All across the United States and Europe, we are seeing the spread of a certain idea of free speech. Unlike the great free speech battles of most of the last 200 years, this is a war being waged by the right. In a typical “free speech” battle, a speaker representing politics somewhere to the right of old-style conservatism is demanding that some other organisation (a university, a broadcaster, an online space) provide a platform to him. The centre-right supports this demand, judging that in backing its outliers, its own base will grow.
What I explore in this piece is what this notion of free speech offers the far right. Bluntly, what is the speech that supporters of the far-right would make, if they were permitted? Many of my examples are from Britain, but the dynamics I describe are just as visible in the US, in France, in India, and everywhere else where the right is growing.
i) The far right must speak because it is under attack
The far right derives its entitlement to speak from the idea that its people are facing some overwhelming threat, and the threat posed to them dictates that they must be heard. The threat does not have to be real, it is all the most effective if it is plainly a nonsensical lie. Think for example of the Great Replacement myth that a secret association of Jews are somehow conspiring to change the “white” countries of the world into majority black and Asian states. This story provides its believers with an organising. It tells them that any black presence in any historically white country is a challenge, the first threat to their own genocide.
Sometimes, the threat can be petty; all the far-right needs is an argument which places it on the defensive, in order to counter-attack. A decade ago, the sociologist Joel Busher noticed that one of the most common claims made by supporters of the English Defence League (EDL) was the claim that they were being criticised for putting up English flags. Almost all of his interviewees would tell a story in which Muslims or left-wingers would ask them to take their flags down. The flag-holder would then exult in the way they humiliated their opponent, swearing at them, threatening violence, or actually carrying out. The point of the story wasn’t that any of this happened, too many people were claiming at once to be the one person that this had happened to, or even that the threat was particularly worrying: the Muslims and left-wingers in this story weren’t rude or violent, just annoying.
What the story offered was a narrative of how right-wing activists could change from being part of a beleaguered political minority to become articulate and confident activists. The threat leads to speech, and then to further speeches of the same sort.
ii) The far right must speak out because no one else will speak for it
In the far-right narrative of free speech, its activists must talk because the state and the political centre (including the centre-right) are unreliable allies. Supporters of the far right complain that liberals, socialists, blacks, Muslims and feminists all have access to well-respected public bodies. The authorities and the state all support the left.
When the EDL interviewees were quizzed about this, they had a narrative in which high-profile, well-funded and respected campaigns (Amnesty, Liberty…) were all willing to speak up on behalf of Muslims and the left. While they, alone, were defencless.
iii) The alternative to speech is silence, and silence is a form of agony
I remember sitting in court in July 2018, at the time of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson’s appeal against his conviction for contempt of court. Robinson was able to follow the proceedings only remotely, relying on a video link from prison. “Can you see your barrister?” the usher asked. “Yeah.” “Can you see the judges?” “Yeah. Are they supposed to be that small?” Bored, ignored by the lawyers in court, Robinson was all “please” and “thank you”. “I’m not nervous before a court case,” he said, “not usually.” Soon enough the sound was switched, off, leaving Robinson picking distractedly at his shirt.
When they spoke, his lawyers made every effort to present Robinson as a champion of good relations between different communities. Tommy Robinson was a delicate man, his lawyer explained, the victim of self-doubt. When in prison, he suffered anxiety, butterflies to the stomach. The street-fighter changed himself into an object of pity.
iv) Far-right speech is an act of solidarity…
When activists on the far-right assert their entitlement to speak, they claim to be speaking on behalf of others. Think, for example, of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the way it insists that the world is being secretly controlled a small group of Satan-worshiping paedophiles (including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and George Soros). The victims of this fantasy are, its believers claim, children who are being trafficked in huge numbers. Or you could think alternatively of the movements that have grown up in Britain and in Europe promising to put an end to an imagined wave of Islamic rapes.
v) … But not a very generous act of solidarity
But while supports of the far right insist they must speak up for other people, these others are not to liberated but kept mute. The right believes it is protecting white women and children from Muslim rapists. And this is not a dynamic of giving women or children a platform, but rather of permitting white men to speak for them. As socialist feminist Kate Bradley observes, “Placing women on a pedestal soon turns to violence and aggression if they prove insubordinate or unhappy with their passive position.” From the Proud Boys, with their ideal of the “Veneration of the Housewife”, it is a short step to attacks on women, such as Lauren Southern who was abused for not sleeping with white racist men, or Richard Spencer’s wife Nina Kouprianova. A fellow white nationalist, at one point he brought her into his interviews. Weeks later, he was shouting at her that she should kill herself.
The far right’s protection of white women sits alongside a misogynistic language of hatred for the weak (“cucks”) and the left (“snowflakes”). In both its protective and its denunciatory faces, the most basic belief of the far right in relation to women is that they are not full human beings and require someone else to speak for them.
vi) Because the far right it has spoken up for these victims, it is excused if it then acts aggressively toward them
The protective urge liberates the far right to prey on the very people it claims to speak for. More than 40 supporters of the British far right have been jailed for sexual offences against children since 1999. Other prominent fascists have been prone to the same vice: Frank Collin’s career as leader of the National Socialist Party of America, and tormentor of Skokie, ended in 1980 when he was convicted of eight counts of taking indecent liberties with children aged between ten and fifteen, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Tommy Robinson is an example of the sane phenomenon. How could anyone criticise him, his supporters argue, when has pledged himself to support vulnerable white women? But “I’ve always been comfortable,” Tommy Robinson writes in his memoir, “in a bloke-oriented environment,” and it is a feature of his memoir that very few women are mentioned: his mother, his wife (good), his probation officer (bad). He recalls “having a bit of a domestic” when walking outside his home with his wife – by which he means attacking and beating her.
Participants in far-right politics tell themselves that they are the champion of “women and children”; but there is no real-life category of women and children. Rather the difference between women and children is that women are adults and entitled to speak for themselves, while children are less than adults and still obliged to depend on others to speak for them. To speak of the rights of women and children as a single group is to assume that women have no entitlement to speak and can be heard only if men speak for them.
vii) Far right speech is never much more than an excuse for violent acts
Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory have been arrested after attacking restaurants wrongly rumoured to have held children captive, assembling bomb-making materials, attacking Roman Catholic churches, derailing trains, stalking politicians, and attacking the buildings where politicians live. If a child has been punished (and a child is the most powerless person imaginable) then there is principle no action which goes too far in the task of recusing them. Someone who attacks a child can be beaten; they can be killed, and their killers will have a moral justification. For in order to prevent cruelty to children, any act is legitimate. To invoke the suffering of non-existent children is to legitimise violence without limit against those who reject the conspiracy theories on which the far right thrives.
The invocation of the rights of children in the face of imagined liberal conspiracy serves the purpose of persuading the supporters of the far right that they are the victim of history, and the only people capable of avenging an enormous historical wrong. The threat faced by the far-right is so terrible, so violent, so overwhelming – that any degree of violence is legitimised.
(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).