The notion that freedom of speech, as a fundamental right, has been under attack in Western democracy dominated the dog whistling and identity politics which gave rise to Trumpism and Brexit. It is now ringing within the chambers of right-wing Twitter in response to the recent ‘censoring’ of the 45th President of the United States and the ‘Orwellian’ clamp-down on the nascent, far-right social media platform, Parler.
The discourse that has been popular in right-wing politics over the last five or so years argues that in the West, conservative and libertarian voices and opinions are being silenced by a media elite that kowtows to the ‘liberal’ establishment. It would appear, to many, that the greatest threat to democracy in Europe and North America is the erasure of freedom of speech. But, the concept of ‘free speech’ has been poisoned by the Right and marketed to an audience unwilling to face the consequences of the social contract that allows for the healthy development of political thought.
This skewed definition sees freedom of speech as the right to say anything and say it without consequence. It is not. In the transcendent words of Oscar Wilde: ‘I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself’. Freedom of speech has, and continues to, thrive in developed democracies; we do not live in a 1984-like society where even internal thought seems too dangerous to pursue. Indeed, the United States probably supports the most diverse and polarising conversations within modern politics: anyone can say whatever they like – largely unregulated social media platforms make that even easier. As Wilde saw it, everyone is free to ‘make an ass’ of themselves, and this is fundamental to how freedom of speech works.
The ability to disseminate controversial opinion is dependent on a very well established and complex social contract of consequence and opposition. In the clearest example, hate-speech is prosecuted because society has decided that hateful, violence-inciting rhetoric is unacceptable. The challenge with political movements like Trumpism, that foster hateful speech, is their popularity and their clandestine development. It has taken a full presidency for real consequence to manifest against such bigoted opinion. That is to say, freedom of speech itself allowed for the development of such politics: if freedom of speech had genuinely been under threat to the extent that alt-right commentators like Milo Yiannopoulos would have had us believe in 2016, then Trump would never have been inaugurated. In reality, political freedom allowed Trump to creep in under the banner of populism. Now, Americans have seen the reality behind the rhetoric: regressive social policy, unmasked racism and an incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did such damaging thought reach an arrogant unwillingness to consider consequence, it worked against an opposition that did. Trump’s campaign of misinformation and his attack on the media represents real censorship. If it weren’t for well-established private institutions, freedom of speech and freedom of the press would have died with the Trump presidency. Fortunately, the unwritten constitution that is freedom of speech has remained firm, and Trumpism met consequence in the presidential election last year.
Moreover, ‘free speech’ is being bandied about by a ruling, white class. Much like racism, as it is now defined (systemic, historically informed), cannot be experienced by the white population, it is absurd to suggest that white supremacist, far-right Americans are currently being censored. They exist in a system that functions to benefit them, and it remains stable (even as they terrorise the political centres that ensure such privilege). Again, this sullied definition of ‘free speech’ is responsible for such antidemocratic action. It has also been married to the ugliest forms of racism, such that those who stormed the Capitol felt they had a right to challenge the democratic majority in a way that they would have never afforded any other group. If the ability to live-stream a violent insurrection isn’t freedom of speech being tested at its limits, then what is?
In a recent twitter thread, Russian opposition leader and victim of real censorship, Alexey Navalny, has argued, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Twitter’s decision to indefinitely remove Donald Trump from the platform sets a dangerous precedent: “the enemies of freedom of speech around the world […] will say: ‘this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter’.”Though Twitter’s action was not rogue, nor government instigated, he is right to question the company’s power and influence. Trump and Brexit have revealed an undeniable truth about the current political playing field: social media holds too much power. Facebook’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica, for example, is just one of the genuine threats to political freedoms that we now face. Voter suppression and misinformation shouldn’t be tolerated, regardless of political persuasion. Again, Twitter and Facebook’s decision to remove Trump’s account was necessary, and supported by the majority, but, now, the cohort of tech giants must face oversight and regulation in order to avoid the damaging division that characterised politics in the US and the UK during the 2010s.
Ultimately, a misinformed and unchecked minority has been allowed to run rampant over social media; only now has the reality of freedom of speech hit them. It would benefit us all to acknowledge that speech is not a freedom we must be concerned about, and instead tackle the prejudices and injustices that persist.