Thursday, 26 July 2018

Don’t let fascists steal free speech from us

Two “alt-right” speakers from Canada, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, have decided they will, after all, go ahead with their visit to New Zealand (temporarily cancelled) where they will espouse their views. The venue is, as I write, being kept secret. Previously, they wanted to speak in an Auckland venue called the Bruce Mason Centre, but were denied that opportunity at the instruction of Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. This has raised concerns about freedom of speech in New Zealand, and not just among those who agree with their position. Chris Trotter, New Zealand’s most respected Left blogger, has taken up the cause in several recent posts on his blog Bowalley Road.

I’ve been drafting this post for two years now; the issue keeps coming up and going away again, and I have to change the bits where I relate it to current events. It’s a bit bigger than I can really pin down in one post. I’m going to skip out some things I originally planned to say about particular progressive concerns that some believe constitute assaults on free speech – trigger warnings, safe spaces, cultural appropriation – because they just make the whole thing too unwieldy. I may devote more blog posts to them in future. Today my topics are: What is the ethical basis of the right to free speech? What sort of policies do we need to build around it? And what are its limits?

Political discussions frequently open with assertions of rights that the disputants hold to be incontrovertibly inviolable – endowed, in the famous words, by the Creator. But what makes a right a right? Why is it that some good things you might want are your “right” to enjoy, while others are merely privileges? What makes the difference? And what if one of your rights can’t be granted without breaching someone else’s rights? What do you do then? This sort of question is why I like to go back a bit further, behind the concept of rights to their basis in ethical philosophy.

In case you’re a new reader, I’ll just quickly run you through my basic moral philosophy. Morality isn’t something objective, not if by that you mean it’s something “out there” in the universe, independent of our minds. You can’t logically prove a “should” statement from an “is” statement without at least tacitly calling in another “should” statement, and if you try to prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. And perhaps that’s just as well, because if morality was something “out there”, then any intersection between moral facts and human well-being would be coincidental. Appeals to moral authority, even cosmic moral authority, don’t help: “You should obey the authority” is just another “should” statement and another trip around the circle.

Hence, morality is subjective. But “subjective” is not the same as “arbitrary”. To call something “subjective” just means it’s an experience that people have rather than a thing in the universe – it’s “in here” rather than “out there”. Sweetness is subjective, but no-one disagrees as to which is the sweeter of maple syrup and grapefruit juice. You can justify a “should” statement; you just have to back it with an “I want” statement. (I want to be healthy, therefore I should exercise more than I do.) As a social species, pretty much anything we want requires cooperation with other people, and cooperation requires trust, so we evolved moral instincts to allow us to trust each other. Therefore, in my view, trust is the basis of all morality.

To earn trust, your actions must fulfill three conditions. They must be benevolent; they must be consistent; and both of these facts must be clear to other observers. Benevolence alone is not quite enough. Pure benevolence, the greatest good for the greatest number, is the moral philosophy known as utilitarianism. The harmonics of cold calculating efficiency that cling around that word somewhat misrepresent the idea; “utility” in the philosophical sense includes beauty and joy as well as usefulness. However, the “calculating” part is bang-on. Utilitarian philosophers spend a lot of time balancing harms and benefits and fretting about whether they’ve left something out. And I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous. I can’t help worrying that they might end up putting the things I care about on the “sacrifice for the greater good” side of the equation.

When you factor in the consistency and the clarity, utilitarianism gives way to a couple of other moral schemas. One of them is virtue ethics – if you practise being a good person until it becomes habit, your actions will be clearly and consistently benevolent. This isn’t particularly relevant to today’s topic, and I mention it only for completeness. The other one, however, is the answer to our question: the origin of rights. To be clearly and consistently benevolent is to commit to doing some good things all the time for everybody while refraining from doing some bad things ever to anybody. When a society makes such a commitment, whether in law or custom, it thereby grants its members the right to enjoy the good things and the right not to suffer the bad things. That’s where rights come from.

