Free Speech – Ambivalence, Cancellation and the Power Dynamic.
An Explanation for a Phenomenon
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I have written before about concerns that I have about the New Zealand approach to Freedom of Expression. I have suggested that many New Zealanders are ambivalent to the robust exercise of the Freedom of Expression. I wonder if the approach to Freedom of Expression is a relativistic one – freedom of expression is all very well as long as I agree with the idea expressed.
There is the school that argues that every right is accompanied by responsibilities. It is hard to argue against that proposition until the time comes when those responsibilities have to be expressed. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed it up with the rubric that the freedom of expression does not include shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. In so saying he was suggesting that the responsibility accompanying the freedom of expression was that the expression should not incite imminent physical harm which has been a test that I have used in defining what I refer to as “dangerous speech” as another term for the more commonly used (and highly emotive) hate speech.
Over the last few weeks I have been giving some thought to the question – how did we get to the situation where there is this ambivalence or relativistic approach to freedom of expression. My researches were assisted by the writings of Nadine Strossen and Jacob Mahangama along with Jonathan Rauch. But one book which came my way was very helpful in considering the trajectory of the changes that have taken place in attitudes to speech.
That book is “The Cancelling of the American Mind: How Cancel Culture Undermines Trust, Destroys Institutions and Threatens Us all” by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott. In some respects it is a companion to an earlier book that Lukianoff wrote with Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind”. Lukianoff is a lawyer, an expert on the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Given that pedigree it might be thought that the book was a polemic, but unlike many polemics that appear these days, “Cancelling” is an organised examination and analysis of what the authors perceive is a problem and unlike many polemics goes so far as to offer solutions.
The book actually pinpoints the shift in approach to the freedom of expression that developed in the United States and particularly on University campuses. Lest it be thought that the problem is a uniquely US one it is not, and the ideas that developed over the late 1960’s and early 1970’s gained ground aided and abetted by neo-Marxism and developed into Critical Theory.
I start with a summary of the gradual erosion of the freedom of expression and how it developed to the point where we seem to have reached a “So-Called Freedom of Expression”.
I then consider some of the tools that are employed by those who follow the Critical Theory approach to freedom of expression and which have been the subject of some detailed analysis by Lukianoff and Schlott. I offer some suggestions as to how these tools can be blunted or deflected. Local organisations use the tools of Critical Theory and hopefully this article will provide some signposts for their recognition, so that their ideas may be examined and analysed objectively.
In so saying I want to make one thing clear. I am not suggesting that those who use Critical Theory or the neo-Marxist approach to expression should be silenced. Far from it. My adherence to the principles of freedom of expression demands that they have as much right to express their views as I have to express mine.
The purpose of this piece is more to examine and describe a phenomenon and assist readers to identify the phenomenon in action. In this way a reader may bring a more incisively critical approach to evaluating the worth of expressed ideas.
The Early Erosion
A few basic propositions need to be recognised. The freedom of expression as articulated in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and in section 14 Of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (as well as in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) was designed to protect citizens (and especially those of the minority) from the tyranny of the majority and from the State. The rich and powerful were protected by their own assets and power and there was no need to protect the will of the majority. That is expressed in the democratic process. Freedom of expression is there to protect the minority, unpopular or contrary opinions and those elements of expression which clash with the views of the ruling elite.
However, this view has been reversed. Freedom of expression is seen as a tool of the powerful to suppress the disempowered. This approach flies in the face of the evidence. The various movements of the fifties and sixties such as civil rights, womens rights and gay rights were all enabled by freedom of expression. The civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis observed “without freedom of speech the civil rights movement would’ve been a bird without wings.”
So what changed?
In 1965 Herbert Marcuse published his influential essay “Repressive Tolerance”. This represents the change in attitude to the earlier approach to freedom of expression.
Marcuse suggested that tolerance for speech was only useful in an equal society. In societies that were not equal, such tolerance could not be sustained. In fact, in the struggle to get to an equal society, what was required was intolerance and suppression of certain viewpoints. Marcuse was opposed to the idea of free speech for those who occupied the “right” of the political spectrum.
The struggle to achieve the equal society was expressed through a Marxist lens and in Marxist language complete with the dialectic. Marcuse argued that the massive scale of the conservative majority posed a real threat to progressive society. Thus the ideals of tolerance, free speech and the power dynamic had to be rejigged to meet this threat. Marcuse argued that the Left needed to practice intolerance in the opposite direction toward self-styled conservatives and the political Right.
Thus freedom of expression was the preserve of the progressive Left and the tools of intolerance, censorship, indoctrination and at times violence could be used against the conservative Right.
