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Once Again: the Contradictions of Liberal Notions of "Free Speech"

Some time ago, I wrote something about the liberal notion of free speech called Whose Speech and for Whom.  At the moment it's one of my more popular posts [oddly enough, the rather strident entry about the attractiveness of the young Stalin is the most popular] and now and then, when I chase down the links that appear in my traffic, I discover cross-postings where it is either enjoyed or reviled.  Generally, my reason for writing it in the first place was because I was growing rather tired of the uncritical acceptance of liberal notions of freedom––and the entire liberal ideology of "free speech"––amongst the internet left.  Indeed, those internet leftists whose entire anti-capitalist praxis appeared limited primarily to internet forums and/or university class rooms were the same leftists who tended to yammer on about some platonic notion of free speech, complain about "censorship" whenever they were banned from anti-capitalist forums for problematic speechifying, and who seemed to think that Noam Chomsky's thoughts about censorship and free speech were the standard of anti-capitalist thinking even though these were nothing more than yet another rearticulation of J.S. Mill's "marketplace of ideas."  I'm not going to bother going over the arguments I made in the above linked piece; it speaks for itself.

What interests me now, though, is the contradiction intrinsic to the liberal notion of free speech that I've briefly touched upon at various points.  A contradiction that may or may not be traceable to Mill's On Liberty, evident in the story he tells about the corn dealer; a contradiction that should lead us to ask, as my previous piece demanded, whose speech and for whom.  And just recently a paradigmatic example of this contradiction manifested within one of the hallowed halls of internet free speechifying, Reddit, where "redditors" like to wax eloquent about their sacred right to free speech and imagine they are being greatly censored every time reactionary and retrograde speech is questioned.

Basically the story unfolds as follows: one infamous redditor who was responsible for racist and misogynist trolling––who went so far as to create a forum dedicated to "jailbait" where participants were encouraged to post sexualized pictures of girls under the age of eighteen without these girls' permission––whose right to "free speech" has been defended loudly by other Reddit participants (who, while arguing they disagree with his repugnant views, thought that it was a hallmark of freedom to allow such backwards posting), has just been outed in a Gawker article by Adrian Chen.  Chen names this reactionary scumbag (no surprise, he's a middle-aged white man retired from the US military), points out that the top Reddit administrators protected him and even gave him a measure of authority in the Reddit community, explains precisely the racist and misogynist behaviour of the man, and then states: "Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez [the Reddit name of this troll] is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit's role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women. I'm okay with that."

Reddit likes to fight theoretical censorship by engaging in literal censorship

Chen's above statement turned out to be prophetic.  Not only has the comment string on this article been filled with irate people complaining about the violation of this scumbag's right to free speech, and not only has Chen been receiving hate mail from angry redditors, but the top Reddit administrators have actually banned linking to the Gawker, and specifically this article, from within Reddit.  Indeed, as a participant in the "communism" subreddit, where the moderators do not abide by this uncritical free speech bullshit, I tried to post a link to Chen's article and discovered that my submission was blocked.  So instead I posted about this link and how it was blocked and attempted, along with other progressive redditors, to link to the article in the comment string.  The /r/communism mods discovered that it was difficult to keep comments that linked to this article up for long, that there was some bot that alerted their activities to the administration of Reddit, and that this "community" that is supposedly dedicated to free speech can become literally censorious if necessary.

So here's one of the ironies of the liberal notion of free speech manifesting within a terrain where it is held up as the highest good.  Hate and rape speech, we are told, should be protected as "free speech" and censoring it is evil; hating on hate and rape speech, however, doesn't count as "free speech" and should be censored.  Maybe the logic here, considering the way the minds of liberal ideologues work, is that speaking out against speech constitutes some sort of rhetorical censorship and is thus "evil" and so to suppress it does not count as censorship since one cannot censor censorship… this is precisely the absurd level of reasoning liberal contradictions can end up encouraging!

