What Kinds of Freedom Do We Deserve? Research Time, 07/02/2017

Another stop on my trip through the classics of political philosophy. I wanted to skip ahead to the early and mid 1800s to revisit some John Stuart Mill. I felt like it was a proper response to a political climate where riots break out at events that preach hatred as a sacred expression of free speech.

When I was working at McMaster, I worked multiple times on an introductory course on moral and political philosophy. Rowdy used a textbook with excerpts and essays that covered classics like Mill, Hobbes, and Plato alongside contemporary lights like Dworkin, and more ordinary issues-based articles.

The fight against fascism and racism gets deservedly ugly.
One of those issues that we covered were campus speech codes, an odd form of college law that doesn’t really exist in Canada. It’s most prominent at colleges in the United States, where whole forms of expression have been identified to be banned from discourse on grounds of racializing insensitivity.

Most of these codes are products of the politics of the 1980s and early 90s, and aren’t in use anymore. As you can probably tell today.

I hope Rowdy isn’t using those articles anymore, because they’re explicitly rooted in a Reagan-era context. The modern context is very different – now that white nationalism has become the dominant mode of reactionary politics in America.

I find it incredulous that all kinds of op/ed perspectives in mainstream American newspapers are so shocked – Shocked! – by the violent reactions to Milo Yiannopolous’ speaking tour.* Click that link above and read through some of the insulting, abusive rabble-rousing in the typical Milo performance.

* And remember that he’s only the most prominent of the right-wing speaking tours criss-crossing the United States, stirring up reactionary resentment and inspiring violence. Video sting journalist James O’Keefe recently egged on his audience as they brutally beat two protestors at his speech.

So I’m revisiting one of the central figures of modern liberalism, one of the most fundamental philosophers of free speech. It will inform my engagement with these toxic politics of our time as a writer, an activist, and as a person.

There’s the prologue to my Mill period. What’s the point of my doing it?

Millions of people listen to what this man has to say. So one problem with
turning back to the classic source of contemporary values is that their
noble arguments won't be prepared for the perversions modern contexts
have brought to their great ideals.
If I can say there’s a general theme to my exploring the great thinkers of liberalism and libertarianism, it’s to see the complexity that’s forgotten about in alt-right messaging.

If you look at the rhetoric that our generation of conservative provocateurs throw around about free speech, it’s a very simple idea. I mean that in the sense that it sees a straightforward imperative that in real life has many more complexities and qualifications than they acknowledge.

Here are two examples of this oversimplifying understanding that alt-right folks use to make space for their abusive, violent behaviour. Let’s start with the social media lynch mob.

From its beginning, Twitter has made a core value for its platform that it was a space for total free speech. The problem is that – having organized in other forums like Reddit, 4Chan, 9gag, Imgur – alt-right troll armies and their bots leap onto their Twitter accounts and spam a target with so much verbal abuse as to smack them in the jaw psychologically.

R U triggered, bro?

If you go back to the classical texts and try to see the original context where this free speech idea developed, you don’t read anything about this phenomenon. It didn’t exist in 1859, for God’s sake.

You get in “On Liberty” a few platitudes about yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre that I heard so often in six years of teaching academic philosophy that the phrase lost all meaning for me. But the point is that your right to freedom of expression and opinion can’t imply a similar freedom of social speech act when the context of your action does harm.

Here’s my second example: protests so intense as to cancel a Milo performance. It’s a simple refutation. The alt-right conflates having a platform in front of an audience of hundreds in the room and millions on the internet with basic free expression entitlements.

We have a right to free opinions, but not to a massive platform to promote those opinions. If Milo has it, then we all have it, and there aren’t too many who are financially and otherwise capable of mounting a cross-country speaking tour.

Here’s the problem. Try actually changing any red-pilled mind with these calm, rational arguments.

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