate with you.
I think that triangulation’s really, really important for understanding what happens within these sort of university set-pieces. They’re slightly different when we start to think about the far-right and media, for example, and here, again, I think one of the problems with the undifferentiated idea of freedom of speech, which is what we started with is there isn’t enough thought often in these public debates about, ‘well, what is it about universities that is particular in terms of how speech is organised?’ Academic freedom is not exactly the same as freedom of speech and very often they’re in tension with each other. Editorial policies and practices govern the way in which people come to speak or be allowed to speak, and what they speak about, and the framework that they’re given to speak when they’re in a broadcast or media situation of a certain kind. How freedom of speech works is also quite different there. What the far-right is very, very good at capturing is precisely what we started, with this undifferentiated, well-meaning orientation towards freedom of speech as a kind of undifferentiated moral good.
So lastly, also what we’d need to add to that picture, is that one of the reasons why the far-right in Europe has got similar attraction to freedom of speech, but doesn’t work out so well for them under those terms. But the more recent attraction to freedom of speech is because they adopt it as a mode of civilisational politics. The long story but shortly rendered – one of the things that the War on Terror did was gifted, precisely because of the sort of racist integrationist policies of the parliamentary right and centre right and in some cases the centre left, they gifted the far-right a whole new vocabulary of looking at ‘problem populations’. ‘Unintegrated and unintegratable Muslims’ or ‘unknown and dangerous migrants who don’t share our way of life’ but where ‘our way of life’ is not defined so much anymore by an ethnostate, a culture that ‘we all share’. But ‘our way of life’ is something that is defined by ‘shared values’, you know, British values, French values, European values, or whatever it might be. Where there’s always a population that have to prove their capacities and their willingness to live by those values. In doing that, and in centring freedom of speech, which again there’s a long history here with the controversies in Denmark over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, the Charlie Hebdo tragedy which you mentioned at the started that I’ve written about. So there’s a lot of things which prompted this politics. But what it did was it gifted especially non-traditional new forms of far-right street movements that were looking for ways for mobilising around who the problem population is but also marking their distance from ‘who the real Nazis are’. ‘We’re not racists. Real Nazis are not us. We’ve got a politics which is just concerned with can people walk the streets at night? Can people express themselves? Can gay people be free to be gay? Can we have gender equality in our society anymore?‘ That kind of whole politics was gifted in the 2000s to the far-right, and it allowed them to take up freedom of speech in ways which have actually been quite interesting. There have been Freedom of Speech marches across Europe over the last years which are about ‘defending freedom of speech from the Muslims who don’t respect it’ and what happened subsequently is many of those movements and many of those marches of course became about ‘where’s out freedom of speech once Twitter or YouTube has kicked us off and finally decided to close down our accounts?’ So that sort of politics of mobilising around freedom of speech in parts of the European far-right has a very, very important relationship with centrist politics.
DJ: I’ve noticed I’ve had to make Karl Popper’s argument of tolerance of intolerance paradox to those people who are that third prong of the triangulation there, the well-meaning liberals or whatever who argue ‘oh, you have no right to be offended’. All these things that end up centring the bigots and the racists and their right to say these things. And I also feel like exactly like how you’re saying with how the War of Terror has affected free speech and who’s the guardians of free speech? It’s almost like Zack Synder’s movie the 300 is like the apotheosis of that whole idea of ‘the West is protecting all these ideas of the Enlightenment and free speech and everything from the evil East and Muslims’.
So I’d like to ask, how is the legal right to free speech distinct from the way it’s used in racist discourse today?
