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FLASHPOINTS #8: What is 'free speech fundamentalism'?
An interview with Professor Teresa Bejan
In the FLASHPOINTS series we talk to experts who have thought deeply about difficult or contentious issues. Our aim is take a question that’s usually discussed in a polarised or shallow way and reveal its complexity and nuance.
The recent, appalling attack on Salman Rushdie has reinvigorated arguments within liberal democracies over free speech. Some argue that those who deem themselves socially progressive have become authoritarian when it comes to what is or isn’t sayable on questions of race, sexuality and gender; others that freedom of speech can harm the vulnerable, or those not powerful enough to speak back with equal force. Rushdie himself has been a vigorous participant in this debate, of course (he was a signatory of the 2020 Harper’s letter). Over the last week we’ve also seen the free speech debate ignite over anti-monarchist protests.
Professor Teresa Bejan is Professor of Political Theory and a fellow of Oriel College at Oxford University. In 2021 she was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in Politics, which celebrates early career researchers who have already achieved international recognition. In short, she is one of the most brilliant political philosophers of her generation, and I’m delighted that she agreed to discuss the question of free speech with me for FLASHPOINTS.
Teresa’s thinking is informed by her historical research into seventeenth century American religion and politics. She is the author of MERE CIVILITY, a terrific book which was influential on my book about disagreement and conflict (CONFLICTED in the US, HOW TO DISAGREE in the UK). I once saw Teresa describe herself as a ‘free speech fundamentalist’ and I wanted to know what she meant by that. What follows is an edited transcript of a live conversation. We get into free speech fundamentalism, whether hate speech laws are necessary, what freedom of speech actually means (it’s not just one thing) and why we value it, why the word ‘power’ is problematic, the no-platforming culture in universities, the Kathleen Stock case, intersectionality, and more. I hope you agree it’s a truly illuminating, clarifying, stimulating discussion.
Hello Teresa. Salman Rushdie has said, ‘The moment somebody says, “I believe in free speech, but-“, I stop listening.’ What do you think about that?
Well, who am I to tell Salman Rushdie that he's wrong on this - I can't imagine what it's like to have been through what he's been through with respect to this issue. But if we're looking at that quote alone, I have to disagree. I can't afford to stop listening. I am too interested in people's thoughts about free speech and what they perceive its problems and contradictions to be. As someone who cares quite a lot about the principle, I want to make sure that I understand the objections to my own position.
And freedom of speech, like any other worthy principle or value, implies its own limits. We might say that freedom of speech, like other freedoms, ends where another person's freedom begins. If I'm using my freedom of speech in a way that violates your right to exercise your freedom of speech (by shouting you down, for example), then I’ve gone beyond its natural limit. But when and whether the state or other authorities should enforce that limit is another question I imagine we’ll come to.
It’s important, I think, to make a distinction between free speech fundamentalism, and free speech absolutism. I believe that there are rightly some legal limits and exclusions to free speech - including fraud, libel, and so on. I’m not an absolutist. When I say I’m a free speech fundamentalist, though, I mean that I think there's something special about speech - about the spoken and the written word - something that makes the freedom of speech uniquely and profoundly significant for the kind of society I want to live in.
This freedom is, in fact, the grounding for a lot of other things I and others care about. Free speech is essential, for example, for what we might think of as a tolerant society. It's essential for what we think of as a democratic society. For Christians, the freedom of speech has a significant place in the history of Christianity, with respect to duties of evangelism and freedom of the Gospel, or the ‘Word of God’.
For me as an academic, I'm in the business of thinking and of teaching others how to think for a living. And freedom of speech is pretty essential to those activities, and to philosophy as I understand it.
As a free speech fundamentalist, do you think hate speech laws are necessary?
I am against hate speech laws, in general, and I say this as someone who has circled the Anglosphere in the course of my career. As an American living and working in Canada and now in the UK, I’ve been confronted by the sheer peculiarity of the United States with respect to its permissiveness towards what we think of today as ‘hate speech’. Different countries have different histories that may be relevant to this issue, and I’m sensitive to that. But in answer to your general question: yes, generally, I'm against hate speech laws, both in principle and in practice.
