Long march of censorship
Paul Demarty looks at recent attacks on free speech in the name of combatting offence, real or imagined
The last week has been chock-a-block with events that are, in their own right, relatively small affairs, but cumulatively highlight how fraught the question of freedom of speech has become, both in this country and in the United States.
On October 23, the south London football club, Crystal Palace, hosted Newcastle United. The latter have, of course, been recently taken over by the Public Investment Fund - the vast pile of lucre owned, but (so the Premier League assures us) not controlled, by the Saudi monarchy, and definitely not controlled by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who within the PIF hierarchy enjoys only the trivial position of chairman.
These subtleties were rather lost on one band of Palace fans, who held aloft a splendid political cartoon on a giant banner. This showed, in the background, Newcastle fans chanting “We’ve got our club back”; in front, a man in traditional Arab dress readies to behead a magpie with a scimitar (Newcastle are nicknamed the ‘magpies’ after their black-and-white kit). To the right, Richard Masters, the Premier League chairman, standing in a pool of blood and holding a torn gay-pride armband, checks off the items on his ‘fit and proper owner’ test: terrorism, beheadings, civil rights abuses, murder, censorship and persecution. Before him is a big bag of money.
Within hours, police announced they were investigating “a report of an offensive banner displayed by Crystal Palace fans”. After extensive outcry from the wider football world, this ludicrous ‘investigation’ was dropped. But it is not only the opposition fans who have gotten into trouble: jubilant Newcastle fans dressing up in the garb of their new owners have also come under caution for some meaningless subvariety of ‘racism’, since cultural appropriation (or whatever) is a terrible thing to do to a poor, oppressed population of theocratic petro-tyrants. (Likewise, Newcastle United have since cautiously allowed the dress-up routine to continue.)
Scotland, meanwhile, has just been through a short culture-war flare-up, when it was briefly reported that the word ‘spooky’ had been banned from the productions of the National Theatre of Scotland: stolen, Grinch-like, from the Halloween revellers, on account of ‘spook’ having at one time or another been a racial epithet. Since then, the NTS has asserted that there never was such a ban - so strenuously that “We apologise for the offence caused” has started appearing on all the articles about the affair. The word was merely “discussed as part of an anti-racism training exercise”.
A rather larger cultural kerfuffle has been unfolding in the United States, where Netflix has sustained a barrage of criticism for broadcasting a comedy special by Dave Chappelle, a well-regarded black comic, whose style is characteristically offensive, and who this time set his sights on the transgender question. Netflix offered a pseudo-apology, but refused to pull the programme, meanwhile endorsing an employee walkout in protest at this ‘anti-trans hate’. Despite the nod from management and the hysterical enthusiasm of the liberal press, the Netflix walkout attracted only 50 people.
And finally, and most seriously of all, we have developments in the tech world. Frances Haugen, the deeply dubious Facebook ‘whistleblower’, told MPs this week that her former employer had “unilateral control over three billion people” and urgently needed “external regulation” - thus backing UK government proposals to increase the liability social media platforms have for unlawful speech. This is part of a rather grand celebrity tour of government agencies and - bizarrely - Facebook itself, where she play-acts at speaking truth to power, while plainly trying to tighten censorship of the web. Mysteriously, she has not suffered the sort of fate the common run of whistleblower does, of blacklisting and memory-holing and - in the extreme case of a Chelsea Manning - inhuman imprisonment.
Yet the tech giants already do censor, as Novara Media - the British left-Labour website, learned on October 26, when Google summarily deplatformed it from YouTube. (Amid the hue and cry, rightwing libertarians were keen to remind the site’s editors and backers that they had a dreadful record of opposing such unilateral censorship when the targets were on the right.)
Crisis of confidence
What are we to make of all these things? We should start by noting that, for a shorter time than is typically supposed, the self-image of western liberal ‘democracy’ was ostensibly founded on a commitment to freedom of speech.
The actual level of freedom available is everywhere imperfect at best and usually very limited: even in the US, which has - in theory - very robust legal protections for speech, ‘extra-legal’ means (Jim Crow lynch mobs, media oligarchy and so on) have been found to restrict the public sphere to acceptable limits. In Britain, of course, we have the whole sordid history of libel law, dating back to its invention as an instrument of absolute monarchy. Despite all these defects - indeed, the elementary contradiction between capitalist oligarchy and broad liberty of agitation - for a century or more, depending on the country, freedom of speech has been touted as a great virtue and the differentia specifica of western democracy.
Our various straws in the wind above show a crisis of confidence in that ideal that in fact spans across the two historic ‘parties’ of capitalist political life: order and liberty. The right is increasingly dominated by revanchist, chauvinist elements who propose to suppress ideologies they identify as opposed to the nation. Frances Haugen may be all het up about rightwing hate speech and disinformation, but we know from various exposures that our government is certainly under the impression that leftwing protest movements are little better, if at all, than terrorists. In the States, the current rightwing bugbear is the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in schools; ‘critical race theory’ in this context turns out to mean more or less any treatment of American history that does not equivocate on the 1860 slaveholder’s revolt and the system it defended.