GT: Yeah, it’s very distinct. Just on what you were saying there, as well, I completely agree with it but I think it’s important not to give the impression from my side that I think that no-platforming and tactics of disruption are straight forward either. I think that these are tactics and strategies that have to be looked at in a given situation and in a given context and in a given antagonism, of course. But I think one of the things that really irks me and frustrated me and that I wanted to bring across in the book, is that these debates about platforming the far-right are often presented as that that one point of the triangle has all of the normative ideas and commitments to freedom and emancipation and dialogue on their side, and those who advocate for example no-platforming are simply looking to shut things down. What that misses is that something like no-platforming as a tactic and strategy has generated within movements an enormously rich collective knowledge in terms of thinking about tactics, thinking about how to differentiate between different parts of the far-right, thinking about different kinds of consequences according to the context, thinking about the public reception of different sorts of political acts. A huge amounts of work, normative, political, ethical, strategic work has gone into that as well. I think that just gets left out in the way that triangle operates.
On the question of the legal distinction now – I’m not a lawyer as everyone might have guessed by now and one of the things that I wanted to do in the book was to make a modest plea for understanding that the way in which we think about freedom of speech and the way that we act in relation to it has as much to do with making publics. It has as much to do with carving out forms of legitimate speech and legitimate being in very sort of busy, complex and antagonistic publics as it has to do with legal restraint. But one of the problems in the literature of freedom of speech is the legal horizon becomes becomes the only horizon because it becomes the threshold of permissability. So what I was trying to argue is that there’s a lot of things that we need to orient ourselves to and think about in terms of freedom of speech that don’t necessarily and in fact very often don’t involve the law. Think there around editorial policy as to whether the far-right gets to speak, or under what terms they’re reported, all of that kind of thing.
So there’s a huge distinction between the way in which the law and different sort of branches of the law and different areas of the law, as I set this out at the start in terms of intellectual property rights, property rights, privacy, slander, all of these kinds of things. If I wanted to make one point here it would be this – not just different ways in which the law organises speech but different ways in which the law depends on communication theory, different ways in which the law assumes different understandings of communication. Let me give a very brief example of what I mean without going into too much detail about it. If you look in the post-war period in Europe and post-war Western European settlement with the Nazi past, many countries banned public display of Nazi and fascist memorabilia. And in so doing they were banning forms of speech, for example, banning the Nazi salute. But if you look across jurisdictions the logic of that ban depended on interpreting that gesture as a sign, as an act of communication in very different ways, ranging from the idea that the salute in and of itself was essentially a political assault on the constitutional settlement of the state to the notion of the salute being an attempt to proselytise, an attempt to mobilise others. To then ways of even more complex legal cases which emerged where people who gave the Nazi sign in public – I’m not going to say where because I know that I’ve got the jurisprudence a little mixed in my mind so I’ll try to give a general summary. But where if you could prove that you were giving the Nazi salute as an expression of your conscience and not attempting to proselytise or mobilise others, then it was protected under freedom of speech but if it was political gesture attempting to get others to do something then it became a different class of act. So the point I’m trying to make here is even something like a salute, everybody who does it raises their arm, there’s a physical basis to the gesture which produces the sign, but the way in which law encodes it as a sign that has particular meanings and then as a sign which is connected to particular forms of action or potential action is very, very different. So the legal organisation of speech is not just about restrictions, it’s also about communication theory and that’s something that I’ve been trying to bring a little bit back into the discussions.
Now to answer the question about the way that it’s different in terms of racist discourse, I think that one of the ways that it is most successful about the way in which, let’s say, the far-right or particular racist grifters talk about freedom of speech is that the freedom that they’re talking about, but they leave this unarticulated, is a freedom which is simply a freedom from any kind of constraint that you think is arbitrary or that is being imposed on you by people that you already dislike. It’s a very effective invitation to just say screw you, I don’t care about your speech codes. You’re not going to make me think things that I don’t wanna think. You’re not going to take my country away from me by making me think these things that I don’t wanna think. So in other words, it’s an invitation to understand freedom as the absence of restraint and included in those restraints is of course counter-argument. This is one of the things where there is a real sort of irony about the way in which the liberal point in that triangle cedes the notion of freedom of speech to reactionary actors. Which is what they’re doing, they’re using the claim to freedom of speech to suggest that any form of protest, any form of counter-argument, any form of push-back is in and of itself an arbitrary form of restriction on their freedom of speech. Whereas of course the entire basis of the kind of liberal consequentialist way of thinking about the value of speech is that it is counter-speech which will sort out the best ideas from the worst ideas, it is counter-speech which will allow people to democratically decide which ideas a society values and which it doesn’t and so on and so forth. I take this a little bit from Wendy Brown in her last book who I think was very interesting about the way in which she theorised that notion of freedom as something which has also been produced over a longer period of time by the sort of denigration of the social and the political by neoliberal forms of governmentality. That, if it is only about me then why on earth should I be beholden to these things that I simply don’t value. So freedom of speech becomes a particular kind of invitation to celebrate the ego, if you like.
