by Lael Ewy
It seems that at this point in our nation’s history we’re bargaining one group’s right to free speech against many other groups’ right to simply exist.
The issues typically get boiled down to “tolerance” or “intolerance,” and they’re talked about primarily by people like me: white, middle-class folks who, after all, have nothing to lose in the matter and have the privilege of discussing such matters amongst themselves.
I can’t guarantee that I won’t do more of the same here. My purposes, for what they’re worth, are to reframe the ideas at play, and, by so doing, to perhaps bring some clarity, barring the possibility of actual resolution.
I’m working from a few basic ideas here. The first is that all speech has consequences. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. You may be talking to yourself just to make yourself feel better or to keep yourself company, but those are desired consequences. Thus when a white supremacist takes part in a rally, he is foolish if he thinks that expressing such an extreme point of view won’t be met with extreme reactions. This is not to say that the person who lashes out violently at the white supremacist should be exonerated for her actions, but it does mean we should acknowledge a possible—in this case probable—response.
Speech, rather than being entirely counter to action, is itself also an action. In this way, speech can be seen as inter-related to other actions and reactions. The white supremacist cited above would think himself a failure if no counter-demonstration or media showed up to his rally. And while he is also foolish if he thinks his speech will lead a white homeland to be bestowed upon him the following morning, a white homeland is, among other things, one of the stated goals of his speech.
Speech, being an action, requires responsibility. A whole lot of ink has been spilt trying to put forth the idea that free speech is somehow rendered outside the normative realm of social responsibility. “It’s just an opinion,” or “Those who disagree are being politically correct,” or “I was only joking” are ways people try to duck responsibility for what they say or to avoid criticism. If you speak, particularly in a public forum, you must be prepared for reaction and criticism, hardened to it, able to meet it emotionally and intellectually. Of all of the things I’m going to say here, this cleaves most closely to the “it goes for both sides” idea.
Silence in the proper places can be powerful, but it can also be someone acting with discretion. Depending on the context, it might not be acquiescence to evil at all but refusing to take the bait. At any rate, speaking is not a way to avoid responsibility; it’s another situation that requires it. Criticism, in the case of free speech, is another word for accountability.
Choosing to act in a way that defies the law also has consequences, and it can also be a form of speech. As Dr. King put it, those involved in nonviolent direct action chose to break the law “openly” and “lovingly.” They did this in order to bring attention to laws that were unjust. And they willingly suffered the consequences of breaking the law. While an Antifa activist may not be trying to tell the world that laws against assault are unjust, she is trying to draw attention to the fact that fascism is an injustice. However, she would also be foolish to think that punching a fascist shouldn’t be met with legal sanction. If she does it, she should do it openly and with a willingness to suffer the legal consequences in order to make her point: violent force is worthwhile against fascists.
The white supremacist, of course, wishes to make injustice law, and therefore must be countered first by legal means, with speech acts, political resistance, and nonviolent direct action. And then, should his ideas become law, with open and expressive violations of those laws, and with a willingness to suffer the consequences.
I’m rationalist enough to believe that if we enter into troubled times with clarity of thought, we will spare ourselves the worst of troubles. But I’m realist enough to know that fascists and white supremacists won’t be defeated by our clarity of thought alone.