America is generally more liberal in the way it regulates speech?
Yes, the US is uniquely permissive. American jurisprudence evolved in the 20th century around the First Amendment, which is now understood to mean that there is no ‘hate speech’ exception to the freedom of speech. This is very different to countries like Canada or the UK that have prescribed hateful speech or ‘hate propaganda’, in accordance with the Criminal Code and the Public Order Act, respectively.
So what’s your objection to hate speech laws?
Support for laws against hate speech sometimes derives from the idea that some exercises of free speech undermine the rights of others - as a form of assault, for example, harassment, or slander. Certainly, hate speech would appear to undermine other people’s equal status and dignity. And usually the others we’re worried about are members of historically vulnerable or marginalised groups.
Earlier I talked about a ‘natural limit’ to the right to free speech: that I shouldn't exercise my right to speak in a way that injures or undermines your right to free speech. So the call for hate speech laws arises, increasingly today, from the sense that if people are using their right to free speech to spout hate propaganda or horrible slurs, then they are assaulting others in a way that not only undermines their dignity as equal members of society in good standing, but actually silences them – by undermining their status as equal speakers.
We can understand that vulnerability in different ways. There's a particular technical argument that comes out of feminist philosophy in the ’80s and ’90s, around pornography. The argument presents pornography as a form of hateful (misogynist) speech that, in fact, silences women. The classic example here is the idea that women and men are told [in pornography] that ‘No means yes’. So a woman, when she tries to say no, tries to say this in a culture that's been distorted by misogynistic porn. She can't actually say ‘No’, effectively, if others have been trained to hear her ‘No’ as a ‘Yes’. So that's a particular philosophical argument about the way in which unrestricted, hateful and sexist speech and images can work to silence others. I'm really interested in this argument.
But you’re not convinced by it generally. So what is your position?
No, I’m not convinced by it. I hold to the view that ‘freedom of speech’ is, like any good and noble ideal, actually a cluster of values and principles we care about.
One is the idea of freedom of speech as ‘speaking freely’ - speaking frankly to others without fear or favour, speaking your mind, speaking truth to power, etc. That’s one idea of free speech (the ancient Greeks called it parrhesia), and according to this version, I can’t see how any of my frank speech, even that which might verge into hate speech, can actually violate or restrict your right to speak frankly back to me - including by telling me to go to hell.
But then there's another idea of free speech - one closely connected with equality and democracy. The Athenians called it isegoria. It's the idea that free speech is about “having a voice” - having your say on equal terms with others. In a democracy, we think that everyone should have a say, and that their say should count equally with others’.
So on the one hand, we have free speech as speaking freely; on the other, as speaking as equals.
Objections of the kind I’ve just mentioned to misogynistic porn and other forms of hate speech point to a tension or even a contradiction between these two ways of thinking about speech. But it seems to me that in a society that values free speech, we want both.
We want people to speak both freely, and as equals. And so we need to care consistently about both. And I think it’s just wrong to suppose that caring about equality of speech, or speaking as equals, requires that we reject, constrict, or otherwise legally constrain the first form of free speech, that of speaking freely. In fact, what we should want is a society wherein everyone is both an equal speaker and can speak their mind equally frankly - that is, to think aloud.
So now the question becomes, how do we best achieve that end? Here, I think there is a really important distinction between the sorts of restrictions we place on speech legally, backed by the coercive power of the state, and the sorts of restrictions we might place on speech in private associations - for instance, in businesses, social media platforms, churches, and universities. I think that, unfortunately, one of the things that has happened in America is that we tend to think that if you care about free speech at all, you must say, ‘Well, I support the First Amendment’ and insist that if the State shouldn’t restrict free speech, no entity should - but the First Amendment doesn't apply to these private associations. Private companies and associations can absolutely regulate the speech of their members.