DJ: That’s a very interesting way of putting it, and that’s kind of like having to do with positive and negative liberty with the state because we have no hate crime laws in the United States. I mean hate speech, we have hate crime, extensions upon when people are being sentenced but we don’t have hate speech laws like Canada or other places, or Germany.
GT: Yeah and they are ambivalent, I mean there’s a whole other discussion to be had about how effective the category of hate speech is and everything. Yeah, that’s true.
DJ: Yeah, I’m not exactly for them, especially how they could be wielded by the state. You know, it makes sense in Germany and the way you explained it there, the distinctions they made kind of seems like the best compromise you could make. But again, the way I look at no platforming Nazis is like, well, you’re stopping someone from organising a pogrom, a lynching or the creation of an ethnostate and a genocide by organising people in street mobs, rather than stopping someone from saying blah, blah, blah, and I think people have a hard time with that one. I think the right was really able to get to liberals and really get to the colleges this idea of how pernicious and how censorious non-platforming was.
Ignoring for a moment the racist appropriation of the concept, do you think there are genuine state threats to free speech in contemporary societies?
GT: Absolutely, and I think that that’s also one of the things that I do look at in certain ways in the book, to not quite bluntly suggest the sort of constant creation and cheapening of freedom of speech ‘blinds us’ to genuine threats but rather something else. Which is that if we accept the slightly more pessimist or realist way that I set out the kind of terrain of freedom of speech and communication at the start, then what we’re aware of is there are constant forms of not just, what I was talking about, restriction and closure but also coercion.
But the question for me in the book is, what forms of coercion or potential coercion can lay claim to recognition as a free speech issue and which can’t. So what can mobilise this free speech in crisis framework and what can’t? So one of the things that I look at in relation to that is exactly this War on Terror period, and this two-track approach to freedom of speech by those states which beat the drums and beat the chest about their democratic status quite a bit. One of the things which we know a lot about during this period is the ways in which security acts – from the Patriot Act to the Prevent Agenda in the UK to security laws in Australia to security laws brought in after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, or reactivated rather after the attacks in 2015 – is that all of these acts have been catastrophic for political speech as free speech. To broadly summarise across them, what they end up doing is again redefining forms of speech, political speech, as forms of speech that can’t aspire to be free because they’ve already been redefined as a different kind of act, as something other than speech. So as evidence as radicalisation or giving succor to terrorism or as justifying terrorism or justifying violence or whatever it might be. So just taking those classes of laws which were always rushed through in times of national crisis, but then which stay on the statute and which of course then also become used in all kinds of ways against other ‘problem populations’ and dissidents and political radicals and so on, is that their modus operandi is to simply say we have free speech but that’s not speech anymore, that’s something else. That library book that you took out about Islamic radicalism under the Prevent Agenda, well you’re going to have to explain to us that library book you took out because that looks to us as if it might be a potential sign of radicalisation. And once we start to accumulate potential signs of radicalisation well then you become somebody who is guilty of the potential of violence. And this is again why I try to emphasise the communication theory aspects that run through these different regimes of free speech.
So if we just look at that “War of Terror Era” thinking from 2001 and intensifying through to the 2000s and then adding France at the end in the mid-2010s, what you see is emergency state legislation which doesn’t just restrict speech but criminalises speech and securitises speech and does so also for very particular racialised populations in particular ways but not only them. There’s also the ‘spill over risk’ and there’s always the ‘spill over coercion’, and surveillance is available.
