It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.
Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.
I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.
The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.
How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).
I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.
It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.
All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.