So when I say I'm against hate speech laws, I mean I’m against laws backed by the coercive apparatus of the state that ban certain forms of speech deemed ‘hateful’. But I'm not saying that a functioning institution should have an absolutely permissive approach to tolerating hateful speech from its members. I think private associations and institutions need to regulate the speech of their members in a way that is consistent with the ends for which each has been instituted.
If you look at the history of the United States, in the 17th century you get laws that look an awful lot like modern hate speech laws in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and European wars of religion. And what you see when you look at these laws and how they operate is what any civil libertarian would expect to see. When you enact such a law in order to protect the vulnerable (in this case religious minorities) from abuse, it pretty quickly comes to be used to prosecute members of precisely those vulnerable groups.
So I can understand the argument and impulse to protect, but I think that hate speech laws are simply impossible to enforce impartially. Take for example the ‘n-word’ which can be a racist slur when used by some people and a term of affection when used by others - what it is depends on who you are. What a general law ends up doing, then, is empowering the state to pick and choose its offenders (in this case on the basis of race). My worry is that this necessary selectiveness incentivises a kind of ideological capture in which people want to get into power so that they can use these laws strategically to silence their opponents. The same logic applies to some forms of non-state enforcement, which perhaps we’ll come to.
Either way, when it comes to what we might call ‘policing speech’, the people often targeted are already the most marginal and the least educated, because these are the people who simply don’t ‘talk right’ - that is, in the way that those elite and privileged enough to be in a position to make and enforce the laws expect them to. I think many well-meaning proponents of criminalising hate speech imagine that laws will be used only to silence the powerful (e.g. members of a racial majority) - but in my work on civility, what’s clear is that the standard of conversational virtue will be set with reference to whomever has the power to enforce it. There’s inevitably a strong status quo bias that further marginalises the marginal and suppresses dissent.
In a piece you wrote for the Atlantic, you cited John Stuart Mill saying that the chief enemy of free speech is not the state, but ‘social tyranny’. Does that still hold?
I'm often pretty hard on Mill because I think civil libertarians rely altogether too much on him, as though he’s the only person who ever spoke or wrote persuasively in defence of free speech. So I have a kind of ‘corrective contempt’ for Mill. But he's right on this point, and it's a really important one for students to grasp. Mill’s point is that the legal right to speak can be perfectly well established, respected and protected by law and still do us little good, if and when there's an overwhelming and irresistible social pressure to conform.
The other person writing about this phenomenon shortly before Mill is Alexis de Tocqueville, who says of America that even though it formally protects speech more than any other country, there's in fact no place in the world with less ‘independence of mind and true freedom of discussion’. Mill reads Democracy In America and wants to understand and solve this problem of a country that enjoys formal, legal freedom of speech, but in which no one will actually speak freely. So Mill argues that it’s all well and good to have a legal and political system in place that protects the rights of individuals to speak freely, but what is also needed is a society and a culture that really tolerates and even supports the individual exercise of that freedom, too.
So this is akin to those two types of free speech. Everyone can have the right to speak, but the spectrum of socially allowable speech can get very narrow.
Absolutely. The history of this is really fascinating. We shouldn't exaggerate the inclusiveness of democracy in America in the nineteenth century – certainly with respect to race, sex, and immigration status – but even with these notorious exclusions, American democracy was much more inclusive than regimes in Europe or elsewhere. As property qualifications for voting were abolished, the right to participate was extended to white men across the social spectrum, on the basis of equality. Every white man got to ‘have his say’.
Still, what he said (including about race!) was then,Tocqueville thought, subjected to a very strong social pressure to conform. Hence the move - and this happens at different times in different places - from public voting to private voting and the introduction of the voting booth, as a secret and ‘safe space’ (like a confessional) in which people could actually vote their consciences in a way that was going to protect them from the social pressure. So there again, we find the tension between ‘having a say’ and ‘speaking your mind’. That’s why it's worthwhile to disaggregate these different aspects of the freedom of speech.