Now, at the same time as that, of course, is what I was talking about earlier which was the elevation of freedom of speech into a defining value of already settled liberal polities, where gender discrimination and gender violence is no longer really an issue, where we have broadly freedom of speech and we all rub along. All of these presentations of Britain, France, Denmark, Netherlands, wherever you’re turned at this time as sort of already settled liberal polities, but the threat to that liberal modus vivendi was those who were not capable or those who were not willing to not just live quietly by these values, but prove that they actually believed in them, proved that they would actually effectuate them in society. So that’s where you started to get a politics that was built around two sorts of again spectacles and set pieces. One was prohibition: we’re going to ban the headscarf or we’re going to ban minarets, or whatever it might be, as a way of protecting the liberal nature, the settled liberal nature or our polity and as a way of doing something for these women in a society otherwise fully committed to gender equality and gendered emancipation. It’s also the production of mythology as a part and parcel of this securitised, culturalised integration politics.
The other side of that of course was the focus on freedom of speech, and that’s more complex because this did also emerge through those events that I was talking about where there was significant reactionary violence aimed at, up to and including their murder by reactionary Islamists. But what that pivots on is then that the security issue became turned into a cultural and civilisational one, that what motivates this violence is theological and at the base of that theology is an intolerance for ‘our way of life’ or ‘our way of life is defined by these ideas’. So any politics that may be there no matter how inchoate and reactionary vanishes from the picture a lot of the time. Therefore the counter to radicalisation is, and this is where the racialisation is at its most potent, adopting the state’s voice – is that ‘while we know that it’s only a tiny minority of Muslims that do these things, people in their communities must know who these people are and therefore it’s up to the moderates. It’s up to the integrated ones to tell us what’s going on. And it’s also up to the integrated ones and the moderate ones to more fully practice their commitment and more fully demonstrate to the rest of society their commitment to these values which magically by birth of whiteness and nativism, the rest of the population apparently subscribe to’. This is a very important kind of culturalised politics that was very, very virulent for a couple of years and that served very much to centre freedom of speech, as something that magically in societies which were beset by all of the kind of problems that we’ve been talking about and also in societies where we’ve mentioned one of the most obvious threats to free speech, as a mode of political assembly is the deep intensification of police violence across all of the countries that I’ve been talking about. The pre-emptive attacks on protests by police is a very widespread political reflex at the moment and obviously an organised and strategised political reflex.
It’s in these very societies that on the one hand that on the one hand, as they’re increasing the criminalisation and securitisation of speech, as they’re making things more and more difficult for the media and for journalists, and also at the same time criminalising and attacking protests, these were the very same societies that decided that freedom of speech was a defining civilisational characteristic. All the better, if you like, to constantly try to parse who belongs and who doesn’t quite belong or who belongs and who might never actually be able to prove themselves capable or willing of belonging.
AW: So would you say the right to free speech itself is racialised?
GT: Yeah, I think in very particular ways, of course also in uneven ways, it is and maybe the example that I could give to answer that, because it comes very much from the argument that I was making. One of the things that I write about in the book is some of the work of Yassir Morsi who writes out of Melbourne. He has a lovely reflection in one of his essays, again I can pass on the reference for program notes or whatever. But he has a lovely reflection on taking a taxi ride to an Australian news program after a terror attack somewhere in the world. So you know how this happens – a terror attack happens somewhere in the world and then the disparate and diverse Muslim population in a certain country becomes at some level answerable for it. They have to demonstrate that, as they put it in France, ‘you must demonstrate that you are not in solidarity with this‘. This was the kind of discourse which was active over the last few years. So Yassir’s talking about taking his taxi ride there and thinking about how he wants to play this interview. In other words, what is it that I want to say but also what is it that’s possible for me to say by the kind of existing form of this conversation, knowing what I’m going to be asked, knowing what others expect to hear from me, but not just the expectations of the journalists which give voice to a particular kind of majority expectation around condemnation and distancing himself and the community from these acts, but also thinking about that if he says the wrong thing he increases the chance of some kind of retributive violence randomly on somebody the next day. That some woman is going to get her hijab pulled off on the street. All of the kind of things that happened constantly in the aftermath of these kind of attacks.