So far as the liberals go, the obvious symptom of this crisis - more and more obvious over the last decade, and especially since the election of Donald Trump as president - there is a simple inability to distinguish between words and actions, between insults and (as the cliché goes) ‘literal violence’. That is visible in a modest way in the NTS case, when some well-meaning ‘anti-racist’ educator managed to excavate a derogatory use of the word “spook”, which seemed to appear in the 1940s and disappear again almost immediately (but not before it was reclaimed by the Tuskegee airmen, who nicknamed themselves the Spookwaffe). To reject this framing of individual words as somehow permanently laden with an oppressive unconscious is, according to the prevailing mindset, to deny the experience of those who really did suffer its use as a slur, which, when you think about it, is a little like erasing them, which in turn is a little like killing them.
So, in a rather grander way, we get the Netflix protest - farcical in itself, but treated with near comical seriousness by a credulous liberal media - at which a speaker claimed without apparent irony that trans people were undergoing a “holocaust” (a claim that requires a level of magical thinking beyond even that arch-Terf, JK Rowling). This, you will remember, was in relation to some 30 minutes or so of stand-up comedy. That is the trouble with ‘literal violence’ reasoning - it denies us a clear view of what is actually happening, hiding it under a fever dream about Josef Mengele. Its very logic is infernal - the less catastrophist reading of any situation is always vulnerable to accusations of not taking the thing seriously enough, which in turn erases the experience of those who suffered in the situation, and therefore is tantamount to ‘literal violence’. By such means does the phrase ‘literal violence’ come to ‘literally’ mean ‘metaphorical violence’.
Yet, as is evident from our examples, it does not actually seem to work. In truth, the two camps of censors do not so much cancel each other out as produce a wholly perverse, illogical landscape of pervasive censoriousness. A minor celebrity may be caught in a cancel-culture storm, while the upper reaches of different cultural forms - your Rowlings and indeed your Chappelles - are floated above it by their immense fortunes and fan cachet. The president of the USA is kicked off Twitter if the situation is right, but the ideology he represents purges public schools of ‘woke’ teaching. Twitches deep within the walls of social media giants - whether algorithmic or of directly human provenance - wipe people off the visible internet, but perhaps (if a scandal results) only for a moment. The Metropolitan Police interest themselves in protest banners at football matches. An outrage cycle might succeed or fail, but apparently at random.
It is this rather Hobbesian character of affairs - a war of all against all - that marks the situation out as one of ideological crisis. Which is the dominant ideology in Anglo-American society? Is it nationalist revanchism or politically-correct fanaticism? It all rather depends on whether one is a school board superintendent in Tennessee or the artistic director of a Glasgow theatre. The former will feel crypto-confederates and Trumpite imbeciles breathing down his neck; the latter a whole industry for the production of ‘racial reckoning’ down hers. “Between equal rights,” Marx remarked about something rather different, “force decides.”
The way out, as it were ‘by default’, is precisely for force to decide. It seemed, in the States at the beginning of this year, that the liberal censors would get their chance - the idiotic coup attempt of January 6 seemed to open the way to a clampdown on ‘domestic terrorism’ that, if the war on terror proper is any guide, would succeed in removing large rightwing ideological currents to the state of semi-legality enjoyed by Islamists and (at the peak of Bush-II-era insanity, and certainly still in this country) various kinds of leftwing militants in the anti-war, environmentalist and other movements. That may still happen; as likely, however, given the farcical progress of the Biden administration’s headline policies in Congress, is a crushing reversal in the midterms and a Trump comeback tour or ideological equivalent in 2024, to be followed by a ‘domestic terrorism’ agenda focused on … leftists, anti-fascists, green activists and who knows who else.
The left has betrayed a worrying tendency to be pulled behind the liberals in this battle, and tacitly or enthusiastically accept the censorship of the right. It is quite understandable, insofar as the right openly views us as terrorists; it is wrong because both parties are in the end parties of the state, and so whoever wins, we lose. Suppose the Democrats get their ‘domestic terrorism’ agenda through: who will be the ones to enforce it? Precisely the ‘three letter agencies’ of the American deep state. The latter phrase is, of course, in bad odour now, thanks to its cooptation by some of the more exotic brands of rightwing conspiracy theorists; but it is a plain fact that, apart from the very most senior levels of the FBI and friends, these are career organisations, and their institutional biases are not revolutionised by transfers of the lease on the White House.
Sweeping anti-terror laws always end up targeting the left and reactionary militants among oppressed groups (such as Islamists nowadays); it is, after all, those groups - insofar as they are not effectively absorbed into the parties of liberty and order - which are least reconcilable to the fundamental dynamics of the imperialist state regimes of the west.
The correct course of action is for the workers’ movement to oppose all speech controls and censorship, whether against ourselves, transphobes, racists or open neo-Nazis. We should oppose all hate speech laws, all regulations designed to protect politicians and public figures from ‘abuse’, all criminalisation of slander and libel, and we should do this first of all out of self-interest.
But we should also do so with - as it were - a prefigurative perspective. The culture of a liberated future will be very different, but for it to be better, it must not be endlessly scared of its own shadow.