That’s helpful for understanding some of the current, hot debates around free speech on campuses. People will say yes of course everyone's free to say whatever you want, but we're also free to say, we don't want to have that here.
Exactly. As I said earlier, I think it is possible to abuse your right to free speech – and one such abuse is to use your right to speak in order to call for others to lose theirs, or to suffer serious social or economic sanctions for exercising their speech rights. This is the central insight of Mill’s On Liberty – that it's social sanctions, cultural sanctions, and particularly economic sanctions that are going to be most salient in influencing how individuals actually act, and what they choose to say.
What kinds of speech was Mill thinking about, in terms of speech that was sanctioned socially and economically?
First and foremost, Mill was thinking about religious dissent, and the pressure that Protestant nonconformists and nonbelievers like himself were placed under in a society which has (to this day!) an established church. I think the model of religious dissent is really important for understanding the way that arguments about free speech developed in Britain in particular.
But there's also political and social dissent. Mill is writing in the midst of the rise of British socialism and the voicing of pretty profound challenges to the status quo. Mill himself and his wife, Harriet Taylor, were also vocal feminists, arguing for the rights of women and for reforming laws around divorce. These arguments were often highly offensive to the proprieties of the society in which they lived. The same was true of abolition in antebellum America. Mill liked to focus on Jesus Christ and Socrates as examples of people who spouted highly offensive and unpopular views in their own day which, in the long arc of history, were later recognised as being true views, or at least truer ones.
So Mill is recognising that free speech can be socially disruptive, very unpleasant and can upset a lot of people. But in the long run, it's worth accepting that disruption because sometimes those people are right or are adding something valuable to the discourse that hasn’t been fully recognised yet.
Yes. This leads Mill to develop an argument that the freedom of speech should be justified mainly in terms of truth-production. According to this argument, even if the view that's being suppressed is not itself true, participation in debate about that view will still be essential to finding the truth, eventually. Here, Mill introduces a further, strongly progressive rationale: that free speech is essential in order for societies to make moral and political progress over time.
These arguments are closely connected, and they are also where I dissent from Mill. It might well be true that freedom of speech leads to truth production, sometimes, but it certainly doesn't always. The faith that it will is therefore not enough to hang your hat on. And secondly, I have a lot less faith in progress than did my estimable forebear. So I think neither argument gets a proponent of free speech today where she needs to go.
Okay, but if you take those away, what do you have left?
Good question! Let’s go back to the idea of freedom of speech as a cluster of values, including ones that matter for equality and democracy. Egalitarians want a system wherein everybody can speak and have their say as an equal, but as we've said following Tocqueville and Mill, that's also not enough. Those with the right to speak have also got to be able to judge for themselves and speak their minds. They've got to speak freely. They shouldn’t just be parroting the party line, succumbing to social pressure, or being bought off by a particular interest group. In societies that are tolerant, democratic, and free, we want people to exercise their independent judgement and to be able to weigh in on the basis of that judgement.
Then there are the moral and philosophical values in play in free speech, ones that have to do with the nature of human beings. Aristotle says that the human animal is a political animal defined by logos, a Greek term meaning both speech and reason. I put less emphasis on reason than did Aristotle, but I think he’s right that there's something really fundamental about speech for understanding not only how human beings think and how we come to know, but also how we relate to one another. If we are unable to speak, unable to converse with others and to say what we actually think, we become stunted intellectually, we resort to force. This worry is clearly related to the political concern about independence I mentioned earlier, but it's not exhausted by it. And so as a proponent of free speech, in addition to politics, I'm interested in philosophy. I'm interested in education. I'm interested in what conditions we need to have in place for students to really learn.
You’re arguing that the debate over freedom of speech can't be exhausted by appeals to social justice?
It goes back to what I said earlier about the need to think about speech with reference to the different ends of particular institutions and conversational contexts. I mean, the ‘end’ of a political debate is for us to decide as a community what to do. Hopefully we make that decision with reference to justice and the common good, as well as expediency. And then there is, of course, the powerful feminist dictum that ‘the personal is political’. Certainly it is, but to say that everything is in some sense political is not to say that therefore we must foreground the political – that is, the communal consideration of what is to be done – in every context. There are other considerations. There are other values, too.
