Is Free Speech a Far-Right Notion?
Lately, you may have seen something puzzling across many media outlets. If you look closely at established media sources, there seems to be a marked tendency to associate free speech advocacy with far-right politics. In some cases, this comes with a very amusing brand of irony, such as when a professor writes an angry screed on the supposed hypocrisy of free-speech advocates, claiming to be oppressed and silenced in a piece that has been published in one of the country’s largest newspapers. It doesn’t get much less “silent” than that. The death threats she has received are indeed regrettable, but she’s not alone: anyone who writes on politics long enough is bound to accumulate a few creepy online stalkers.
It’s not limited to the NYT, either. NPR recently published an article aimed at Gab.ai, saying, “users [of Gab] are invited to #SpeakFreely — an appeal attractive to many members of the far right,” keeping up the trend of discussing free speech and the far right in constant conjunction as if they’re two sides of the same coin. The NPR piece links to a similar one on WIRED. The Guardian has a piece labeling the free speech week at Berkeley a “far-right festival” – one whose list of planned speakers included anti-extremism campaigner and first-generation British citizen Raheem Kassam, Washington lobbyist Monica Crowley, and gay Jewish pundit Milo Yiannopoulos. You can find plenty more such articles, if you know how to use Google.
It’s doubtful that this is a conscious attempt to link the idea of free speech with right-wing politics, although one can wonder. Constantly mentioning the two of them in the same breath may have the result of conflating them in the public mind, and perhaps there are a few pundits consciously doing so, but it’s likely that the phenomenon is more incidental than planned. The tendency to associate free speech and conservative politics is the inadvertent result of recent political trends, which will have the further inadvertent consequence of associating conservatism with free speech.
The Leftist Reaction
It’s no secret at this point that the political left, after winning the culture war, is beginning to lose ground for the first time in decades. There are now people who have taken the continued dominance of progressive thinking as a given because they were born in an era where the left never lost any ground. Now that the high-water mark for that dominance has, apparently, passed us by, people who have seen it for the past few decades – which, keep in mind, may be as long as they can remember – are disoriented and upset by something that seems totally unprecedented.
The overwhelmingly left-leaning Millennial generation has never known a time when conservative ideas were socially acceptable, when the inherent and fundamental correctness of progressive doctrine was not taken for granted, and when literature courses at universities weren’t a game of “spot the racist.” With the election of Trump, the seismic geopolitical shift of Brexit, and the sudden surge in what the political class fearfully and vaguely labels “populism,” the world seems to have changed overnight. Understandably, the left, accustomed to an environment where its legitimacy was received wisdom, doesn’t quite know how to react.
Even worse, the informal self-censorship of people who do not agree with the prevailing view seems to have evaporated. In retrospect, this was completely predictable, because political correctness is sustained by the belief that everyone else in the room believes in political correctness. This can stop a conversation even if everyone present thinks that PC is nonsense – but only if everyone continues to believe that everyone else believes PC. All that had to happen was for a large enough group of people to declare, “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I don’t believe the prevailing doctrine.” Moreover, this kind of informal social censorship tends to make people angry because it silences what they feel are legitimate complaints, so there was a slowly-building tide of resentment.
This slowly-building anger, in turn, made it inevitable that someone would eventually call BS on the whole thing. The dissipation of the illusion that everyone believes in political correctness was not only possible, but inevitable. And once the illusion that everyone likes PC is gone, so is PC itself.
One result of the demise of political correctness was the sudden surge in right-wing discourse, a small fraction of which is made by bona fide Neo-Nazis, and the rest of which is made by a mixed assortment of libertarians, paleoconservatives, anarcho-capitalists, Tea Partiers, and so on, very few of whom have any kind of racial animus, if any of them even do.
The attempt to stamp this out was made on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and pretty much every other popular social media site. You will be unsurprised to hear that this failed miserably, because there was a new group of people yearning for a platform on which to speak, meaning there was money to be made.
No such platforms were forthcoming, and the newly-recognized demographic had a little money to spend, so new platforms were created. So we’ve seen an explosion of alternative social media. This includes sites like Gab, Minds, Voat, Bitchute, and more.
Now, brace yourself, because you’re going to be asked an extremely difficult question: if a lot of successful and established social media companies see that they are suddenly dealing with a host of competitors that weren’t there two years ago, will they like it? Yes, that was sarcasm. Of course they don’t like it. They don’t like it for the same reason that Microsoft doesn’t like Apple: the almighty dollar.
Rise of the Alt-Media
Now, the problem with big companies is that they work like big ships, meaning they turn slowly and change course only with difficulty. So what happened here is a grave miscalculation on the part of the established companies. They reacted the same way they would have reacted had PC still been dominant. Back when political correctness still lived, you could silence anyone by shouting “Nazi” loud enough, because people would actually attach some importance to a word like “Nazi” or “racist” and pay attention to you.
And now, nobody cares. The established media outlets see that their strategy isn’t working. They are, however, also blinded to the fact that PC is just not a thing anymore. They think that everyone else still believes in political correctness. If you thought that political correctness was still a thing, and if nobody was responding when you cried “racist” or some equivalent word, what would you conclude?
Obviously, you’d conclude that you just didn’t say “racist” loud enough. So you’d keep screaming it, louder and louder and louder, becoming steadily more angry and frustrated that nobody was reacting the way you wanted. And that’s exactly what the media is doing.
What happens now?
It’s simple. The established companies will eventually figure out that the presumption of progressive ideology is dead. But by then, it will be too late. They will have already screamed their lungs bloody about racism and evil far-right free speech media, which will result in the double irony of robbing words like “Nazi” and “racist” of their power and associating free speech with conservatism.
Real Nazis, as opposed to impoverished Midwestern amphetamine addicts with swastika tattoos, have not existed in an organized fashion for more than half a century at this point. Our fear of Nazis is trumped by our love of free speech. Accordingly, the association of free speech with conservatism will amount to a gift-wrapped victory for the right, who will not hesitate to push the advantage. And the legacy media, still pulling fiercely on the rope, will blink and suddenly realize that they’ve lost the tug-of-war and are already face-down in the dirt.