It’s unclear when, exactly, free speech became a right-wing catch-cry. Certainly, conservative forces of years past had little use for it; freedom of expression being, after all, a fundamental threat to power imbalance. If radical ideas were to be spread freely throughout the populace, the church and aristocracy must weaken; and so they did. As science, philosophy and progressive political thought flourished — no longer suppressed by rulers’ orthodoxy — the old giants waned. Such were the conditions that permitted the scope and successes of 20th century Western left-wing activist movements.
Behavioural psychologist Henri Laborit mused that control might be the most fundamental dynamic in the interactions of life-forms. Perhaps, in that light, it’s not so paradoxical that control has crept into the strategies of modern left-wing movements. Activist feminism, with the variable exception of the more libertarian third wave, rarely shies away from advocating censorship; likewise, anti-vilification law remains a significant achievement of the LGBTI and ethnic/religious lobbies. Corporate tepidity, readily exploited by interest groups, has made extreme views in the commercial sphere all but untenable.
There can be no denying the effectiveness of these means, nor their capacity for enforcing social change. Little wonder, then, that neo-conservatives — perhaps fearful of being legislated out of existence, perhaps simply aware of a good populist catchphrase when they hear one — have so readily borrowed ‘freedom of speech’ as a slogan. As far as much of the activist left is concerned, it seems, it’s theirs to keep.
If that has made progressives a little more reluctant to defend free speech wholeheartedly, there is reason for concern. Control is not only a human instinct; it is but a short reach away for all interest groups and ideologies. So it is that freedom of expression requires sustained defence to survive, a role that cannot be entrusted to the right. For neo-conservatives, such concerns are little more than a fad; easily dispensed with should their paradigms regain ascendancy. Progressives, on the other hand, must remember that a culture of free and open communication is a necessary condition for future social change. The alternative is just another set of unchallenged orthodoxies.
There is a darker side to the history of radical left-wing thought’s relationship with the exchange of ideas. Suppression of free speech has been a fundamental policy of any left-leaning totalitarian regime, and it met its most horrifying consequences in the mass murders of intellectuals in Maoist China, the Soviet Union and Cambodia. Even in the West, anti-intellectualism has thrived within activist movements, founded upon the paradigm that prioritising theory over action inhibits social change. This ideology — described by theorist Theodor Adorno as ‘actionism’ — continues to flourish in contemporary left-wing activism.
How, then, to address cultural problems as an activist? How should one respond to oppressive discourse, particularly that which flourishes in the commercial mass media? Demanding censorship remains the quickest approach: by rallying soft-progressives or tapping into broader existing cultural stigmas, this methodology helps solidify a society’s political ‘evolution’. This, however, remains a deeply problematic response. Silencing dissent may achieve short-term gains, but the consequences are grave: a culture that is neither free nor progressive.
In his final essay, Resignation, Adorno argues that the sacrifice of theory in political activism can lead only to regressive outcomes. Subordinating critical thought, he points out, renders action meaningless; converts paradigm into dogma. We should be wary of any group that claims avenues of expression must be limited; that certain topics ought not to be discussed in certain ways. If there is ever a situation in which repression is necessary, the very least demand we must make is that it be applied judiciously and cautiously.
The alternative to this tactic is, in many ways, its direct opposite: the critical approach. This can take many forms: analysis; polemic; protest. Rather than culling expression, these forms add to it; rather than reducing data, they increase it. That this process is by far the slower and more tortuous of the two is but a reflection of the glacial movement of social reform. Perhaps this is for the best: as we have seen throughout the last 100 years, swift, violent change invariably weakens a society and opens the gate for totalitarianism. Russia, an oppressive yet relatively typical European monarchy at the dawn of the 20th century, still labours under the caprices of a dictator; China, the world’s (soon to be) greatest superpower, jails dissidents whilst continuing to bear the scars of the Cultural Revolution. Even Egypt, scene of a relatively peaceful uprising, now finds itself adrift amongst competing power bases two years after the fall of Mubarak. These are the fruits of ‘actionism’.
This is not to say that progressives should ever meekly accept the status quo. Where social change is required, aggressive, sustained, positive activism is still the best means of achieving it. It is the fact that we live in a country which enables freedom of speech and open communication that makes peaceful, progressive social change possible. We should never take those qualities for granted.