I think that universities, crucially, need to remember and retain that sense of themselves as instituted for something other than politics. We can talk about what that ‘other thing’ is, whether it is to pursue truth, to pursue knowledge, etc - in a religious university one might add that the pursuit of knowledge should be addressed to the greater glory of God. Whatever the end is, however, debates about speech in the university need to address this prior question, which is, what is the – or what is this –university for?
Very often, the objection to free speech fundamentalists like me is that we are blind to or otherwise indifferent to the importance of power - that we are culpably naive about the way that the speech of powerful people can undermine or harm the vulnerable in particular institutions and in society at large. But I would note again that, when it comes to spelling out the nature of those power disparities, critics of free speech can also display a very shallow or simplistic understanding of power.
How do you mean?
Well, what do we mean by ‘powerful people’? If we mean politicians and public servants, then yes, they've absolutely got to be held accountable for their speech to the fullest extent of the law. Such a powerful person really ought, for example, to be prosecuted for inciting a riot! And I also think such powerful people have got to be held to a much, much more demanding set of ethical duties than most. The holder of an office has special duties, by definition. Public servants and politicians have a responsibility to abide by conversational virtues like decorum and discretion in the exercise of their speech. Even if they can speak frankly on all sorts of things, they really ought not to, given their position of power over others.
But this is not, I take it, the sense of power that a lot of critics of free speech have in mind when they worry about power disparities or differentials between speakers. They tend to have a sense of power being unequally distributed on the basis of certain established and readily identifiable identity categories or characteristics. So we might think of race, sex, gender, class (maybe we don't think enough about class, and certainly not enough about education level). And then we think about power by basically sorting individuals into these various buckets. And now, with the help of a critical lens like intersectionality, we can distinguish these buckets ever more finely.
The problem is that in a complex society like the United States or the United Kingdom, power is also really complex. It doesn't simply follow along with these well-defined identity categories, and so we can’t simply use these as a proxy for distinguishing powerful people from vulnerable people. Identities are complex. People can be powerful within certain contexts and vulnerable in others - the family, the faith community, the firm. Moreover - and crucially - people who share identity characteristics don’t all think alike or want to say the same thing. So we mustn’t reify these identity categories in a way that blinds us to the complexities of power in different contexts.
For me, it comes down to this: identities don't speak, individuals do. It’s individuals who make up their minds, and individuals who have a mind to say this thing and not something else.
For Mill, the model of the dissenter was the model of the one against the many, like a Jesus Christ or a Socrates, the man against the crowd. For him, the only power-disparity that really mattered was that between the vulnerable individual and the powerful crowd. Modern civil libertarians are also worried primarily about the power of numbers. So they do care about power, but in a narrower sense than most of their critics. I’m somewhere in the middle.
The way the concept of ‘power’ is applied today, when people in an institution are arguing that somebody should not be allowed to speak, is a bit different though, isn’t it? They will say something like, that person is representing a view that's widely held amongst powerful people and which is harmful to vulnerable people. Maybe they're a famous academic or a well-known novelist or something, and therefore they have a “platform” which represents power, which is power. Basically, people use the word power very, very loosely and I often find it hard to get a handle on what is meant by it! Sometimes it's used to mean influence. Sometimes it seems to mean coercive power. Sometimes it means something vaguely in-between.
Well, the way we think and talk about power nowadays is a mess. I don't actually think that political theorists or philosophers do much better than anyone else. ‘Power’ is, as the kids say, ‘problematic’, and we’re still in search of a good theory of it. My favourite thinker on power is Thomas Hobbes, who has this wonderful discussion in Leviathan (1651) listing all of the forms of power. It includes things like popularity, success, wealth, less so knowledge - but also “reputation of power”. If someone is of the opinion that you're powerful, then you are - even if you think you’re not.