The result of this was that whereas freedom of speech had been conceived as and was used as a tool of the powerless against the powerful, the concept was inverted and was seen as a weapon of the powerful against the powerless.
Marcuse and Critical Theory
Those who followed Marcuse developed Critical Theory. I have written about Critical Theory in some detail here and I won’t recap the detail of that article. However, a few observations should be made to understand the trajectory of the impact of Critical Theory upon freedom of expression.
The core function of critical theory is to awaken a critical consciousness in members of an oppressed group. This is comes directly from the Marxist concept of awakening class consciousness as the precursor to a revolution.
The first step in the liberation of the oppressed to superior of enlightenment during which the oppressed experience a radical change in consciousness that awakens them to the true nature of their suffering. This period of education then turns into practice which is manifests in demonstration, confrontation and rebellion.
This is where the term “woke” comes from. Although frequently used to mean politically correct ideas, it refers to being awoken to the reality of oppression. If someone is “woke”, they are awake. They are enlightened and therefore possess a critical consciousness of oppression.
Thus, a person who is “woke” is enlightened and aware of the tension between empowerment and disempowerment and has the ability to recognise oppression.
In addition because of the way that post-modernism and critical theory have developed, the “woke” person will reject objectivity and the empirical analysis that characterises Enlightenment thought and will prefer, rather than consider all of the evidence will prefer to adopt the anecdotal “stories” that are interpreted to mean whatever the woke person wishes them to means, given that reality is a subjective condition.
Critical Theory is inextricably entwined with Marxism. Marxists and Critical Theorists argue that history is a constant battle between oppressors and the oppressed. Critical Theory added some layers, shifting the narrative from the Marxist class struggle to power relations based on race and gender. If freedom of expression was a tool of the oppressor (as the Critical Theorists argue) then curtailing or restricting that speech is not seen as an act of oppression (those who are oppressed cannot oppress) but should be seen as a remedy for oppression.
The social justice school of Critical Theory justifies restrictions on the freedom of expression by casting themselves as champions of the oppressed and appointing themselves to rebalance power differentials and this was seen as a justification for exerting another form of power which involved restrictions or inhibitions on the freedom of expression.
This approach saw words as weapons. In his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors Jonathan Rauch noted:
“A very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: Thou shalt not hurt others with words. This principle is a menace – and not just to civil liberties. At bottom it threatens liberal inquiry – that is, science itself.”
Thus words used by empowered may be seen as hurtful or even worse, harmful. Of course, the usual way of dealing with this sort of “assault” is to use – as Nadine Strossen advises – counter-speech and develop resilience. I can recall being present at a Conference and I made the observation that in my youth we deal with “harmful” speech by resilience summed up in the adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Immediately I was challenged by a Critical Theorist who, rather than address the argument used a personal attack saying “that is the sort of thing that I would expect from an old, privileged, white male”. I congratulated the speaker for her ability to lard her comment with four different discriminatory categories.
The Tactics of Non-engagement
But that illustrates but one of the tools of the Critical Theorists in their attacks and cancelling of the exercise of freedom of expression. Lukianoff and Schlott classify these as The Perfect Rhetorical Fortress and I shall now move to examine these tactics.
There is a basic stratagem behind each of the tactics that I shall discuss. Some of these are standard elements of the Critical Theorist approach. Others are part of the Lukianoff/Schlott Perfect Rhetorical Fortress. But the common stratagem is to avoid any engagement with the substance of the argument but deflect engagement by indulging in irrelevance.
One method is to employ the use of veto words. Thus an argument can be dismissed as racist, sexist, transphobic thus avoiding engagement with the substance. Likewise, a tactic is to label the speaker as bad and thus dismiss any argument advanced as bad – once again avoiding the need to engage with the substance of the argument. These are forms of ad hominem attacks which are justified by the Critical Theory as an “enlightened” approach to freedom of expression.
There are some eleven tactics that Lukianoff and Schlott include within their Perfect Rhetorical Fortress as what they term argumentative dodges of those who could be termed Free Speech Ambivalents.
1. Is the speaker conservative – this is a form of labelling as well as constituting an ad hominem attack which justifies the outright dismissal of the speaker’s argument without examining them
2. What is the speaker’s race – this is another form of labelling which enables the dismissal of an argument as emanating from a pale stale male – witness the example given that I have described above.
3. What is speaker’s gender or sex – arguments advanced by men can be immediately dismissed as “mansplaining” once again avoiding the need to address the substance of the argument.