And that helps us answer our other question. When you have to choose one right over another, you should honour the one that best serves the principle of trust. Suppose you’re a surgeon, and you have in your hospital five people urgently needing different organ transplants and also a healthy young person who’s come in for a sports injury. A utilitarian calculus might prompt you to at least consider killing the young person to harvest their organs, sacrificing one life to save five. But of course if you did that, no patient could ever trust you again not to kill them for their organs. The trust principle would therefore accord with what (I sincerely hope) your moral instincts tell you and render such a course of action unthinkable.

Since the seventeenth century most of the questions vexing Western political theorists have been variations of “What is the right balance between peace, justice, and freedom?” When you find yourself facing a trade-off between the three, how do you choose which to preserve and which to sacrifice? (This is not quite the same as the question actually driving social progress, which is “How many crumbs do we have to give these annoying poor people before they’ll shut up and go away?”) What’s often not noticed is that peace, justice, and freedom all have the same end-goal, i.e. not having to fear violence any more. Peace means you don’t have to fear violence from strangers. Justice means you don’t have to fear violence from your neighbours. Freedom means you don’t have to fear violence from the state.

But you can never have complete freedom in any society, because freedoms are necessarily in tension with each other. If you are free to do some particular thing, that means I am not free to stop you from doing that particular thing, and vice versa. So, for instance, you are free to play irritating contemporary music and there’s not much I can do about it, but I am not free to walk around in public wearing the amount of clothing I feel physically comfortable in. If I call the police and complain about your music I’ll be ignored, unless it’s very loud; if you call the police and complain about my nudity I’ll be arrested. Conversely, if I try and cut the power cord on your stereo I’ll be the one in trouble, whereas if you threaten me with assault unless I put some clothes on the authorities will probably agree I had it coming. (As you see, legal freedoms tend to get skewed towards majority cultural groups and away from, in this case, those of us who have autistic sensory issues.)

Now we can narrow in from freedom generally to freedom of speech in particular. Many liberal and centrist writers who know perfectly well that freedoms and rights have to be traded off against each other nevertheless pick out freedom of speech as the one which must never, ever be traded away. Steven Pinker is one of them, and he explained why in a Boston Globe op-ed piece after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France a few years ago. I’ve kept it in the drafts of this post even though it’s old now because it’s the most succinct defence I’ve seen of the free-speech-before-all-else position. Let me go through it point by point.

The first reason is that the very thing we’re doing when we ask whether free speech is fundamental – exchanging and evaluating ideas – presupposes that we have the right to exchange and evaluate ideas. In talking about free speech (or anything else) we’re talking. We’re not settling our disagreement by arm-wrestling or a beauty contest or a pistol duel. Unless you’re willing to discredit yourself by declaring, in the words of Nat Hentoff, “free speech for me but not for thee,” then as soon as you show up to a debate to argue against free speech, you’ve lost it.

In general principle this is obviously true. But I can’t help noting that someone could argue for censoring speech in certain contexts or media, and avoid contradiction by themselves abstaining from those contexts and media. There’s no contradiction in saying on TV that some things shouldn’t be printed in magazines, for instance, or writing a book telling people to stop using the internet. And if you think I’m quibbling, consider what we routinely do with speech expressed in the medium of spray-paint on public transport conduits and buildings.

This is a central point in the case before us. Mayor Goff did not, after all, prevent Southern and Molyneux from speaking at all in Auckland; he merely shut them out of the Bruce Mason Centre. That doesn’t immediately mean that his ruling did not constitute an assault on their right to free speech, but it does mean that we need more information before we can conclude that it did. We shall quickly run into absurdities if we conclude that it is always wrong to stop anyone from saying anything anywhere. Is it an assault on free speech to take down the Ten Commandments in courtrooms or to cut creationism from school science textbooks? Is it an assault on free speech to revert vandalism on Wikipedia or block pornbots on Tumblr? Is it an assault on free speech on Chris Trotter’s part to filter out “defamatory, vituperative, snide or hurtful” content from Bowalley Road’s comment section?