Whatever the case, this reaction to the outing of a reactionary who once enjoyed the protection of the Reddit rulers (Chen hilariously compares them to feudal lords) should tell us something about the entire liberal notion of freedom behind the liberal conception of free speech.  Whereas the privacy and autonomy of "Violentacrez" matters––and irate redditors are complaining that he has been outed and that his private life and job will be affected––the privacy and autonomy of, for example, all the girls this troll and his friends pornified on their despicable "jailbait" subreddit apparently doesn't matter.  A middle-aged privileged man has the freedom to rape-bait but the girls he targeted do not have the freedom to not be rape-baited.  Here, "freedom" ends up being in line with structural oppression.  Whose speech and for whom?  A misogynist's speech for misogynist ends… Interesting how people obsessed with the liberal notion of free speech end up spending more time defending reactionaries than the victims of these reactionaries, going so far as to use the very mechanism of censorship they claimed they were against in the first place.

But maybe this all does go back to Mill's story of the corn dealer where, according to Mill, we are allowed to publish pamphlets about how said corn dealer is starving the poor but are not allowed to do so in front of the corn dealer's home with an assembled mob.  Perhaps Chen crossed the line in outing this troll, thus refusing to abide by the polite rules of the marketplace of ideas.  Perhaps Reddit's censorship of Chen's article, and of people who support Chen's position, is simply their way to suppress the metaphorical unruly mob outside of the corn dealer's home… But really, I don't think they've thought it through, or are that theoretically sophisticated––more likely they are just doing the only thing they know how to do despite all of the "free speech" values they've maintained: censor when these values turn upon themselves.

So again I maintain what I wrote in my previous article on free speech: "There is no freedom and no speech that is outside of class struggle.  To demand the freedom of the oppressed and global majority is to demand the removal of the freedom of the oppressor to oppress; to demand the free expression of the oppressed classes is to also demand the suppression of reactionary anti-person 'free' expression."


  1. I've never ventured into reddit, because stories I hear (like this) makes it sound like a horrible place. But I've been reading a lot about this creepshot stuff over the past few days.

    There was a highschool teacher that was posting creepy "upskirt" shots of his underage female students. There is a tumblr called Predditors that aims to expose these creepsters (which is far too generous a description for men violating a woman's right to bodily autonomy, but anyways), which actually led to this highschool teacher being arrested (upon the discovery that he possessed child pornography, and was texting penis shots to his students).

    Tumblr initially shut down Predditors - because, as you say, it is more important to protect the rights of perverts than to actually discourage them from being perverts.

    I spent a lot of time looking at Predditors the other day, but now it seems you need a password to access it. Hmmmm.

    1. The folks at the subreddit "Shit Reddit Says" apparently have been waging war on Reddit's endorsement of misogyny and racism for a while now––some of them might have been behind this "Predditors" tumblr. (Interesting that tumblr shut this down because I didn't think tumblr was policed.) They have something called "operation panda" and "reddit bomb" where they try to expose these rapists in real life––they might have been behind identifying the person in Chen's article.

    2. Uh, no. They haven't. The goal of PANDA/Redditbomb is the removal of creepy, misogynistic, sexist, a pedo subreddits. SRS has a strict anti-"doxxing" policy and people have been banned for even mentioning doing stuff like that.

    3. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Redditor here. I'm so disgusted by Reddit's reaction to this whole story. While I shouldn't be surprised, it seems that only r/communism is taking an at all principled stance to it. Thank you for seemingly leading the charge on this one.

    As a side note, this is my first comment on your blog. I just want to express my appreciation for it, it's one of my favorite places online and has led me away from my previous anarchist beliefs.

    1. Hello fellow /r/communism redditor! Actually, r/shitredditsays has been taking a similar stance and I think it might have been their "project panda" and/or "reddit bomb" subreddits that outed this guy to Chen to begin with. Does this mean a united front of leftish redditors? Hahaha... (And the very fact that I'm thinking about internet united fronts right now means that I have spent a lot of time indoors and out of step with my political real world life due to a new child… my comrades must be shaking their heads at me right now.)

      Thanks for the kind comments about my blog: it's always good to know that someone likes it!

    2. Let's build a united front of leftist Redditors, and then a united front on Facebook and then Twitter and then that will be the revolution, right? #revolution, or something.

  3. You realize what a super-huge hypocrite this makes you and other left-anarchists look like, right?

    "Welcome to Burning Man, the 'non-hierarchical' 'radical self-expression' culture, in which most participants are confined to a lower social status tier and censored."

