Does “free speech” matter in a world where words are meaningless?

Yesterday a group of elite intellectuals and journalists published an “open letter” in Harper’s Magazine defending the idea of “free speech.”

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

On the surface the letter sounds reasonable. You shouldn’t be fired from your job or have your life ruined just because you have an unpopular opinion. Take it from someone who has been “canceled” on social media by a digital mob who accused me of being “ableist” and “transphobic” simply because I recommended that people read Mark Twain on the French Revolution, social media “illiberalism” on the left has gotten out of hand. The letter was signed by people I admire, Noam Chomsky and David Blight, by people that I despise, Malcolm Gladwell, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and by a few nobodies trying to make a name for themselves.

So what’s not to like? Open closer examination you notice that the letter was also signed by several prominent opponents of “free speech,” Bari Weiss, who spent her undergraduate career at Columbia snitching out professors she considered insufficiently pro-Israel, and Carey Nelson, who destroyed Steven Salaita’s academic career at the University of Illinois. It also includes Michelle Goldberg, who jump started her career in journalism by providing “liberal” cover for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The anti-war movement, she argued back in 2003, were all a bunch of dirty commmies. The Harper’s letter, in other words, is a massive exercise in hypocrisy.

But it goes a lot deeper than that. Just because a few neoconservatives and Zionists signed a letter supporting the idea of “free speech” doesn’t make the letter wrong. You don’t refuse to sign an “open letter” because someone you don’t like signed it the day before. Half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the most famous “open letter” in history, hated one another’s guts.

Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill defined the liberal idea of “freedom” in the late 18th and early 19th Century. Back then you could disagree about politics, or even about the meaning of words, but everybody in the educated, English (and French) speaking-world were, to state the obvious, “educated.” They were elite, bourgeois men, and some women, who grew up writing letters, spending long periods of time reading books, who studied Latin and Greek in college, and who agreed upon certain “rules of debate.” For the British government, who gave Karl Marx political asylum, that he argued for the destruction of capitalism was less important than the fact than he was a “gentleman,” that he had a PhD from a German University and the support of rich capitalists like Frederick Engels. It also didn’t hurt that he had been kicked out of Paris by the French since pissing off the French has always been a favorite British pastime. “Hey we English value open debate. What’s wrong with you Frogs and Krauts?” Had Marx been Indian, African, or even Irish his treatment would have been a lot different, but even then, as the example of Frederick Douglass shows, if you could master the language of the educated bourgeoisie, you could get an audience, even among people who disagreed with you.

These days words are meaningless. Words are no longer words. They’re more like “variables” in Python or C++. The ruling class, the people who have access to the media and the universities, can redefine, or to use the more appropriate term, “overwrite” them any time they want. So for a Zionist like Bari Weiss, Carey Nelson or Michelle Goldberg, supporting Palestinian rights and criticizing Israel isn’t “speech.” It’s “antisemitism.” For people like Cary Nelson, banning Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois is no different from the German government banning statues of Adolf Hitler in the public square or the French government outlawing Holocaust denial. There’s no contradiction in their minds between destroying Steven Salaita’s academic career and signing an open letter virtue signaling about “freedom.”

Noam Chomsky is at the very least consistent. He believes that fascists deserve “free speech.” Most of us don’t. The problem is that for Bari Weiss and Cary Nelson, people like me, and Steven Salaita, anti-Zionists who support Palestinian rights, aren’t simply political opponents. We’re the Nazis. We’re the ones who should be tarred and feather and driven out of town. In theory, it’s an argument for “free speech.” The word “antisemitism” means different things to different people. So let’s have an open debate. In reality, Bari Weiss and Cary Nelson have the ability to redefine what words mean. I don’t. Think of it this way. Think of the public discourse as a data center. I know JavaScript and Node.js pretty well. Does that mean Amazon is going to let me overwrite functions on their servers? In 2020, there’s simply no such thing as a “public discourse.” There are hundreds of compartmentalized private discourses, any one of which, like my Twitter account, can be shut down any time the owner wants it to, and all of which operate within a rhetorical framework written by the NY Times, MSNBC, Fox and the Washington Post.