Ten years or so ago I think, the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) resolved to support the then-active campaign to legalize gay marriage in New Zealand. Student association membership at the time was opt-out instead of opt-in, which I still think was a better system. Now there were a couple of people at Otago who didn’t like other people having gay sex, and they wrote essay-length letter after essay-length letter to Otago’s student magazine, the Critic, arguing that it was dictatorial to “force” students to belong to an association whose political views they disagreed with. (For the record, when I was on the OUSA executive in 1999 and a student applied for exemption from OUSA membership on religious grounds, we granted it unanimously without discussion.) The Critic dutifully printed their letters for months, but eventually decided they’d had enough and closed that line of correspondence. There followed howls of protest – on the noticeboards, if I recall correctly – at this atrocity against free speech and the imminent descent into Stalinism it surely presaged. Then the whole thing fizzled out.

Pinker goes on to say

Perhaps the greatest discovery in human history – one that is prior to every other discovery – is that our traditional sources of belief are in fact generators of error and should be dismissed as grounds for knowledge. These include faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, augury, prophecy, intuition, clairvoyance, conventional wisdom, and subjective certainty.
How, then, can we know? Other than by proving mathematical theorems, which are not about the material world, the answer is the process that the philosopher Karl Popper called conjecture and refutation. We come up with ideas about the nature of reality, and test them against that reality, allowing the world to falsify the mistaken ones. The “conjecture” part of this formula, of course, depends upon the exercise of free speech. We offer these conjectures without any prior assurance they are correct. It is only by bruiting ideas and seeing which ones withstand attempts to refute them that we acquire knowledge.

Once again, clearly true as it stands. Certainly, disagreeing with somebody is no excuse to stop them saying what they’re saying. You might be the one who’s wrong. But notice again that this doesn’t cover everything. People talk a lot without raising any ideas about reality at all, and often the ideas they do raise have been refuted already. Much speech is dedicated to peddling faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, augury, prophecy, intuition, clairvoyance, conventional wisdom, and subjective certainty. Some exercises of speech actively stymie the “refutation” part of the Popperian process, for the public if not for the experts; journalistic insistence on “balanced coverage” has done serious harm to the vaccination cause and the fight against climate change, in particular. (A recently-viral Twitter post quotes a journalism professor: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the fucking window and find out which is true.” But with technical subjects like climate change and vaccination, that’s not so easy for people who instead of science studied, for example, journalism.)

The process of rational debate, as Pinker elsewhere convincingly argues, requires at least a tacit agreement on the part of the debaters to respect each other as people. You can’t persuade someone they’re wrong by telling them to shut up. In theory, you come up with reasons why they should change their mind, and in return you agree to change your mind if they come up with good enough reasons to do so. In practice, of course, changing your mind about something you were just challenged on involves a certain loss of face, and it’s not something many people do on the spot. Still, reasoned discussion is the only way two people who disagree can come to agreement without coercion, which makes it vital for society-wide cooperation and hence morally sacrosanct. (It doesn’t have to be a formally structured debate to count as reasoned discussion.) Any controls on speech which curtail reasoned discussion are therefore, to the extent that they do so, morally wrong.

But not all discussion is reasoned. I’m not talking here about things like “Anecdotal evidence is good enough for my case but nothing short of mathematical proof will do for yours,” or “Let’s compare the real-world outcomes of your politics to the ideal end-goal of mine,” which, while regrettably common, can be countered within the debate itself. I’m talking about deeper breaches of the rule of respect, such as “Your ethnic group are cognitively impaired,” “Your gender is incapable of rational thought,” or “Your religion’s secret agenda precludes good-faith argument.” It’s not just that these statements are hateful; it’s that they license their makers to disregard any contribution from a speaker of the targeted ethnicity, gender, or religion. In a word, they curtail reasoned discussion, and are therefore morally wrong for exactly the same reason that controls on reasoned speech are wrong. And it won’t have escaped you that these exact positions are characteristic of the “alt-right” fascist movement.