    "Welcome to r/Anarchism, where there are no rules, limitations, or authority figures, but it's also a 'safe space', so you can only say certain stuff, or you will be ad hominemed, and the commie mods will ban you."

    Suffice to say, I think liberal 'anarchist' political lobbies would be a lot more respected if they weren't organized in such a totalitarian fashion, by a small faction of power-hungry psychos quashing dissent and controlling group norms with misinformation whenever possible.

    Perhaps you should read this, if you want to know what your madness appears like to an outsider:

    1. I'm not a left anarchist: I'm a maoist. I don't care what my "madness" looks to people whose reactionary and right-liberal politics make them outsiders. You and anyone represented by your link are not the most oppressed and/or exploited masses but a tiny section of a privileged first world minority, like most of us on the internet. It is the height of irony that you would call me "power-hungry" when it seems you are upset that you can't have the power of saying whatever you wish and defining the group norms yourself which are, at the end of the day, the norms of the ruling class.

  4. There *are* left arguments against freedom of expression, but I've always found them incoherent. The argument is usually some variation on this theme; Speech and expression is not neutral, but has a class character. An emphasis on freedom of expression is a kind of bourgeois individualism. Speech deemed to be "oppressive" should be discouraged, and certain words should be eradicated from discourse altogether.

    The obvious riposte to this, which I think is an unanswerable point, is what do you do in the (highly likely) circumstances that someone decides advocacy of socialism is reactionary hate speech, and that this is grounds for restricting it? In other words, who decides what forms of speech and thought are allowed, and which aren't, on what basis, and on what authority?
    Very hard to argue against this point, or to stay logically consistent while arguing for restriction of another's speech.

    Thus, arguing against freedom of speech (not specifically the "freedom of speech" mentioned in the American constitution, which obviously only applies to Americans), is like sawing off the branch you're sitting on. If you apply the "Veil of Ignorance" thought experiment (imagine a society in which your own position is unknown to you), you have to conclude that if we want freedom of speech for ourselves, we have to want it for others.

    So, here are the points:

    1. There is no moral basis to stifle freedom of expression, or expunge words or terms from discourse.
    2. Indulging in censorship, no-platforming, and exclusion of ideas from discourse lends these ideas a kind of malignant strength, contrary to the stated goal. Banned and censored ideas take on a psychological fascination that they would not otherwise have, and gain a power and attraction that an exposure to light would not have given them.
    3. In order to critique and reject bad ideas, we need to be able to hear what they are.

    This is not bourgeois liberalism, but is just the logical conclusion of the first premise that our own freedom of expression is desirable and good.

    This article, and the other one, is logically unsound, sets up false dichotomies, and is a classic case of sawing off the branch you're sitting on. In other words, the arguments you apply to others could equally well be applied to you. That's not bourgeois morality, it's just logic.

    If you want to stifle other's speech, then you can't complain when your own is stifled without logical inconsistency and hypocrisy. You can't make a good thing bad by invoking class, unless you're prepared for the class enemy to do the same.

    1. Sorry, not very convincing. Let's not even examine the problem of relying on the Veil of Ignorance thought experiment, a notorious liberal rationale for justifying welfare capitalism, but let's just look at the way in which the bourgeois marketplace of ideas came to be. Over hundreds of years of revolution and enforcing its hegemony it finally reached the point where, once its ideas were common sense, it could have freedom of expression. Before that it actively repressed the ideas of the classes that opposed its rule, originally and particularly the feudal classes. If it hadn't done this then it wouldn't have gained class hegemony. Your three points flow from the typical Millsian view of things, but the view is utterly impossible without the background of class repression that permitted them in the first place––indeed, Mill himself recognizes this by pointing out that the Hobbseian absolute state was necessary in order to permit the liberal capitalist society.

      At the same time, though, I am sympathetic to the concept of unleashing the power of the masses where ideas can clash with other ideas in the context of cultural revolution, but this is precisely the kind of chaos that the Millsian, Rawlsian, and all other bourgeois conceptions of free expression forbid due to its violation of the harm principle.