Over the past few years, Bernie Sanders has been “canceled,” labeled “racist and sexist” by the educated, liberal elite because he argues that we should abolish the health insurance industry, that healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. In other words, he’s a threat to their yachts and their kids trust funds. Joe Biden, who has vowed the veto Medicare for All if it ever came up for a vote, and Hillary Clinton, who has pointed out that single payer healthcare in the United States will “never ever happen,” don’t come out and say “I’m in favor of for profit health insurance and 8 figure salaries for the CEOs of companies who produce Oxycontin.” Of course they’re for the idea of healthcare as a human right. They don’t even bother pointing out that they’re for “access” to healthcare and not necessarily “healthcare.” They simply say what they think you want to hear and carry out the agenda of the ruling class anyway. What exactly are we going to do about it? Nothing. Without the power to overwrite words, words are meaningless.


13 thoughts on “Does “free speech” matter in a world where words are meaningless?”

  1. Here’s for free speech and very expensive shipping. I bought a foot pedal for my guitar amplifier from a U.S. supplier for $99. USD. The shipping was an extravagant 26.98 USD. The total came to 177.CDN. Then I got a robot call from Fed Ex asking for another $31.CDN. That put me over $200 and about $66. shipping for a 1lb. package worth $100. I hung up on the robotcall, they had my tracking number, but, really, just a call that says I can pay it with my card “right away”?? Dear Fed Ex: that’s really “scammy” you know, Dear Sales Director: Please be a little more humble hitting people up for cash out of the blue, and of course the biggest financial gains during lock down have been Amazon and their delivery services. I did check – I could get the product for $160 CDN with free shipping – gee thanks, eh? I guess the Amazon monopoly is working hard to destroy any other method of purchasing consumer garbage…I feel like I get screwed every time I turn on my computer, and shopping for groceries is a hazard, too – watch out for tricks on pricing SPECIAL $2.50 ea for two or more (in small print) and the old best before dates, eh? Paranoia strikes deep – into your heart it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, look out babe (Buffalo Springfield) Neil Young’s “Ohio” about Kent State shootings was May 4, 1970 – demos in the streets 50 years ago. There’s a music video on youtube with black and white footage of that 1970 event.

  2. I have a long history as a communicator, as a journalist, then as a psychiatrist, so I’m particularly interested in finding the right words for thoughts and ideas. I recently read that Socrates was a stickler for precise use of terms.

    This is not a priority for other people, apparently. Sloppy, emotionally charged speech seems to be in vogue, unfortunately. I would say there is a difference between “free speech” and “civil speech.” I don’t think you can legislate it, but I suspect the difference lies in intent and in degree of respect.

    In other words, I believe everyone deserves respect, and there are ways to be honest respectfully. When speech is used to hurt, intentionally, it helps no one and makes the speaker look immature and foolish.

    Should there be laws against it? I don’t think there’s a way to make such laws equitable. Who would be the judge of acceptable speech? For you to get banned from Twitter shows its bias and will work against Twitter in the long run, at least I hope so. I like WordPress because bloggers here, although honest, seem to have the civility and maturity to contain themselves so that others needn’t do it.

    1. Just to clarify, I got attacked by a leftist cancel mob for over 2 days and didn’t get banned. I just had a lot of corncobs Photoshopped onto my self-portrait. My satirical resume also got accessed hundreds of times and when they realized it was only a joke labeled my satire “misogynist.” I’m sure they reported me hundreds of times, but I was still on Twitter over a year later.

      But calling attention to an organized right wing push to support Trump’s attempted coup in Venezuela literally got me banned in under an hour. Twitter clearly supports Trump and the far right. I’m not sure what will happen if Biden wins but I’d assume they’d pivot to support whoever is in power.

      One practical way to insure “free speech” on the Internet would be to have the Postal Service run the Internet as a public utility. That puts everything on social media under the protection of the First Amendment and effectively breaks up the social media monopolies of Google, Facebook and Twitter.

      1. The mind controllers lurk everywhere and have even infiltrated the USPS. I figure the control freaks are desperately seeking relevance, since their previous tactics are no longer working.

        I guess Venezuela has lots of oil. This nasty Maduro doesn’t want to play along with Exxon, so they’ve inserted Juan Guaido in to push Wall Street’s and the foreign investors’ “Agenda”.

        The book “Open Veins of Latin America,” by Eduardo Galeano, given by Hugo Chavez to Barack Obama back when, wasn’t specifically about Venezuela, but it was a real eye-opener for me. It shows how foreigners have been raping the land and its people ever since the Europeans discovered the Americas.

