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Op-Ed: How ‘freedom of speech’ is weaponized to fight antiracism

A man is held back from attacking a man using a bullhorn
A man is restrained while Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader, uses a bullhorn to disrupt a May 25 Miami event marking the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Antiracism is now routinely framed as a threat to freedom of speech, but the tactic is not new. In 1965, William F. Buckley Jr. argued in a syndicated column titled, “Are You a Racist?” that the word “racism” was being used “indiscriminately.” This risked preventing a focus on real racism, such as that perpetrated by Hitler, he wrote, and also led to innocent people being denounced merely for expressing “controversial” opinions.

Sound familiar? Buckley’s warning about the censoriousness of antiracist politics was issued the same year as the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. More than 50 years later, the same tactic is being deployed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Across different contexts, the democratic importance of free speech is being misappropriated to advance reactionary politics.

The Conservative Party government in the United Kingdom, for example, has invested significant political energy in framing BLM-related protests as threats to freedom of expression. This has involved a campaign against “censorship” on university campuses, despite a lack of evidence supporting these claims. It recently culminated in the publication of a report on racism in Britain that blames wrong-headed youthful idealism for — once again — making everything about racism.

Buckley’s ideological maneuvering and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “culture war” share an approach. Rather than denying the existence of racism, both insist on an artificially restricted definition that accepts nothing short of evidence of direct, intentional hostility. This closes off any discussion of the structural and institutional racism in society that the wave of BLM-inspired movements seek to confront.

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It is also designed to put people subject to racism on the defensive. Unless they can definitively prove intentional racism as the cause of a behavior, they are said to be acting undemocratically — and shutting down open debate by indiscriminately accusing others of racism.

Idaho’s new law banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in its public schools is an example of gaslighting politics in action. In a bid to defend “dignity and non-discrimination,” it criminalizes such teaching, arguing that it promotes division. No definition of “critical race theory” is provided, but this is a feature, not a flaw, of the attack on antiracism.

If the concept is left fluid, “critical race theory” can be made to stand in for any attempt to account for the legacy and persistence of racist structures. At the same time, if it is presented as something solid, it can be viewed as an indoctrinating ideology and justify the censoring of, for instance, education and educators. This shape-shifting is exactly what former Vice President Mike Pence was playing with when he tweeted in response to the vote: “We will reject Critical Race Theory in our schools and public institutions, and we will CANCEL Cancel Culture wherever it arises!”

On the surface, Pence may seem to have little in common with French President Emmanuel Macron, whose liberal government has taken this assault even further. In a manufactured moral panic, the French government is accusing antiracist groups of importing “North American theories” about systemic racism that threaten the universalism of the French republic. Consequently, these ideas are framed not as contributions to open debate, but as a menace to freedom of speech as an essential value underpinning the republic.

Brazen political moves like this must be opposed not just by antiracists, but by anyone concerned with the democratic value of free speech. The first line of defense would be to expose the weaponization of freedom of speech as an opportunistic political tactic. Opportunistic, and dangerous, since it allows politicians to pay lip service to opposing racism while framing antiracist movements and ideas as a democratic threat.

It is also crucial to demonstrate how free speech is being used for authoritarian ends. A vague rhetoric of “free speech” sounds perfectly democratic, but it is drawn on to suppress specific kinds of political expression. In milking a supposed free speech “crisis,” elected politicians in London, Paris and Idaho enacted measures that flagrantly restrict forms of democratic speech, in these cases the right to protest and academic freedom.

However, the media conditions that make these tactics viable in the public sphere are also part of the problem. That such intense disputes on the limits of speech take place in a context of apparently limitless speech should give us pause for thought. How can so many people claim to be silenced and loudly clamor for scarce attention at the same time?

As the writer Toni Morrison said in 1975, the “serious function of racism is distraction.” In the contemporary media environment, this distraction consists of staging heated and divisive debates where those combating racism are held up as irrational and excessive, unwilling to accept a reasonable definition of what racism “really is,” and limiting freedom of speech as a consequence.

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Public debates are meant to be a contest of ideas. In a digital media swirl, debates are shaped by the incessant circulation of media content, and not everything that is set up as an idea should be treated as one. Contemporary “debates” are often spectacles made up from recycled talking points and recurring, polarizing controversies jostling for attention.

The internet-savvy far right, for example, takes advantage of the limitless opportunities of social media communication to reanimate discredited racist ideas about human difference and to present them as nothing more than innocent propositions for debate. And guess what? If you don’t play along, and treat the same set-piece “debates” about the humanity of their targets as a good faith dialogue, you are the democratic problem.

The efficiency with which far-right movements have exploited social media has driven extensive public discussion of the failure of the platforms’ moderation practices and speculation on future forms of regulation. The bigger problem is this: Social media corporations provide us with important infrastructure for public debate in democracies, but we have no democratic relationship to these private, largely unaccountable entities.

The task then is to build something better, and we can start by recognizing that for speech to be meaningfully free, it needs to be heard and engaged with outside of the incessant noise of digital debates. This will require building more ways to communicate democratically, the political will to strengthen public media and the determination of everyday people to create communal spaces where sustained engagements can take place.

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Gavan Titley is an associate professor in media studies at Maynooth University in Ireland. His most recent book is “Is Free Speech Racist?”


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