Pinker rounds off his case with a political point:

How did the monstrous regimes of the 20th century gain and hold power? The answer is that groups of armed fanatics silenced their critics and adversaries. (The 1933 election that gave the Nazis a plurality was preceded by years of intimidation, murder, and violent mayhem.) And once in power, the totalitarians criminalized any criticism of the regime. This is also true of the less genocidal but still brutal regimes of today, such as those in China, Russia, African strongman states, and much of the Islamic world.
Why do dictators brook no dissent? One can imagine autocrats who feathered their nests and jailed or killed only those who directly attempted to usurp their privileges, while allowing their powerless subjects to complain all they want. There’s a good reason dictatorships don’t work that way. The immiserated subjects of a tyrannical regime are not deluded that they are happy, and if tens of millions of disaffected citizens act together, no regime has the brute force to resist them. The reason that citizens don’t resist their overlords en masse is that they lack common knowledge – the awareness that everyone shares their knowledge and knows they share it. People will expose themselves to the risk of reprisal by a despotic regime only if they know that others are exposing themselves to that risk at the same time.
Common knowledge is created by public information, such as a broadcasted statement. [Hans Christian Andersen’s] story of The Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates the logic. When the little boy shouted that the emperor was naked, he was not telling [people] anything they didn’t already know, anything they couldn’t see with their own eyes. But he was changing their knowledge nonetheless, because now everyone knew that everyone else knew that the emperor was naked. And that common knowledge emboldened them to challenge the emperor’s authority with their laughter.

Pinker’s reasoning is once again impeccable, but another round of explication couldn’t hurt. Let’s say I live in the shadow of a murderous despotic regime, and I would like to see it overthrown. Do I set out to overthrow it all on my lonesome? Of course not; I would be throwing away the life of the one person I know opposes it – me – without achieving any good in the process. I can’t act unless I know I have lots of people behind me. So let’s say I’m pretty sure lots of people want the regime overthrown. Now do I stand up to overthrow it? Still no. They’re all in the same position as me; they can’t act, even to support me, until they know they have lots of people behind them. Nobody can act until everybody knows that everybody will act. If I don’t print enough pamphlets, nobody will turn up to my revolution except my mum. All the regime needs to do to stay in power is confiscate my printer.

So we need to be very cautious indeed about ceding governments or government agencies (or their crony corporations, as with the ongoing Net Neutrality battle in the US) the authority to shut off channels of common knowledge. At the same time, as I’ve explained above, “Never stop anyone from saying anything on any platform for any reason” is too broad a rule. I’d honestly like to see less heavy-handed policies toward graffiti, especially in New Zealand where most public buildings are so hideous that spray-paint can only be an improvement; but it would be a step too far to make magazines print every letter they receive, to swamp school libraries with pseudoscience, or to prohibit moderation of internet forums. That way 4chan lies.

Pinker doesn’t raise the platform side of the question. He does note the need for some controls on content:

It’s true that free speech has limits. We carve out exceptions for fraud, libel, extortion, divulging military secrets, and incitement to imminent lawless action. But these exceptions must be strictly delineated and individually justified; they are not an excuse to treat speech as one fungible good among many. Despots in so-called “democratic republics” routinely jail their opponents on charges of treason, libel, and inciting lawlessness. Britain’s lax libel laws have been used to silence critics of political figures, business oligarchs, Holocaust deniers, and medical quacks. Even Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous exception to free speech – falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre – is easily abused, not least by Holmes himself. He coined the meme in a 1919 Supreme Court case that upheld the conviction of a man who distributed leaflets encouraging men to resist the draft during World War I, a clear expression of opinion in a democracy.

Do Southern and Molyneux’s “alt-right” fascist statements fall into these exceptions? The things they say about Muslims and feminists would arguably qualify as libel if they were said about an individual person instead of whole blocs; but saying bad things about people is only libel if you know they’re untrue, whereas Southern and Molyneux seem sincere in their bigotry. It’s very likely that ideas such as theirs inspire some of the people who believe them to attack Muslims, but is the causal connection between their speech and someone else’s action strong enough to qualify as incitement? I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong answer to that question.

To sum up so far, the content of Southern and Molyneux’s speech puts it outside of the domain which the right to free speech exists to preserve – new ideas, reasoned criticism, speaking truth to power – but it does not clearly fall into the domain which is so harmful as to justify the state taking steps to shut it down, and we want to keep that second domain as tightly defined as possible so as not to grant the state scope to stifle dissent. The next question is: did Mayor Goff’s action in denying them the use of the Bruce Mason Centre constitute the state shutting them down? Or was it the same sort of thing as an internet forum blocking discourteous commentators or the Critic closing that tedious correspondence? Randall Munroe’s xkcd cartoon on the subject is required reading here:

Public service announcement: the right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.  It doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it.  The First Amendment doesn’t shield you from criticism or consequences.  If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show cancelled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated.  It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.