4. What is the speaker’s sexuality – this will be clear evidence of hostility of one form or another
5. Is the speaker trans or cis – once again a signpost of hostility that avoids the necessity of thinking about what the speaker has said
6. Can the speaker be accused of being “phobic” – in these times any statement that is critical of a point of view is “phobic” towards that point of view – once again avoiding the challenge of having to engage with the argument
7. Is the speaker guilty by association – if the speaker is a member of a group – such as the Free Speech Union – that enables immediate dismissal of the validity of anything that the speaker has to say
8. Did the speaker lose his/her cool – a fatal fault in the face of a cancelling crowd and immediately provides evidence of hostility
9. Did the speaker “violate” a “thought terminating cliché” which involves mocking or criticising someone with less power/privilege than the speaker
10.Can the speaker be the subject of emotional blackmail – we know where you live – we know where your children go to school. The use of threats to shut down a discussion
11. Is something “darker” going on in the background – the suggestion of a conspiracy of the empowered against the powerless but a suggestion lacking detail or substance that deflects consideration of the argument.
Words as Weapons – Jacinda Ardern’s Demonstration of Neo-Marxist Critical Theory
Finally there is the argument that words are weapons which justifies their limitation in some form of disarmament of the freedom of expression. This tactic was in fact adopted by former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the United Nations. The following discussion was the subject of an earlier post in 2022 and I have retained much of the content but have updated it to identify the tactics of the Critical Theorist to which school Ms Ardern so demonstrably belongs.
At the U.N. General Assembly in September 2022, Ms. Ardern announced a new initiative “to help improve research and understanding of how a person’s online experiences are curated by automated processes,” saying the work, done in partnership with companies and non-profits, will be “important in understanding more about mis- and disinformation online – A challenge that we must as leaders address.”
It cannot be co-incidental that there had been a meeting of the Christchurch Call participants in New York shortly before Ms. Ardern’s speech not is it co-incidental that this line of work is part of Ms Ardern’s “research” work at Harvard, a school that has problems in detecting plagiarism among its higher echelons.
In the course of the speech she made reference to the way that contrary speech can inhibit or frustrate progress in the implementation of Government policy.
“After all, how do you successfully end a war if people are led to believe the reason for its existence is not only legal but noble? How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists? How do you ensure the human rights of others are upheld, when they are subjected to hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology?”
Of course, this characterization of speech demonizes the speaker, a classic ploy of the Perfect Rhetorical Fortress . It suggests that rather than a means of resolving difference and reaching consensus – or even recognizing that Government policy may not be the desire of the governed – there is a war between contending ideas – those of the empowered and those of the disempowered – again, Critical Theory in action. And that implies that at the end of the war there must be a winner. As far as Ms. Ardern is concerned, that winner must be the State.
Such a perspective completely ignores that the fact that governments govern with the consent of the governed. If the majority of the governed do not consent, is it suggested then that they are at war with their government?
She then expanded on the “weapons of war” metaphor, at the same time criticizing those who engage in contrarian speech.
“The weapons may be different but the goals of those who perpetuate them is often the same. To cause chaos and reduce the ability of others to defend themselves. To disband communities. To collapse the collective strength of countries who work together,”
But debate is the answer to contrarian speech. If speech is a weapon that may be used in a disruptive sense, that disruption can be answered by counter speech. At least with speech there is an equality of arms, and Ms. Ardern, as a graduate in communications studies, would be and is well skilled in massaging the message.
But she chose a different path. Without explicitly saying so she suggested that there were methods of countering speech that were other than debate, and clearly the subtext of the remarks that follow is directed towards the suppression of contrarian speech.
“But we have an opportunity here to ensure that these particular weapons of war do not become an established part of warfare. In these times, I am acutely aware of how easy it is to feel disheartened. We are facing many battles on many fronts…But there is cause for optimism. Because for every new weapon we face, there is a new tool to overcome it. For every attempt to push the world into chaos, is a collective conviction to bring us back to order. We have the means; we just need the collective will.”
This is the language of authoritarianism although it is expressed in more mellow terms. Given Ms. Ardern’s communication credentials she is able to make authoritarianism look acceptable. But it is, nevertheless, typical of the mindset of the tyrant.
Ms. Ardern is possessed of a high sense of the righteousness of her cause. She does not debate ideas. She rejects them or refutes the premises of opposition without engaging in debate. Again – a classic ploy of the Perfect Rhetorical Fortress underpinned by Critical Theory.
She therefore avoids confronting the uncomfortable reality that she may be wrong. And by rejecting and refuting she adopts an air of superiority that views dissent as evil and, because it has become “weaponized” it is too dangerous to allow.