      Finally, claiming this somehow "saws off the branch I'm sitting on" misses the point. My argument has always been (not just in this quick article but in the other back-linked ones) that liberal free speech claims demonstrate their threshold by precisely shutting down the moment the harm principle is breached and thus, in moments of crisis, necessarily forbidding my free speech or the free speech of any critics of capitalism. I don't judge this from the position of some morality free from class struggle (as you seem to do) but I understand that, if I was a member of the bourgeoisie who is concerned about maintaining hegemony, when consent to my "common sense" ideology fails then coercion is necessary: this is the moment where, in Mill's corn dealer example, the state comes in to protect the corn dealer's free expression from the violent expression of those he has exploited. This is simply an instance of class interest––so what? It's not like I'm going to cry "foul" when my freedom of expression is shut down by those who claimed to permit it in the first place, though tactically demonstrating the intrinsic hypocrisy of bourgeois liberal free speech claims is useful. So, in fact, I wouldn't "complain" when my free speech is stifled except for tactical reasons: my complaint is about the class rule of those who dictate what speech means and who it is for, end of story. (A corollary complaint is my annoyance with the ACLU-esque claims regarding how free speech advances society.)

      Here your "riposte" makes no sense because there are indeed situations where socialism has been declared illegal and this has always been beside the point. Socialism is not about making arguments on blogs like this, though that is sometimes helpful, but in concrete social movements that, when they are most effective, function from the position of breaking from bourgeois legality. So it's very answerable… I mean, good lord, even in the centres of free speech we are now living at a time where bourgeois politicians are arguing that people who agitate for communism are genocidal maniacs and that entire memorials and museums must be dedicated to pointing out how they are evil, hateful, horrific, etc.

      At least get your logic right: I recommend several university courses in propositional and predicate logic. Connected to this, I recommend that you study history and the way that political change has been affected. Because all you've done so far is just replicate precisely liberal arguments about free speech and nothing beyond this.

    2. [cont. not enough room]

      But let me go further, because it is pretty clear you don't really get what I'm arguing for/about. I will blame this not on you but on the medium of blogging and the way this post, along with the connected ones on here, have been represented around the web––ways in which I don't always agree.

      The point is not that we should except some sort of "Stalinist" top down monolithism that, because of the [very real, but very misunderstood] fear of capitalist restoration ended up embracing this restoration by over-suppression. Rather, the point of these articles is to argue against the notion that the liberal conception of free speech is somehow not guided by its own history of class suppression that allowed it to attain the position of common sense hegemony (in the Gramscian meaning of the term). One need not talk of censorship, after all, when one can legally censor by just making sure some people's ideas are not popularized, read, or allowed ("allowed" here meaning allowed according to bourgeois institutional power) to form a nascent counter-hegemony. It's not censorship if you can't get published, or if your ideas aren't in the popular press, this is just the consensus enforced by bourgeois ideology… So how, you need to ask, does a society reach this point? What kind of "free expression" is this? What this demonstrates is that all legislations of speech, in any society, are influenced by class commitments. So we always need to ask "whose freedom and for whom"… You can see the limitations of free expression according to a particular mode of productions logic in the harm principle itself, in the contradiction (which you didn't seem to grasp) expressed by the corn dealer example. This is not only a vague philosophical thought experiment; Mill's *On Liberty* was the philosophy behind a lot of bourgeois reforms and inculcated in various laws. You can also see it in the Veil of Ignorance thought experiment that you uncritically mention: why is it, you need to ask, that Rawls is able to "logically" prove welfare capitalism with this thought experiment and not a socialist end game? Because of his presupposition that the agents behind the veil are simultaneously rational and self-interested. The point, here, is that every conceptualization of freedom of speech/expression is heavily mediated by class commitments. If you want to imagine that you can make some sort of abstract claim about speech/expression outside of class than you truly are speaking from an illogical position: if we are talking about human speech/expression, and humans are embedded in social classes, then you can only make such a claim outside of concrete reality, from the utopian position of classless society… All well and good, and in a classless society no suppression/repression of speech will exist because no classes exist, but we don't live in such a state and, until then, it's worth thinking about what steps will affect such an end game. And really, in such an end game, will reactionary ideas persist since they're bound to class positions? Think through these problematics, please, because right now you're giving me an A & ~A story about the world, but not in the dialectical sense.


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