Nobody in New Zealand that I know of has suggested arresting Southern and Molyneux for what they have to say, but there certainly were calls for Immigration to deny them visas to enter the country, and for citizens to physically bar their entry to their speaking venues. And given that the Bruce Mason Centre was denied them, I have to suppose that if they had gone there anyway and unlocked its doors and switched on whatever lighting and PA system it might have and plugged in microphones and started talking, some kind of Council officials would have turned up to eject them. Once again, we have what looked like a reasonably clear boundary (state censorship is bad, citizen boycotts are fine) but the case before us straddles it.

If you’re having trouble guessing, from what I’ve been saying so far, which side I’m finally going to pick, it’s because I had similar trouble when I was writing it. Usually I have a clear idea what my conclusion is before I sit down to write a post, but this was not one of those times. My moral instincts in this case do not pull me strongly in either direction. I have to draw on premises which are clear in other cases and see what I can conclude from those. The main precepts that seem relevant to me are:

  1. People should not have to live in fear either of the state or of each other. (This is the trust principle which I laid out in the first section.)


  1. The state should not be granted power against any group that other groups would not agree to have wielded against themselves.
  2. Members of minority groups should not have to live in fear of violence or discrimination from the majority.

OK, then, let’s imagine that the situation were turned around. I wouldn’t want to be denied a visa because of my political views; therefore, I must consider it a good thing that Southern and Molyneux weren’t denied visas because of their political views. But the Bruce Mason Centre? Not such a big deal. Any venue has a finite number of bookings that can be made in a given period of time. Some groups will miss out. Those groups would usually just have to find another venue. It would concern me if that same group were then banned from seeking an alternative like a church hall or something, or from taking to the streets with a megaphone. But the way things actually played out I can’t honestly see that Mayor Goff crossed a line. He didn’t exercise any power that a private citizen couldn’t have exercised who might happen to hold the keys to a hall or be a magazine editor or web forum admin. Sorry, Chris.

Are we finished? We are not finished. We have seen that the state’s power to interfere in public discourse must be kept within strict limits; but we have also seen that some of the things “alt-right” fascists say are themselves morally wrong for the same reason that state attacks on free speech are wrong, and that they erode away the rights of minorities to live without fear of violence or discrimination. Whatever limits we rightly put on the state, we as citizens therefore have a moral duty to counter the fascists ourselves by other means. How do we do that?

That was the basis of Chris Trotter’s argument against Goff’s action in denying Southern and Molyneux the use of the Bruce Mason Centre; not so much that it was an unwarranted use of state power as that it allowed them to claim it was an unwarranted use of state power and thus get to play the victim, like football players feigning injury to get penalties against their opponents. Certainly that is a favourite tactic of “alt-right” fascists, one carried over (I imagine) from their roots as internet trolls, who love to cry “Free speech!” when they’re being shown the door – the “you” in Munroe’s cartoon above. Now we have people like Milo Yiannopoulos seeking invitations to speak on US college campuses for the express purpose of being disinvited. We have white nationalists actively seeking to get punched on camera by antifascists so that they can look like the good guys. That’s not something made up by namby-pamby centrist no-violence liberals; it’s an explicit strategy confirmed by a reporter who infiltrated a racist convention in Seattle last year.

Thus far I agree with Trotter’s Bowalley Road post “Do We Really Lack the Courage to Debate the Alt-Right?” Shutting down Southern and Molyneux won’t have harmed their cause; kicking them out of the country would have helped it. But I fear his suggested counter-strategy is hopelessly naïve.

