On the Alt-Right and Freedom of Speech: A Praxis of Engaging with Hate
We need to think before taking it for granted that punching ‘fascists’ and other physical forms of resistance is the best way to stop the alt-right. That means asking ourselves whether we are trying to make ourselves feel good or seeking solutions that help communities endangered by the rising tide of right-wing populism. Violent demonstrations by individuals and groups on the left against authoritative personalities from the alt-right hint that violence is not enough if we are serious about delegitimizing the alt-right. Moving forward it is worth looking at the arguments of the right, specifically freedom of speech, if we are to diminish the alt-right’s popularity.
2017 has so far provided a few examples from which we can think critically about the battle so far. The first instance is shown in a viral video from early January showing an unidentified man of colour punching alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer in the face during an interview. Spencer, founder and president of a white nationalist think tank called the ‘National Policy Institute,’ is credited with coining the term ‘alt-right,’ a term used to characterize a diverse right-wing movement unified by support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, opposition to multiculturalism and white supremacy. I do not intend on judging the man responsible for the punch, nor do I intend on evaluating the ethics of violent resistance; whether violence is right or wrong depends on particular situations, and discussing it in abstraction from real experiences is a waste of time. I argue instead that physical suppression of the alt-right serves to fuel the movement’s popularity.
Closer examination of the alt-right movement shows us that punching those we despise legitimizes the foundational arguments of the alt-right. Physical suppression of alt-right views justifies the alt-right’s claim to freedom of speech, and therefore leads us further away from taking away its popularity.
The predictable consequence of forcing someone to keep their heinous opinions to themself is that they will express their rage in the dark corners of the internet to others who feel the same way, all without public accountability.
The recent controversy over free speech is evident in the student demonstration at UC Berkeley in early February, in which several protesters shot fireworks at a venue where former editor of Breitbart News Milo Yiannopoulos was due to speak. The protest sought to deny Yiannopoulos a platform to speak at the university due to his record of violent rhetoric towards various marginalized communities, and they ultimately succeeded in doing so. They did not succeed, however, in delegitimizing Yiannopoulos’ popularity. Regardless of whether the students were justified, that Yiannopoulos was denied the right to speak gave him significant leverage in his efforts to undermine the Left and marginalized communities more generally, tweeting soon afterwards that there is “One thing we do know for sure: the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.” Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of expression was obviously infringed upon. But should we care?
The UC Berkeley protests beg an important question: given his divisive and harmful rhetoric, is the violation of Yiannopoulos’ civil liberties justified? Yiannopoulos’ speeches frequently attack marginalized groups and embolden violent acts of discrimination. But there are only two positions you can hold concerning freedom of speech: you believe in it absolutely or you do not believe in it at all. If we claim that we believe in freedom of speech, it follows then that we are held to believe in freedom of speech of those we despise. Moreover, given that the University is among the relatively freest institutions in society, we should think seriously about the precedents we set in withholding civil liberties from those we disagree with. After all, there are certainly those who despise the Left and would love nothing more to see it disappear under hate speech.
What about hate speech? If hate speech is defined as words that incite violence, then it could be argued that Yiannopoulos’ tirades against marginalized communities qualify. It follows then that speech inciting violence should not be tolerated. Not letting Yiannopoulos speak at UC Berkeley, therefore, was justified. Easy enough, until we examine the Sadikov affair at McGill, in which a member of the Student’s Society of McGill University tweeted “Punch a Zionist today” to his 19 followers on Twitter. The problem with the category of hate speech is that it is ultimately determined by individuals partial to their own interests. In the Sadikov case, it was the McGill administration, not Independent Jewish Voices, that had the authority to determine whether Sadikov’s tweet crossed the line of free speech. No one should have the arbitrary authority to restrict civil liberties. The Sadikov case shows that the precedent of hate speech can and will be wielded against the Left, and teaches us that hate speech is far too convenient a mechanism for justifying political repression.
There are serious limitations as to how useful progressive white men can be in the feminist movement, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ community, or in struggles for Indigenous self-determination. The liberation of these communities will be achieved by these communities themselves, not by white male activists.
Refusing the civil liberties of men like Spencer and Yiannopoulos does not stunt the influence of their message; it gives them power. The alt-right appeals to white men frequently silenced for their racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic views. Do we honestly think that refusing them the space to speak their minds will dissolve the ugliness of their thoughts? Or will their prejudices bottle up and explode? The predictable consequence of forcing someone to keep their heinous opinions to themself is that they will express their rage in the dark corners of the internet to others who feel the same way, all without public accountability.
Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos have become martyrs, the patron saints of the dissident, bearing the inconvenient "truth" that leftists don’t want to hear. We can only dismantle this image by addressing the legitimacy of their claims to freedom of speech.
No one looks in the mirror and sees an asshole. No one likes being told they are wrong, let alone a racist. We should not be surprised by the current backlash against the modern Left, spearheaded by Women, the LGBTQ community, and people of colour. Their fight for self-determination threatens the power of white men. These communities are the most endangered by the alt-right, and we should not expect them to be patient and self-reflective in their fight against the abject violence of the alt-right. As such, progressive white men must pull their weight with careful attention towards preventing the reproduction of oppression in its turn.
The basic question one should ask when thinking about combating the rise of the far right is: what can I do, based on who and where I am? There are serious limitations as to how useful progressive white men can be in the feminist movement, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ community, or in struggles for Indigenous self-determination. The liberation of these communities will be achieved by these communities themselves, not by white male activists. And so, unless they are requested by such groups, progressive white men should try and be useful within the position of privilege they occupy.
Though quotes like “Be the fist you want to see in a fascist’s face,” should be appreciated for the feelings of confidence they elicit against a threatening enemy, we should be careful about violent rhetoric, especially if we are ill-prepared to back it up. We are dealing with dangerous people, and our efforts to stop the alt-right should be concerned with making sure the least amount of people get hurt.
White, straight male activists are not threatened by the alt-right as much as other identities. We are, in a limited but significant sense, ‘one of them.’ As a result, we can hold the alt-right responsible for their views without putting ourselves in as much danger as a member of an oppressed group might. Dialogue will not change a white-supremacist's opinion, but it will hold him publicly accountable. Ideally, progressive white males should work towards humiliating alt-right supporters through argument, seeking to dismantle the movement’s legitimacy.
Modern leftist discourse, slandered as ‘political correctness,’ cannot stop the alt-right precisely because it gives it fuel; the alt-right consists of men who feel threatened by the notion of ‘politically correctness.’ They define themselves against it. As such, we need an approach that can effectively counter, rather than reproduce, the rising tide of right wing populism.
Violence is a last resort, and preemptive attempts at violent assaults on white supremacists is an excuse for macho-aggression. Though empowering, we should be serious about how an altercation between a white-supremacist and a leftist would look if we are concerned with saving people from physical harm. Though quotes like “Be the fist you want to see in a fascist’s face,” should be appreciated for the feelings of confidence they elicit against a threatening enemy, we should be careful about violent rhetoric, especially if we are ill-prepared to back it up. We are dealing with dangerous people, and our efforts to stop the alt-right should be concerned with making sure the least amount of people get hurt.
Until violence is the last available resort, let us find a space where our bodies and our words are used effectively against the alt-right. We can start by humiliating their arguments, a task that cannot be achieved until we have dismantled the legitimacy of their claim to freedom of speech which rests on physical attempts at silencing them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review or its editors.