I don't dismiss the kinds of concerns you mention; they’re serious. But I would also note again that power in societies as complex as our own is also inevitably complex. Salman Rushdie has an incomparable and incredibly powerful platform, doesn’t he? He has social power, he has intellectual power, he has economic power. But ultimately, he's an embodied frail, fragile and finite human being who is vulnerable to physical attack.
There’s this popular idea that some speech is like violence, or is violence. Which isn’t totally wrong - the Ayatollah’s injunction against Rushdie was a form of speech, which ended in violence. So there clearly can be a connection between them. But the phrase seems to flatten and simplify the question unhelpfully. If ‘speech is violence’ then if I don't like your speech, it’s the same as me saying, I don't want to be hit, or I don't want you hitting somebody.
The comparison of speech with physical violence can be illuminating metaphorically, as an aid to understanding. It can open your eyes to how speech can hurt others in ways that maybe you were indifferent to before. I'm a lover of metaphor, I'm a lover of a good analogy. But literary devices like metaphor and analogy also rest fundamentally on there being a fundamental difference, a distinction between the things being compared. In this case, the power of the metaphor comes from the fact that speech is not, in fact, violence.
Now, can speech violate the rights of others? Absolutely. I've already mentioned examples like fraud or libel. But to say something horrible to someone is just categorically distinct from physically attacking them, and I think we've got to hold that line. If we don’t, I fear we will find ourselves in the business of justifying violence and blaming the victims of it.
Why? Well, people understand pretty intuitively that if someone is violent towards them, they are justified in being violent towards the aggressor in return. It’s called the right to self-defense. So it's really important for free speech fundamentalists like myself to be clear that you can both recognise the harms of hate speech and hold to this categorical distinction between speech and violence – and to insist that when we're speaking metaphorically, we are speaking metaphorically.
A few months ago we had a brief exchange on Twitter about Professor Kathleen Stock’s experience at the University of Sussex…
The Stock case is a good illustration of some of the things we've been talking about. Take the issue of power. Kathleen Stock was a professor at a very good British university. She had power by virtue of her position of being a permanent member of the academic staff. She had power by virtue of having a large Twitter platform. She had social power by virtue of being a white British woman in an esteemed profession. But just as Kathleen Stock had power over her students, it’s also true that she herself was vulnerable to an exercise of power by some students, who acted collectively and in association with other powerful people within the institution, the broader academic profession, the University and College Union, and online. And from that perspective, she is Mill’s individual standing against the crowd.
So it's a great illustration of the complexities of power we’ve been discussing. It's also a great illustration of different ideas of free speech. In this case, there was a clear conflict between competing claims of harassment and harmful speech as infringing on freedom and equality. The students’ position was that what Stock was saying about gender identity and trans people was a form of harassment or bullying that created a hostile environment for their learning. And, then, Professor Stock also claimed that people putting up posters on campus calling her transphobic, and more importantly calling for her to be fired, were doing the same - that is, creating a hostile environment. And of course, rape and death threats online are also a form of bullying and harassment which arguably made it difficult for her to do her job.
As I said on Twitter: I am sympathetic to Stock’s claim to have been a victim of harassment and a hostile working environment, because the speech in question was clearly directed against her as an individual. It was calling for her to be fired - that is, to suffer an economic sanction on the basis of work protected by academic freedom. The students’ claims are, I think, more tenuous: that things she’s said in the abstract, implicitly and theoretically, have negative impacts on members of certain identity groups. But as far as I understand it, she wasn’t credibly accused of saying anything about or retaliating against specific students under her authority. And so I find the first claim more plausible than the second.
But you took issue with what I said on Twitter, I think, because you objected specifically to my use of the term ‘transphobe’. I said that it was perfectly fine for students to call Stock a transphobe, but to call for her to be fired was an abuse of their right to free speech. I said this, because as a free speech fundamentalist, I’m just not interested in policing what people say. (For instance, I really don’t think people should be sanctioned or banned by Twitter for saying mean things about the Queen or the Royal Family.)