But just imagine if, instead of asking the Minister of Immigration to prevent Molyneux and Southern from entering the country, the New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations had invited them to debate the Islamic religion with a couple of their faith’s most accomplished scholars. In the face of the Canadians’ openly hostile reading of the Koran, the Federation could have transformed their assailants’ prejudice into a profound “teaching moment” for all New Zealanders. Rather than the caricature of Islam presented by its enemies, we could have heard the true voice of the Prophet and gained a much deeper understanding of his message...
What they would have been very loath to upload, however, would have been images of them being soundly defeated by Muslim scholars; or floundering before the questioning of participants in TVNZ’s town-hall meeting...
Had we been mature enough, as a free and democratic nation, to meet the challenge of Molyneux and Southern in such a fashion, the two Alt-Right Canadians would have had nothing to show their followers. But we New Zealanders would have had something to show the world.

People have tried to debate “alt-right” fascists before, and that is not how it pans out. I presume Trotter will remember the Campbell Live episode four years ago when television presenter John Campbell tried to interview then Prime Minister John Key about government intelligence agencies spying on New Zealanders, and Key responded to every question with “New Zealanders don’t care about that. New Zealanders care about snapper fishing quotas.” And you could see Campbell getting more and more frustrated as the segment went on, while Key was clearly baiting him on purpose and loving it. Key was not a fascist – his government (among many less creditable things) banned physical punishment of children and legalized gay marriage – but that sort of debate tactic is where the “alt-right” lives. Ignore questions, bait your opponents, and make sure your audience see them get het up while you laugh.

The “alt-right”’s central tactic is, whether by design or through trial and error, much cleverer than Trotter gives it credit for. Ian Danskin has explained it at greater length than I can do justice to on his YouTube channel Innuendo Studios. Here are a couple of his videos; I’ll give a quick summary of each in case you don’t have the leisure to watch them right now. They’re part of a longer series called The Alt-Right Playbook.

Control the Conversation. “Alt-right” fascists make bad arguments on purpose. The point is to deflect the conversation away from the central issue to a peripheral one, and they have learned that there is no more effective way to do that than to make a bad argument on the peripheral topic, because bad arguments are bait to progressives who want to look intelligent and woke in front of other progressives. You end up never discussing the real point. The “alt-right” themselves aren’t interested in looking intelligent and woke; they’re interested in looking strong and certain, because that appeals to authoritarian personalities, who nowadays make up the rank and file of the Right. And the Right sells certainty better than the Left sells truth.

Never Play Defence. Frequently arguments with “alt-right” fascists follow a common cyclic pattern. He says something short, quippy, and wrong; you give a detailed correction; he picks out one tiny detail of your correction and says something short, quippy, and wrong about it; and the cycle repeats. Mostly his short, quippy, wrong remarks are accusations rather than discussions of the point. On a personal level this is about putting you in a box, a category of people who can be disregarded. But there’s a bigger game going on as well. If he’s always accusing, you’re always explaining, and, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” The point, again, is not to win the argument. The point is to make that box they’re putting you in – be it “cultural Marxism”, “reverse racism”, or “failed manhood” – instantly recognisable for use against other progressives in other conversations.

The Alt-Right Playbook is mostly about internet debates. In live debate there’s a further tactic available to those who don’t care about the truth, originally perfected amongst creationists and named “the Gish Gallop” after one of them. This is especially effective, perhaps, in debates against academics. Academics are trained to lecture, which means spinning each point out so that your students have space to take it in and note it down. The Gish Gallop is the opposite of that: you spit out a rapid series of tangentially related assertions too fast for your opponent to answer more than a selection of them, thus giving the impression that your position has more support than you can discuss in detail and, still more, that your opponent is feeble and can’t keep up.

I don’t think a live debate between Southern and Molyneux on the one hand and a distinguished Islamic scholarly team on the other would have been the triumph Trotter imagines. I think it would have been a stream of nasty personal attacks and unfounded assertions from the Canadian side, too thick and fast for the scholars to reply to. Above all, Southern and Molyneux would have done everything in their power to goad their opponents into a rage, and then drawn the moral “That rage is the true face of Islam; that’s where terrorism comes from.” And I don’t think the TVNZ town-hall meeting would have been any better. Certainly they would not have been “floundering”. I think they would have deflected any inconvenient questions as blatantly as John Key deflected John Campbell’s, and repeated a small selection of ad hominem accusations as many times as possible. The point, remember, is not to convince those who don’t agree with them, but to make a common language of hatred available to those who do.

