The ‘free speech’ trap

by rightscholarship

PEN Canada‘s non-event, the Non-Speak Week, came to an end last week. Once again, PEN’s focus was on pro-democracy writers persecuted by authoritarian governments. These cases are important to address, but focusing on them creates the illusion that the power to silence is held only by governments, and is only exercised by governments that do not uphold the twin pillars of transparency and democracy. If only it were that simple . . .

PEN tends to overlook the obvious. The elephant in the room in any discussion of free speech in Canada is good old Ernst Zundel, the Holocaust denier that Canadians loved to hate in the 1980s. Zundel baited the public and set himself up as a media martyr, but nevertheless, the treatment he received in our courts, along with his later detention and deportation to Germany where he was imprisoned for years, was a blatant and very public example of the denial of freedom of speech in Canada. The repercussions of his trials and deportation are still being felt, as he continues to inspire an ugly underground of Hitler-loving wingnuts as well as some of the more radical anti-Semites in the Middle East. PEN doesn’t mention his name (at least in any materials that I could locate online), perhaps because they know that in the eyes of some, defending his right to free speech would imply agreement with his views. They know what Noam Chomsky went through when he defended Robert Faurisson. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell, PEN never launched a campaign to free Zundel.

If I were a free-speech advocate, and I am not, I would writhe in shame for not standing up for Zundel’s rights when it counted, and not using his case as a prime example of the persecution of writers and publishers in Canada. Addressing his case would take ammunition away from those who would lure people into racist organizations by pretending to defend free speech (one such organization can easily be found through Google searches). The persecution of Holocaust deniers in the West has been addressed by both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the late Osama Bin Laden: they’ve asked how the West can both support freedom of speech and imprison people like Zundel and David Irving. There’s no good answer.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how freedom of speech doesn’t imply freedom from consequences. This is nonsense; it actually requires freedom from consequences. If you don’t accept this, it would follow that there’s nothing wrong with a regime killing dissidents if these dissidents knew that speaking out would result in death. I’d recommend anyone interested in the complexities of the free speech issue to listen to Christopher Hitchens’ brave and eloquent 2006 debate talk at Hart House in Toronto.

A relative lack of support for Zundel and other unglamorous speech-martyrs aside, PEN’s focus on writers persecuted by the state is misleading. Almost all power to restrict freedom of speech in liberal democracies lies in the hands of employers, who can in many cases easily fire employees for their opinions, or choose not to hire. In a world where contract work and multiple careers are becoming the norm, this is a growing problem. Social media has made it a simple task to determine a person’s opinions, political or otherwise. Every employer now has resources formerly held only by CSIS or similar organizations. How many of us were smart enough to erase all of our tracks online, from the newsgroup era to the Facebook era? Luckily, most employers are decent people and choose not to pry too deeply into the private lives of their employees. Still, the power is theirs. Of course, if you hold socially acceptable opinions you don’t need to worry, for now.

How does all of this relate to academia? PhD students, contract instructors, and tenure-track professors live in constant fear of the professional repercussions their political views might have. They are not worried about being hounded by CSIS; rather, they fear the hiring committee. Although the faculty hiring process is expensive and time-consuming for both departments and candidates, final decisions are often largely arbitrary, based on nebulous, subjective qualities like “fit.” There is plenty of room for politically-motivated screening to take place, before, during and after interviews. If you have different political opinions than those held by the committee, you will likely be found out. If you have managed to hide your political opinions by never speaking out in public and choosing to work on ‘non-political’ issues (if such exist) in a way that either betrays no political motivation or mimics the motivations of those you oppose, I feel sorry for you, and you probably won’t get hired anyway. The situation is not fair, but it’s what we have to work with.

Right Thinkers are a minority, and I would advocate for freedom of speech if I thought it would protect us. I would also defend the principle of freedom of speech if it could reasonably be defended. Instead, I think Right Thinkers should speak honestly and clearly, without appealing to the concept of freedom of speech (except, of course, if strategically unavoidable in a legal situation). Use prudence, but never lie or mislead. Prepare to stand your ground when you face criticism, ostracism or worse. Frequent and forceful truth-telling cannot be resisted indefinitely.

Appealing to the principle of freedom of speech only adds a layer of deception to your message. The very concept of free speech is restrictive, because it cannot become absolute without defeating itself. Allowing freedom of speech for those that oppose freedom of speech could easily lead to the end of freedom of speech. There is also no way to clearly distinguish between regular speech and hate speech or incitement. A seemingly innocuous speech-act, in the right circumstances, can be interpreted as a sign to riot, revolt, rampage or persecute. Even silence (the refusal to condemn) can function that way. Context plays too great a role.

Because it can never be absolute, freedom of speech is never just in practice. Some speakers are always left out in the cold. Free speech defenders like PEN bless certain forms of speech and damn others, indirectly, through inattention and non-action. In other words, it is the free speech advocates themselves who survey the speech landscape and determine who can speak freely. The moment you advocate for free speech you betray your principles, for you are not only luring cautious free-thinkers out of the shadows by perpetuating the myth that free speech exists, but also focusing your gaze on a privileged category of persecuted speakers that you will defend. The others who have revealed themselves find that there’s no more room on the ark, and are left to their fate.

Getting caught up in the free speech issue is a trap. It’s a tool people use to gain support for their views; after they have made it safe for themselves to speak, they proceed to silence their opponents.

The fight is not to speak without consequences but to speak the truth, whatever the consequences.