Shut it! West’s free speech challenges are sign of systemic insecurity
Over the past week hallowed Western institutions of free speech have become sites of struggle for this basic democratic right. Is it a sign of creeping intolerance or systemic insecurity?
Britain’s House of Commons Speaker John Bercow sparked controversy this week when he declared that US President Donald Trump would not be invited to address elected MPs and members of the House of Lords at Westminster Hall during a state visit later this year. Bercow said his decision was based on the president’s alleged obnoxious views of racism and sexism.
The move has caused uproar with many lawmakers saying that the proposed ban discredits the British Parliament – supposedly “the mother of all parliaments.” British Prime Minister Theresa May is also annoyed that boycotting Trump could jeopardize her efforts to burnish the special relationship between the US and Britain, which she assiduously tried to renew last month as the first foreign leader to be received in the new White House.
Last week, another hallowed Western institution for free speech came under an embarrassing spotlight when rioting students at University of California Berkeley forced a Trump acolyte to abandon a planned speech. Milo Yiannopoulos, the editor of the alt-right publication Breitbart, which is a big supporter of Trump, had to be escorted off campus by police amid students denouncing him as “fascist scum.”
The irony was not lost on many observers, including the LA Times, who noted that UC Berkeley was the modern home of the “free speech movement” which sprang up in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and for civil liberties among minorities. Now the same bastion of free speech is running people off for expressing views considered objectionable by some.
Still another quirk in recent days was the US Senate’s banning of Senator Elizabeth Warren from addressing Congress. The Democrat Senator was due to recite from a 30-year-old letter written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr, in opposition to Trump’s nominee as Attorney General – Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. The letter, which accused Sessions of racist practices while serving as Alabama governor in the past, was deemed to violate Senate rules against impugning other members of the chamber.
Going back to the British parliament case, it does seem an extraordinary transgression of the right to free speech, as well as diplomatic etiquette. One may not like Trump’s brand of nationalistic politics nor his selective immigration controls on certain Arab countries allegedly for national security reasons. But it seems an over-the-top reaction to turn around and declare him persona non grata in the British parliament.
It also smacks of double standards. As parliamentary critics point out, the Speaker previously welcomed the Emir of Kuwait and Chinese President Xi Jinping to Westminster, both of whom are accused by British rights groups of overseeing grave violations in their respective countries. Whatever the merit of those accusations, it seems contradictory for the British parliament to object to Trump speaking.
Former US President Barack Obama was afforded the right to address the House of Commons. Even though his military forces were at the same time bombing seven countries and he was personally responsible for summary killing of foreign nationals with drone assassinations. There were no qualms among British parliamentarians to Obama speaking.
Nevertheless, despite one’s own personal biases, it is arguable that freedom of speech is a fundamental right supposedly cherished in Western democracies that must be protected for all dissenting views.
International defense lawyer Christopher Black told this author that there is a danger of cherry-picking this fundamental right. And in doing so, it could open up a Pandora’s Box of blanket censorship, leading potentially to despotism.
He said: “Leftists might want to shut down all speech they deem as fascist. But the problem is that if that can be justified then the political rightwing can respond by justifying shutting down the left. Look what the blacklist did in the US during the 1950s Communist-hunting McCarthyite era.”
The lawyer added: “I think free speech should be respected no matter what the opinions expressed are – excepting those that are libelous and slander, that is, speech designed to injure someone’s reputation. The best way to deal with arguments we do not like or agree with is to make better counter-arguments and point out why they are wrong.”
That seems an apt point regarding the controversy at UC Berkeley. The anarchist groups who claimed “victory” in preventing the Breitbart editor from speaking – in the name of “fighting fascism” – only ended up scoring an own goal by elevating the magazine and its reactionary political views to a global profile. Yiannopoulos, the speaker in question, seems more like a stand-up comedian with obnoxious, facetious views rather than the reincarnation of the Third Reich’s fascist orator Josef Goebbels. Besides, Yiannopoulos was invited to speak by a Republican party student group within the university. People who don’t like his cringeworthy views were not forced to attend.
A further repercussion is that President Trump threatened to cut off federal funding to the whole university over the debacle due to its apparent intolerance to free speech.
The Breitbart editor appears to be a walking contradiction – openly gay, but ostensibly denouncing gay rights, and relishing sexual relations with black men, while at the same time espousing white nationalist views. Like his self-declared “daddy” Donald Trump, and many of Trump’s White House team, the articulated views are riddled with anomalies and errors. The discourse is more comedic than threatening.
Surely it is much better to let such people have their say – up to the point beyond which it becomes physically injurious. And thereby let them spin their way into oblivion with quackery. Prohibition is not only a breach of rights, it is also counterproductive as it leads to destructive spirals, as witnessed in many other areas of culture.
The election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populist politics elsewhere is perhaps best understood as a breakdown in the status quo. That breakdown is long overdue as political systems have become ossified, elitist and unrepresentative of democratic rights. Excessive political correctness and “identity politics” are part of this oppressive order upheld by the elites.
The recent rush to close off free speech is more a sign of uncertainty in societies amid political turmoil. The uncertainty is evident on both the traditional right and left of the political spectrum. However, it seems more indicative of insecurity as opposed to any objective social movement toward intolerance.
Now, more than ever, is the time to keep public debate open, not shut it down due to some narcissistic sense of being offended. Where views are obnoxious or wrongheaded, they should be challenged and thwarted through intelligent argument.
There are valid discussions to be had about equality, secularism, immigration, national and economic rights, globalization, war and peace, and many more issues.
Discussion and dialogue are the best way to evolve public understanding, nationally and internationally.
If we begin practicing communication apartheid, then the outcome is what we are seeing underway among certain Western states declaring Russian media as somehow illegitimate. Closing down communications is often the first act of conflict.