Putting Trotter and Danskin’s insights together, you can see the real power of the “alt-right”’s strategy: shutting them out and debating them both advance their cause. If you’re querying how effective this is, remember their guy is in the White House right now.

So if we can’t shut them out and we can’t debate them, what do we do? Indulge me while I examine what I think is one more wrong answer, by James Robb of A Communist At Large. Robb agrees with Trotter that Southern and Molyneux ought to have been suffered to speak in the Bruce Mason Centre, on the grounds that any attack on free speech is an attack on the working class. There’s something a little off-kilter about a revolutionary Marxist appealing to the Constitution of the United States of America, but that is what Robb does in his piece “How Not to Fight the Right – A Case Study in Abject Liberal-Left Politics”.

Nor should we grant to the bourgeoisie the prerogative to determine what constitutes “hate speech,” “advocating terrorism,” “sedition,” “inciting racial disharmony,” nor any other of the myriad categories of forbidden expression that clutter the law books. It is not for the ruling class to judge whether the speaker is motivated by sincere faith or hatred... The simple unqualified defence of freedom of expression such as that laid out in the First Amendment to the United States constitution should be our starting point.

That’s a position I can respect – so far. Robb goes on to assert that

No, “right-wing extremism” does not “reach into our communities” from the outside, nor are our communities being torn apart by the “subversive strategies” of “right-wing extremists.” Rightist political ideas are alive and well already in our class-divided communities, generated from within and constantly reproduced by the social relations of capitalism in decay. What we are witnessing is not a harmonious society being subverted from outside, but rather, the capacity of capitalist society to sustain the institutions of bourgeois democracy withering away.

I am becoming increasingly suspicious, I must confess, of revolutionary Marxism’s penchant for expounding theory-laden hypotheses about sociopolitical phenomena without backup argumentation as if they were self-evident truths. Robb’s prescription is

...Auckland Peace Action reveals the utter impotence of liberalism in a period of sharpening political class polarization. Hate is the inescapable counterpart to oppression. The justified hatred of the oppressed towards their oppressors is an absolutely necessary weapon in the fight against oppression. The task of the moment is not to “say No to hate” but to turn the hatred of the oppressed in the appropriate direction – against the ruling class, their governments (state and municipal), and their political parties. The rightists understand this well – hence their unending efforts to get us to turn our hatred inwards, at ourselves and each other. What is needed is to arm our class politically, so that the rightists’ appeals to turn our hatred against ourselves fall on barren ground.

The problem with this is that hate is an exceedingly blunt instrument. I’ve spent hours of my life that I will never get back, in recent years, trying to do something approaching what Robb suggests – convince working-class New Zealanders on Facebook that the inequalities our country faces are due to the last National Government’s unjust employment policies, not to its permissive immigration policy with regard to East Asia. Invariably the bulk of the responses were along the lines of “Yes, we know it’s the employers’ fault there are so many Chinese here.” No, Chinese people being here are not a problem, the problem is employers getting away with underpaying immigrants who can’t stand up for themselves, how about we run a campaign for immigrant workers’ rights? “Well, there’s still too many of them coming in, we need to shut off the tap.” Mind you, the particular Facebook group I’m thinking of is skewed towards supporters of Winston Peters, of whom Robb makes the surreal understatement that he “has engaged in scapegoating of immigrants himself in the past.”

The instinct to divide the world into an Us and a Them, goodies and baddies, Jedi and Sith, Elves and Orcs, is deeply rooted in the human psyche. It is not alone, and it can be kept under wraps by nourishing its equally deeply-anchored rival, the instinct for empathy. But it will surface given encouragement. And the worst thing about it is that it’s not a mindless animal rage. We are quite adept at making connections between outsider groups and noticing which ones seem to be associated with our enemies. I never once encountered racism against Māori or Pacific Island people in that Facebook group, rampant though those attitudes are on the New Zealand Right; it was Chinese and Indian immigrants who were seen as benefiting from National policies and thus deserving of hate. At least one contributor actually said in so many words “I hope Winston keeps the Asians out but not the Pacific Islanders.”