The way people use labels like transphobic can, of course, be highly insulting and inflammatory, but it’s also just a way of describing a set of views and one’s understanding of the implications of those views. I'd say the same things about labels like racist or sexist. They can be used as insults, but they can also be good faith moves in an argument. Oftentimes, they’re both.
But I would say the problem is not so much that the term is an insult - the problem is that it is used as an instrument of ‘social tyranny’ - as a way to narrow the scope of free speech. If you call someone transphobic you’re saying they shouldn't be a professor here, because once you're branded a transphobe, or a racist, you're not allowed to speak. You have been placed beyond the realm of acceptable debate.
I can agree that that's the way that the term often functions rhetorically. Again, drawing on my work on civility, I would say that terms like transphobic are sometimes used in highly uncivil ways. By this I mean that they are being used not to make a move in an argument, but to put an end to argument altogether. My view, however, is that in a tolerant society we’ve got to tolerate quite a lot of incivility!
So, much like hate speech, I don't think that deploying stigmatizing labels as a way to end an argument is a good thing to do, I don't think it's right, and I would encourage my own students to think about the way that they're using these labels and consider that there may be more effective ways of engaging. But in a tolerant society, we've got to tolerate the cut and thrust. And I would add that if it is indeed transphobic to ask the kinds of questions about gender identity that Stock does in her work, then transphobia, too, has got to be tolerated in a society in which there is really deep disagreement on this issue.
You’re right to point out that part of what we're doing when we're having these arguments is arguing over what the boundaries of legitimate or acceptable opinion in our tolerant society should be. My perspective on this is informed by the history of hate speech laws, like the one in Maryland in 1649. Maryland was founded as a safe haven for English Catholics to avoid Protestant persecution in England. When the colony enacted a hate speech law in 1649, it was meant to protect every religious ‘denomination’ from hateful naming. But the first and only person ever prosecuted under this law was a Catholic accused of ‘upbraiding’ two Protestants. They were trying to ban what people understood at the time as ‘persecution of the tongue’ - insults like Protestant, Lutheran, and Papist. These were really hateful, horrible insults invented by people who disagreed on religious matters. But today we regard these same words simply as denominational labels. Judith Butler has written about this process, movingly – the way that insults like ‘queer’ or the ‘n-word’ can be reappropriated.
So I am, on the one hand, intensely interested in and committed to the power of words, but on the other hand, I think we mustn’t turn particular words into totems or taboos wielding a kind of incomprehensible, mystical force. We do things with words, and yes, sometimes words do things with us. But fundamentally, we are the agents. We are responsible.
So this comes back to your emphasis on the individual rather than the identity. A person should have freedom to think and speak as an individual rather than just be classified as a white person or a black person or a woman or indeed a racist. Underneath a lot of what you're saying is you can't just work out who this person is from the identity label.
The label is a heuristic. It's a way of saving ourselves the trouble of actually having the conversation, of having the disagreement, in order to find out what someone else thinks, or getting to know who they are. If we can successfully label people in advance we don't have to bother with that whole business. This is why these labels proliferate online and through social media like Twitter.
Yet the crucial insight of intersectionality, as I understand it, is to remind us that none of the identity categories we use politically are homogenous monoliths, and that individuals are always differentially placed within these categories. That is the message I take from Kimberlé Crenshaw or Patricia Hill Collins. But now, that intersectional insight has become reified, in a way that says, well, certain people - in virtue of their intersectional identities - are placed in such a way that they have a kind of privileged access to knowledge that leads to a certain kind of social authority. Again, it's about wanting to imbue the identity with power or authority, as opposed to saying, well, individuals inhabit these different identities but these identities don’t define who they are - or what they have to say.
Ultimately this is why I'm a free speech fundamentalist - or even an evangelist. It’s why I'm a civil libertarian – because I think that if we care about power, if we care about injustice, we care about them as bad things that happen to concrete, embodied, and always vulnerable individuals.
Thank you, Teresa.
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