This is the racialisation of speech in the sense that this is a form of closure which must be negotiated by somebody who has been asked to come and speak in already a very particular, very charged and very difficult sort of way, is already asked to present themselves in public in ways that are already very charged and difficult. And then even within the sort of supposed openness of interview and discussion, what it is possible to say and what it is possible not to say depending on the consequences and the reactions which are almost certain that you or somebody else will suffer the next day. This is one way in which we could think about the racialisation of speech, absolutely.
Some people can be invited ‘free to air’ but they have no capacity to speak freely because of the way in which they’re being communalised, essentialised, held responsible, asked to speak for non-existent communities and so forth.
AW: And another example you touch on in your book is an example of refugee populations, like Berouz Boochani who managed to write a book from Manus Island prison and managed to write it all through WhatsApp, but obviously a lot of people in that situation their access to any kind of communication is restricted just by default. Similarly people in prison. So there’s a default lack of free speech for a large amount of people.
And we’ve also seen parallel to all this or maybe more recently really starting to bubble up, ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists’ or TERFs have been defended again on the basis of ‘free speech’. I’ve had more than one friend degenerate from defending TERFs’ right to free speech to then fully embracing the most bigoted talking points about ‘men with fetishes for women’s clothing’, that kind of thing. It goes from defending the right to free speech to just talking like the worst bigot you’ve ever met.
Do you have any comments on that, on the TERF embrace of free speech and whether that has any parallels or links with the racist appropriation of free speech?
GT: Yeah, definitely, I think the parallels are very pronounced. I might emphasise a couple of things that I’ve partly talked about before but just to underline them. One is the political attractiveness of this heterodox positionality. In other words, seeking to gain legitimacy by positioning TERF arguments as a brave stand against orthodoxy. And where you get the real parallel with racist discourse or with something like ‘anti-multiculturalist’ discourse, or whatever it might be, is that you’ve got to make a very particular move there. You’ve not just got to turn yourself into the kind of minoritised, marginalised heterodox position, you’ve got to turn those you’re targeting into some form of orthodoxy. Sara Ahmed has written brilliantly about this, for example, over many years. So what you’ve got to find is a way of trying to present trans people, as if not exactly suddenly privileged but suddenly something that they term ‘trans ideology’ is the orthodoxy. It’s really distressing to see elements of the left getting sucked into this by assuming, say for example, the very obvious corporate appropriations of – it’s not a word I use or like at all – but in this discourse, the kind of corporate appropriations of ‘wokeness’. So in other words, demonstrating their fidelity to a range of different, as it’s often called, ‘identity based issues’ as if that’s all that’s in question here. So there’s the assumption that because this is what corporations are doing that this is somehow evidence of a wider shift in power relations. That really frustrates me, to see that kind of move made, because what it does obviously is elides the discrimination and also of course the targeting that this involves for trans people and the way in which they experience that.
Secondly, and this is very pronounced here but it also has a wider valence I think, or the way that freedom of speech gets mobilised here, is that what matters is speech and speech as a course of unmediated expression of conscience. I have to say it because I think it and that’s my freedom because that’s what gives me autonomy. This gets completely separated from the content of speech which is what we all pay attention to in the world. So first of all, that’s always been bizarre that the ‘viewpoint diversity’ or ‘viewpoint neutrality’ treatment of speech as sound in the air, graphic marks on the page without thinking about the content. There’s no contradiction, despite people thinking that there is. There’s no contradiction say between standing up for somebodies right to say something and then making very, very clear that you politically oppose it and mobilise against it, and yet that second part seems to be so difficult for people or also they evade it because they take refuge in this notion that what matters is the voicing, the writing, the expression, the articulation, not what is voiced, expressed and articulated. What that does then, and that has a number of corollaries and effects, but I think one of the things that it also does and this is where we can see the traces of civilisational politics that I was talking about earlier, is that giving offence is regarded as almost a democratic duty. It’s a mark of truth. It’s truth as the kind of telos of free speech because I’m not shying away from the difficult ideas and I need to express these difficult ideas in whatever way that I feel is best in order to get them heard and get them taken seriously. And if you’re offended, well, then just suck it up. Again it’s a completely self-satisfied and self-defeating kind of politics because it evades the big political question, which is why certain people’s lives are always the subject of debate. One of the things I really try to get at in the book is that, being made constantly in to the subject of debate is a form of violence, if we want to call it that, and being held up as a population or being held up as an identity or somebody marked by an identity that is there for everybody else to debate, in whatever way they like. I really want to challenge that politics of being made the subject of debate.
And the second one, is we really need to challenge here but also more broadly this notion that being offensive and being deliberately offensive has some kind of democratic value. Why would it? Why would it? What kind of machismo, what kind of values are getting reified, or normalised rather, by that particular set of assumptions? So I think yeah, the way that the speaking position is generated as already in danger, always in danger of being silenced, and the way in which that then tries to produce bigoted discourse as a particular kind of heterodox but truthful courage, and then the way in which it amplifies this sort of politics of offence is something good, offence is the mark of truth of an articulation. All of those things are very much present in those debates and can be tracked across the stuff that I’ve been looking at.
AW: Do you think the concept of free speech can be recuperated or has it been captured too much by the racist right and other pernicious forces?
GT: Yeah, I think our speech practices and our speech politics can obviously practice important forms of fidelity to maximising speech, but then also starting to think through the relationship of speech to being heard, the relationship of speech to the development of collective forms of thought, collective processes of generating the kind of ideas we need in political struggles and movements and everything else. I think freedom of speech is a kind of abstract demand extracted from an analysis of oppression and a discussion of emancipation. It’s not something that I find something particularly pressing to recuperate myself but I think within it there are aspects that could be strategically recuperated. If we think of the way in which the broader grifter right is always on the look out for safe spaces and these kinds of things, as proof of the lack of democratic robustness and of identitarians or as their commitment to ghettoising themselves in identity groups, under the communicative conditions we’re talking about we need more safe spaces. We need more places where people can have proper meaningful sustained dialogues, arguments, conversations, be they about understanding the world or be they oriented to ways of thinking about acting in the world. And this is very, very consonant with someone like Mill who is very, very clear that the truth orientation of freedom of speech is only possible under the conditions of the seminar room, where people are there by their own volition, where they build a form of interpretative community together, where the rules of interaction, the rules of the game if you like, are agreed and people decide to abide by them. That sounds like a safe space to me. So what I’m saying is that there are things within the tradition of thought that I find problematic that can also be used strategically to increase democratic possibilities. But as I said, doing battle over this particular term or way of thinking about speech and liberty and action in the world, I’m not that invested in that recuperation.
DJ: Alright and what else is to be done?
GT: I don’t know. **laughs**
GT: I might just leave it there, if that’s okay, before that last question.
AW: Your honesty is appreciated. Thanks for coming on. It’s been very, very good to hear from you.
GT: Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed it. And thanks a lot for all the work you did in preparing it and everything else, and the time zone shifting and all of that!
AW: Yeah, we’re across three continents!
DJ: Yeah, thank you! Yeah, I appreciate your distaste for having to use ‘woke’ the way you had to there. **laughs**
GT: I was trying to find another way of saying but I was like, okay..
AW: By saying this I’ll unfortunately introduce it but we also managed to avoid the phrase ‘cancel culture’.
GT: Yeah, exactly. I’ll only go so far, you know.
AW: If you found this interview useful please do pick up Gavan’s book, of course titled ‘Is Free Speech Racist?’, and if you have any spare cash after that we’d appreciate if you can contribute to our Patreon at www.patreon.com/jetpack1917, and if you can’t afford to contribute financially a review at Apple podcasts would also help us out.
Goodnight and good luck!
DJ: And we’ll see you… in the future!