That in itself tells against Robb’s insinuation that racism is a cunning ploy by the bourgeoisie to divide the working class. There’s plenty of evidence that class divisions create injustices and hurt people on the bottom of the pile; I know of none whatsoever to support the claim that they are the root of all other divisions in society, nor that working-class anger would naturally gravitate to its just targets in the ruling class, and no-one else, absent ruling-class propaganda. It is no longer surprising to me that most Marxist revolutions outside the Soviet bloc ended up being as much about nationalism as socialism, distant though nationalism was from Marx’s own thinking. Foreigners are allies of the bourgeois enemy, and to hate one is to hate the other.

Robb’s final paragraph verges on conspiracy theorizing:

That possibility, the potential counter-mobilization, is what Mayor Phil Goff feared – not the rightists themselves, who pose no threat to capitalist law and order, and certainly not the ridiculous threats of disruption from tiny left groups – and that is what he moved to pre-empt.

I am inescapably reminded of the guy I met once who suggested that Otago University’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies must be secretly intended to research how to start wars rather than prevent them. His reasoning: Otago University is a bourgeois institution; the bourgeoisie like war; therefore... And it’s not too far away from the argument I had a few weeks ago, with Marxists who in this case are friends of mine, on the notion that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are “both on the same side” (on account of neither one being a Marxist, you see). But I didn’t write a blog post on that then because I didn’t want things to get nasty, and I will resist the temptation to go further along this tangent now.

How then do we counter the “alt-right”? I think Danskin’s recommendation is the best starting-point. Avoid getting dragged into debates with them, for a start. Tell the truth, publicly, about the things they tell lies about, but don’t start by explaining what their position is so you can point out where they’re going wrong; start with the truth. (This is going to be a challenge for me, since basically all my writing is inspired by reading something I disagree with.) Sometimes, however, especially on social media, “alt-right” fascists can worm their way into existing conversations, and it’s hard to get rid of them without making it look like you had no answer to their lies. In that case, what I suggest is this:

  • Ask them the central, relevant question of the debate. One sentence. Something that will require them to explain something.
  • When they deflect it, ask it again, in the same words.
  • Resist the temptation to explicate at length how they’re going off-topic. A short phrase like “Non-answer noted” is ample. Ask them the question again.
  • Ignore indirect accusations altogether. If they come at you with a direct accusation, give it at most the one word “No.” Nothing else. Ask them the question again.
  • If they send you private messages with nasty threats or insults, immediately screenshot them and post the screenshots in the public thread. Blank out any sensitive information about yourself or innocent third parties, obviously. Answer as above.
  • Be courteous and patient with all good-faith participants in the conversation. Speak the truth, addressing them, not the fascist.

Remember, what they want you to do is (a) explain at length, thus putting you on the back foot; or (b) get angry and yell insults so they can look like the good guy; or, failing that, (c) have them blocked or banned so they can boast about how they were too much for you – and in all cases, stick you in a “can be ignored because...” box, because their longer-term goal is to make those boxes familiar features of public discourse. There’s no ideal response (and for violent individuals a ban may be necessary to keep people safe), but failing to answer a question at least won’t make them look strong or certain. Do not seek out such confrontations. Do not supplement these tactics with scornful or angry replies, no matter how well-deserved.

And what do we do when they hold public events? Well, this is probably the best idea:

Love Aotearoa / Hate Racism rally poster: a rally to be held in Mangere, Auckland, on 28 July 2018

It’s still possibly a bit reactive, in that “Hate racism” gives the fascists a toe-hold in the context. But at least it doesn’t name them. It would have been best to hold it on the same day and time as their meeting, so as to starve them directly of the audience and media attention that they thrive on; but I appreciate that they’ve cancelled and rescheduled, which makes that difficult to synchronize. The important thing is to turn out to this in numbers. Almost makes me wish I lived in Auckland so I could go there.

In the meantime, freedom of speech is precious. The “alt-right” has already managed to get it associated with them in public discourse. Let’s not let them take it from us – either by expanding the state’s powers to silence them or by endorsing their interpretation of it as a right to dominate conversations and be listened to.

1 comment:

  1. At last some sense. Pity you couldn't post it on Chris's blog.
    I posted this: