Take the power back: Not freedom of speech but freedom itself

Extreme right and fascist organizations have jumped onto the free speech bandwagon lately. Conservative pundits on the far-right such as Ann Coulter accuse the “liberal” media and universities of suppressing conservative views - a laughable assertion, given the fact that she can easily find lucrative speaking engagements, distribute millions of books, and has the support of powerful institutions funding and advancing her ideas. If defending free speech has come to mean sponsoring wealthy right-wing pundits and enabling fascist recruiting maybe it's time to reassess this principle. There can be no truly free speech except among equals. Is an employee as free to express herself as her boss when he can take away her livelihood? Are two people equally free to express themselves when one owns a media monopoly while the other can't even afford to make photocopies? In our capitalist society the more money you have, the freer you are to speak. The movie V for Vendetta had it wrong. Ideas do not have any power on their own. Our capacity to act on our beliefs, not just express them, determines the power of these ideas. In “the marketplace of ideas” like all marketplaces, you need money to participate, and the more you have, the more power you have to put your beliefs into practice. Even if somehow, despite the extreme imbalance of power in this “marketplace of ideas,” someone manages to use their right to “free speech” to say something that destabilizes the dominant power structure, history proves these rights are swiftly taken away. In practice, we are only ever granted the freedom to express our views so long as speech, in and of itself, changes nothing. Even today there are animal rights and anti-capitalist activists in the U.S., (Coulter's shining beacon of “free speech”) who are being charged under anti-terrorism legislation simply for running websites and organizing mass demonstrations. We see time and time again whose rights to free speech are defended, and whose rights to free speech are suppressed. Neo-nazi rallies in Canada and the U.S. are heavily guarded and protected by the police, while anarchist demonstrations are targeted with violence and dispersed with tear-gas and rubber bullets. Here in London, when neo-nazis came to protest the pride parade, it was the counter-protesters from Anti-Racist Action who were attacked and arrested by police. In Ottawa, when two thousand people expressing themselves led Coulter to cancel her talk, conservative pundits ridiculously accused them of attacking “free speech.” Obviously in their minds Coulter's right to get rich while spreading hatred of queers and immigrants outweighed the rights of 2,000 people to express opposition to her poisonous ideas in a way that would directly challenge her. Thus proving that when fascists can speak everyone is silenced. Those who argue for freedom of speech against freedom itself fail to see that speech is a form of action. Riffraff like Coulter use their platform to enrich themselves, and gain legitimacy for racist institutions, thus acquiring more power to make their ideas reality. They also validate and promote violence, both institutional and social, against people who are already oppressed by the bigoted culture they perpetuate and build with every successful speaking engagement. If speech harms others and reinforces hierarchies and injustices we should confront it in the same way we would confront any other kind of abuse or oppression; not by calling the police or passing laws, but directly on our own terms, with or without rights, legally or illegally. The discourse of “rights” implies that the state is necessary to protect us. Once freedom is defined as an assortment of rights granted by those in power, we implicitly accept the legitimacy of our rulers. This is how we lose sight of actual freedom, and undercut the possibility of struggle against the state itself, which maintains and enforces the power imbalances that make true freedom of speech impossible. If we feel inclined to use the language of “rights” we should argue that the state has no right to suppress us, whether we be speaking or acting in pursuit of a world free of tyranny, domination, and oppression.

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