        1. Haven’t finished “Open Veins…” it was too depressing, like “The Gulag Archipelago” true stories of human oppression just too grisly. Look at “murders” of social and environmental leaders in South and Central America…it looks like a slow “genocide” that is well organized. It seems like “non-violent protest” only goes one way, the “bad guys” don’t mind a little killing…

  3. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you said yesterday. Just what you say now. Liberals of course are famously Big Hypocrites. Who have opportunistically changed their positions so often even they can’t keep track. But they are not damned now for this. They are faulted for their present Bad Positions. That’s quite enough.

    This McCartheyite CNN/WaPo/NYT Der Angriff propaganda machine pounds on sucking up all the oxygen.

    The howlers are just taking their best shot at getting their day in the sun. You’re right Stan – It doesn’t really matter what they say. Load up now and crush the competition. Make hay while you’ve the chance. More ‘funding’. A boost up the career ratings ladder. Say anything, attack everyone, nothing matters.

    Every dog has his day, I guess. But then, dogs may bark but the caravan moves on. Which means the sword cuts two ways. And likely soon enough, the Woke ass holes will be set on the run by whomever is next in trend. Hopefully, well before the U.S. dollars ends its term as the world reserve currency thus permanently ending the need and time when the rest of the world has to care much about the collapse of American hegemony.

    1. I think “conversation” is very, very important. People can have opinions that might disagree with others, but a certain civility that can answer back without having been threatened or being threatening is really essential to “civilization”. Fascist condemnation and instantaneous judgement are NOT friends of peaceful co-existence, and if you are going to compete as if everyone is the enemy then we will have conflicts spiraling out of control. I am “preaching” co-operation and compassion, yeah, like the Dalai Lama, you know? You CHOOSE those ideals and TRY to have “equanimity” about what comes your way – relax, stop “judging”, and let’s NOT have a “Great Power Competition” between USA, China and Russia – let’s talk about Co-operation and Compassion with the “Human Cultures” and not the fucking paranoid military.

      1. Massey College at UofT has cancelled a speaking engagement by the venerable Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail thus indicating what that institution thinks about scholarly ‘conversation’.

        1. I did a few e-mails, recently, criticizing the Toronto Sun, which is a tabloid. I said they had a “ninth grade drop-out style guide” that talks down to its audience. Somehow, the rag survives, even with its daily, racy Sunshine Girl photo. I lived in Toronto during the early 90s, having jobs like telemarketing the Sunday Sun (pretty gruesome). Margaret Wente was often controversial. “Guest speakers” sometimes are unwanted when no one can respond to outrageous statements. One way conversations aren’t conversations, and being put as a “captive audience” is uncomfartable, yeah, “fartable” new word, just a typo.

  4. It’s just a cat fight between liberal cliques. But it’s also a split in the ruling class. Please to let them further destroy themselves.

    I any of this lot were to take a shot at you Stan, my advice is to loudly proclaim your thanks and satisfaction. For making clear to one and all that there is nothing in common between you and the lumpenidiocracy, enemy of poor and working class whose cause you stand by. No pasaran!

    Some savage humour serves. But never, ever make any defence. Just attack full bore. Throw down the gauntlet and hammer the scum. You’ll have lots of good company.

    1. I was pretty much a typical liberal until 2013 when I watched the Democratic Party in New Jersey take a dive and not support their own candidate against Chris Christie because he supported charter schools and she didn’t.

      As for the ruling class, it’s obviously split between neoconservatives and “nationalists.” We basically have a choice between George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan. I’m not sure what the Canadian equivalent is. The Poles have taken it to a new level with a three way choice between the asshole homophobe currently President, the Polish Macron and some new guy even further to the right supported by Putin. But the choice is still Macron vs. LePen. That’s the political spectrum in every capitalist country these days.

      The trick neocons are using is to compare their nationalist opponents to Hitler and George W. Bush to this nice old man who paints dogs. I’m old enough to remember when liberals used to compare Bush to Hitler. Imagine looking back fondly on those days.

  5. I have been following Polish affairs. Also Ukraine.

    It doesn’t matter into what camps, factions the U.S. ruling class falls into so long as its irreconcilable. It’s only important that the U.S is politically/culturally paralyzed. By virus, by BLM, by economics.

    Just that the U.S power is weakened, significantly, For all to see. That the power of China plus Russia is seen to grow. Which it will since the U.S.has driven them together.

    It’s best that America be consumed with wrecking itself. The rest of the world will re-configure living without them. The dollar will become history.

    And then, it will be payment time for U.S. liberals and their toadies.

    China and Russia both see quite clearly how finance capitalism is playing out. They will be forced to take the necessary measures. They won’t start unless they are sure they can see things through.

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