It is perhaps evidence of that sense of righteousness that Ms. Ardern went to the UN and called upon the General Assembly, looking for support for her cause. She called upon the nations present to exercise their collective power to deal with this new weapon of war – contrarian speech.
But deeper than that what Ms. Ardern is talking about is ideas. What she is concerned about, what has been “weaponized” is the way that those ideas have been expressed. Ideas that conform with hers are benign. Ideas that conflict with hers must be stamped out. The days of debate are over.
Her speech focused on the alleged scourge of “mis and disinformation online”.
We must tackle it, she said. She acknowledged some people are concerned that “even the most light touch approaches to disinformation” could come across as being “hostile to the values of free speech”.
She is certainly right there. Her approach was indeed hostile to the values of free speech.
When she moved into the “weapons of war” metaphor she was essentially saying that speech is war. Words wound. Ideas kill.
Politicians and those who support the “official position” and who wring their hands over “misinformation” or “disinformation” are usually just talking about beliefs they don’t like. Mis\disinformation are words that are rendered meaningless by misuse.
Ms. Ardern gave climate-change scepticism as an example of one of those “weapons of war” that can cause “chaos”. “How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists?” she asked.
Those who critique climate-change alarmism, those who call into question the ecolobby’s claims that billions will die and Earth will burn if we don’t drastically cut our carbon emissions, is an entirely legitimate political endeavour, contrarian though it might be. However, in treating it as a species of Flat Earthism, as “disinformation”, the new elites seek to demonise dissenters, to treat people whose views differ to their own as the intellectual equivalent of warmongers.
Activists, whose hype about the end of the world could genuinely be labelled misinformation, are never branded with that shaming word. That’s because misinformation doesn’t really mean misinformation anymore. It means dissent. Deviate from the consensus on anything from climate change to Covid and you run the risk of being labelled an evil disinformant.
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Ms. Ardern’s speech was her claim that if the elites ignore “misinformation”, then “the norms we all value” will be in danger. But for her it is dissent that is the enemy. Ms.Ardern does not want a single voice raised against her.
This is the most common cry of the 21st-century authoritarian – that contrarian speech can have a destabilising and even life-threatening impact, especially if it concerns big crises like climate change or Covid-19.
So “climate deniers” are a threat to the future of the human race and thus may be legitimately silenced. “Lockdown deniers” threaten to encourage the spread of viral infection and thus may be legitimately gagged. The spectre of crisis is cynically used to clamp down on anyone who dissents from the new global consensus.
To see how authoritarian the desire to clamp down on “misinformation” can be, it is worth considering other world leaders who used the platform of the UN to call for tougher controls on speech. Muhammadu Buhari, the ruler of Nigeria, focused on his nation’s “many unsavoury experiences with hate speech and divisive disinformation” and joined the calls for a clampdown on the “scourge of disinformation and misinformation”. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, bemoaned the “disinformation” against his nation. Those supporting Ms. Ardern for standing up to “fake news” are implicitly cheering Buhari and Lavrov, too. They are as one with her when it comes to chasing “misinformation” from the public sphere.
Freedom of expression isn’t only threatened by obvious strongmen – like the rulers of Nigeria or the theocratic leaders of Iran. Ms. Ardern’s UN speech exposed the iron fist of authoritarianism that lurks within the velvet glove of liberal kindness.
But in the final analysis it is no more nor less that neo-Marxist Critical Theory with a healthy dose of Perfect Rhetorical Fortress in action.
As I have suggested the tactics that I have described are generally accompanied by veto words which have the effect, if the subject of discussion, to derail the argument in question or send it off on an entirely different track. It means that it becomes unnecessary to engage with the principal argument which, of course, is the objective.
The question therefore must be asked – does this amount to a form of intellectual cowardice. Given that the tactics are quite subtle and predetermined the answer would probably be no. We must remember that the purpose of the Perfect Rhetorical Fortress, of veto words and of the Critical Theory approach is designed as a means of silencing speech.
As I have suggested, these tactics should not be censored. They should not necessarily be shut down. Freedom of expression allows them to be used. But we need to recognise them for what they are and develop strategies to deal with them.
The purpose of this article has been to identify the way in which an ambivalent or relativistic attitude to the freedom of expression developed in New Zealand and to identify the tactics that have been deployed.
In dealing with those tactics it is essential to focus upon the argument rather than the person and refuse to play the game by the Critical Theorist Rules. This means to ignore the epithets and avoid engaging with them. The Socratic method – question, question, question every proposition as Socrates did, much to the fury of the Athenian establishment, is often a good starting point.
The other thing to remember is that Marcuisan Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory have nothing to do with fairness or equality. The irony is that they have everything to do with power.
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