Thursday, 17 August 2017

Hate Speech and the Left

Recently a lot of internet text has gone into arguing against those who still support the right to “free speech” of the Nazis/"alt-right" in the US. Those who do are misguided and completely misunderstand, and sometimes deliberately misrepresent, what “free speech” means. This is nothing new; the Anti-Nazi League in the 1980s argued the same thing when marching against fascists in places like Lewisham and East London. The argument then was that hate-speech and free speech are different because hate speech is inherently dehumanising and threatens the freedom of speech of those it targets.

This is all absolutely right and we should not have to argue this again in the face of Nazi violence in the US. We have to be clear that there is a difference between hate speech and free speech, and clarity is important here. The Nazis marching in Charlottesville were not exercising any “right” to free speech, they were attacking, intimidating and attempting to silence black people, Muslims, LGBT people, Jews, and indeed anyone who disagrees with their hate-fuelled ideology.

What bothers me is how some of those important voices pointing out the difference between “free speech” and hate speech seem to be attempting to situate the blame for the idea at the door of so-called “centrists” while absolving the left of responsibility. Yes, of course there are people who are politically in the centre ground, including those in the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, whose ideas regarding free speech are dangerously confused. There are also plenty in these groups who are not not confused and who support those arguing against hate speech, these poeple even exist in the Tory Party. 

Likewise there are plenty on the left who are clear about the myth of free speech and how it is used to legitimate hate speech. However there are many who are not, or who are prepared to use the argument about free speech as a proxy for hate speech in other areas. The letter in support of Kiri Tunks’ hate speech against trans people is ample evidence of this.

For those of you not up to speed on this Tunks wrote an article in the Morning Star attaking trans people and saying that we should not have the same rights as everyone else because we are threatening "real" women's identities. She dug up the usual tired old arguments about trans women undermining the category “women”, stealing women’s identities etc... Indeed this might be characterised

as the “We Want Our Gender Back!” argument. Not surprisingly Tunks came in for a fair amount of criticism for this, and rightly so, no-one should have the right to attack and attempt to harm or silence another group without a response. My response was that someone holding the discriminatory views she does should not be allowed to work with children.

A number of people on the political left cosigned the article, including Ruth Serwotka of the NUT, Moz Greenshields, Mary Davis and Alex Gordon of the RMT. The letter these people signed, in essence invoked the free speech argument as a cover for hate speech, in particular the following sentence was indicative;

“As Kiri pointed out in her article, 'to deny any group or individual in that group the right to be part of a discussion about their identity is insulting and will result in a failure of the great liberation we are all seeking.'”

Tunks is not trans so how she should be part of a discussion about “her” identity is not clear. Her identity as a cis woman is neither under threat nor is it part of any discussion. The idea that trans women are a threat to cis women is pure, straightforward transphobic hate speech, as it tacitly heavily implies that trans women are "men". The argument Tunks and other TERFs are using to muscle their way in to the debate on trans rights is in fact remarkably similar to that used by some “feminists” in the 1970s and 80s to argue against lesbians' rights. The reason they want to be included in this debate is because they want to undermine trans people’s rights and harm trans people.


Let us be clear about this; full human rights for trans people is not merely opposed by those on the fanatical right of the Tory Party, Ukip and the Trump-emboldened American right, it is also opposed by many on the left, including the far left. The arguments they use in support of the kind of hate speech advanced by TERFs with the aim of harming and oppressing trans people are the same as those advanced by those arguing that Nazis in Charlottesville, or anywhere else for that matter, have a “right” to free speech.

Weaponizing the argument about who misrecognizes or misrepresents hate speech as free speech as part of petty politics weakens its power, constitutes appropriation in its worst sense and absolves those on the left who misuse the hate speech/free speech argument. Hate speech matters, hate speech is harmful, and just as Michael Rosen noted, fascism doesn't always come at us wearing jackboots and black shirts, to begin with it tries to look and sound "reasonable". Hate speech, in all its forms, should be opposed wherever it exists, and those who argue that hate speech is the same as free speech should be challenged whoever they are.


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