The Impotent Liberal I: My Arms Are Open! Research Time, 19/12/2016

“I may disagree with everything you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it!”
One of the world’s oldest memes of fundamental liberal principles. It’s explicitly about free speech rights. But the right to free speech has implications that reach much more profound corners of human life than our rights to speak and promote our ideas.

The right to free speech means that all ideas are welcome in public conversation. That means you have to welcome the speaker as well – if they’re a partner in your public conversation, they’re part of your society.

The argument goes like this. There are no expressions or ideas that a
free society can never accept. But values based on such horrifying
hatred as white supremacy is utterly unacceptable. Can a democratic
society survive without rejecting Richard Spencer?
So the right to free speech implies – at least potentially – total inclusion in society. And that’s a fantastic idea. It’s the foundation of the ideal of world peace. And world peace is the liberal democratic idea taken to its most utopian ideal – so utopian that it could be spoken by an aging hippie smoking a spliff watching the sunset.

Here's the problem. And I’m far from the first one to say this. Hell, it comes up in nearly every philosophy class when people discuss freedom of speech. Someone enters this community where everyone is included and everyone can speak their mind. And this person says what’s on their mind.

He says that a huge chunk of the people in this open society shouldn’t be allowed to speak their minds, live in our society, or maybe even exist at all. He starts talking about how women shouldn’t work or speak, that hispanics should be deported, Muslims be imprisoned, Jews forced to Israel, and blacks repatriated to African countries.

In other words, into this liberal paradise where everyone is included and everyone can speak and think as they wish pops a white nationalist. Richard Spencer, Jim Dowson, David Duke, or Matthew Heimbach.

This is an old problem for liberal thinkers. And it’s so obvious a problem that it gets into introductory political philosophy classes as a fallback topic. How does a regime of tolerance deal with the intolerant?

Jim Dowson founded the racist white supremacist organization Britain
First, but left a few years ago and founded the white nationalist
Patriot News Network. This is a major source of pro-Trump memes
and propaganda throughout 2016.
Thing is, I don’t think I’ve seen a single philosophy class where the discussion didn’t just leave this question kind of hanging. There are arguments that, to be true to your principle, you have to include everyone – including the intolerant. And you just have to fight their against their arguments in the marketplace of ideas as hard as they fight for them.

You know what I think? How about “bullshit.” I used to believe in this argument, but two things turned me against it. One was the last couple of years in Europe and North America, when violently racist political movements have sprung up in pretty much every major country of the ostensibly liberal democratic West.

The term ‘marketplace of ideas’ was first developed in Victorian England. When John Stuart Mill wrote about this, public discourse was conducted in long, rambling, complex arguments. Even advertisements were full pages of text, complicated arguments for why you should buy this brand of rainboot over any other.

I don’t have to tell you the media doesn’t work that way today. So we can’t exactly argue about the idiocy of white supremacy as a moral philosophy. We have to fight using memes, sharable content, and social media organizing. Because those are the media weapons of white supremacy.

Liberal argument and tolerance alone can’t handle these people. Because a regime of universal tolerance will literally accept everyone. It even has to accept the viewpoints in its society of the people who want to reject damn near everyone.

Not exactly the nuanced, calm consideration of detailed
arguments that Mill envisioned in his 'marketplace of
Well, we can’t accept the existence of those people in our society. We have to eject racists and sexists. We have to reject white nationalism if we want to defend our liberal, democratic values.

Doesn't that make for a hypocritical liberalism? That we’ll tolerate everything but intolerance? Doesn’t that mean we fail to tolerate literally everything?

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe get to this in the most dense part of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. They identify it as the fundamental weakness of liberalism – liberal thinking twists itself into knots over whether they should tolerate violent intolerance.

And we shouldn’t. Of course, this is the centre of a major critique of liberal thinking and politics. Yes, this is going to take a while to unpack. Yes, I’m going to do it here.

But holy shit, it’s important because the ascent of white nationalism to state power is a major political issue in Western society.

Liberalism can’t deal with enemies. Dealing with your enemies is the most important part of politics. Literally life and death. . . . To be continued

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