So, here we are. Again. Donald Trump has said something laughable and pundits are lining up like a 1930s top hat and tails musical troupe kicking their legs in a spectacular choreographed response. You know the tune. It’s by Busby Berkeley with the emphasis on the ‘berk’…
Turn your head to the left and sing: “Freedom of speech is enshrined in the US constitution.”
Kick your left leg: “Americans died in wars to defend that freedom.”
Turn to the right: “It’s the job of the President to protect that freedom.”
Right leg out: “How could Trump get this so wrong?”
If you’re tired of the dance, it’s because the routine has grown stale. This film was in cinemas last month and the months before that. Trump says something contentious and serious people waste their time trying to intellectualise something that never once passed through a serious intellect. They do it, however, because this is an opportunity to say something easy: that freedom of speech is foundational to our wider freedoms. We can all agree about that. Hurrah!
That’s fine as far as saying easy things go but what about asking ourselves a really difficult question instead? How, for example, would we feel about that same freedom of speech if the NFL players had been raising the Nazi salute?
Yes. You’re right to take a couple of steps back, look at your watch, and suggest you have things to do and people to see. No subject draws us so rapidly towards places where we’re rather not go. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing when it’s at our backs and pushing in our favour. It’s a thing of beauty when it’s empowering women to speak out against misogynistic laws in foreign lands. It sends shivers up the spine when young people use it to bring down old tyrannies. It’s less wonderful when it means we have to defend the rights of people we passionately disagree with. It’s a problem in the mouths of crypto-fascists and East European dictators. Freedom of speech is a bloody nuisance when Vladimir Putin uses it to peddle propaganda in our very own free press.
Yet, that, really, is the truest test of free speech. We have the most freedom when “bad” things can be said without landing the speaker in prison. That’s not, however, to say that freedom is absolute. It is curtailed at the point where it abuts the law of the land. Some things cannot be said. You cannot incite a person to commit murder. In some places, the freedom is restricted over certain kinds of hate speech. These are very specific restrictions which, like all taboos, are carefully and culturally placed. Yet that still leaves a lot of room for things that are deeply offensive to most people.
And, in that context, freedom of speech has to be indivisible. Freedom of speech is a perquisite of our epistemology. Without an objective knowledge of truth and falsehood, good and bad, we have to leave our rules of speech broad enough to encompass every opinion, viewpoint, and bold argument.
If you accept that neither the Left nor the Right hold the panacea to the world’s ills, you have to leave room for both sides to make their arguments, no matter how offensive they appear from the other side of the divide. This is the point that not only Trump fails to understand. It is misunderstood by all those that would ‘no-platform’ speakers in various universities. By picking those things he (or they) find objectionable, he (or they) would establish a tyranny of his (or their) own tastes. You would be right to think that Trump has totalitarian leanings but so do many who make the proudest claims to uphold freedom.
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Yet in saying that Trump is wrong and dangerous (which he is), we are also offering a naive argument given the broader context of what he said. Ignore the language and consider his argument:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired”.
The point surely worth remembering is that freedom of speech is just one side of the equation. If we give people the freedom to say what they want, we do not grant them the right to say what they want without consequence. We all reserve the right to be insulted, disgusted, and appalled. We also have the right to protest. We have the right to judge people based on the way they use their freedom of speech. You have the right to tell me that Monty Python aren’t funny. I have the right to snort in derision, grab my drink, and go sit at another table. This is how freedom of speech works.
And herein lies the danger of too quickly rushing to judgement about Trump’s latest brainfart. It is not an entirely illogical brainfart…
First of all, it must also be said that he has the freedom to argue precisely what he argued. It might be objectionable to many but it has also been welcomed by his blue collar base. Trump is attacking the freedom of speech of the players but, somewhat dizzyingly, he has that freedom.
Secondly, his wider point might well have some validity: that NFL players choosing not to salute the flag should be thrown out of the team. We might be appalled by the idea but we should also recognise our own contradictions if, say, we had no problem with the white nationalist who marched in Charlottesville and returned home to discover that he no longer had a job.
And, yes, you have a right to feel appalled with that parallel. I’m no happier about it than you are. But this is the problem with freedom of speech. We all have the right to speech but nowhere does it say that the freedom makes us inviolate. The freedom of speech exists so our words can be scrutinized and challenged by others. Freedom of speech throws a light on stupidity and prevents it from festering into something much worse. Any freedom of speech is matched by an equal freedom of response. Put it a different way: I might have the freedom of speech but so do you. I will also vehemently defend your right to protest against anything I say.
This is, of course, the problem of our time, the flaw (always on the cusp of being fatal) in the Western liberal tradition. In upholding freedoms for all, it sometimes appears that we must uphold the freedoms of those that would seek to take away our freedoms. We must remember, however, that our notion of freedom is premised on the bigger idea of the moral good succeeding and that enlightened thought defeats supernaturalism of any kind, including nationalism. The car salesman might enjoy his freedom of speech when he tells him customers that the cars he sells are overpriced but there in another freedom being exercised when he finds himself out of a job. The priest who confesses that he no longer believes in God is probably not going to be a priest for very much longer. The politician who admits that they believe in the occult is probably not going to be re-elected.
The examples present, of course, the simplest cases. There are other arguments that seem self evidently obvious but which escalate until they represent the cutting edge of modern legal thought. Next Monday, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States will begin to hear a case titled ‘Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Division, Charlie Craig, and David Mullins’. It centres on a shop that refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. Does the right of two men to marry infringe on the right of the bakers to withhold service because their faith does not recognise same-sex marriages? The issue is complicated because it descends into matters of faith and it’s not entirely clear which way the decision will go. Over half a century ago, the Supreme Court refused to compel school students to salute the flag. Wise money would probably be on the court leaning towards protecting individual freedoms.
Yet, whatever the outcome, it is worth bearing in mind that freedom is imperfect and, at times, dizzyingly so. I suspect most of us agree that the NFL players have the right to “take the knee”. I would hope that we’re also sympathetic as to why they do it and why even more of them will (and should) do it in the light of Trump’s comments. What is problematic, however, is the belief that one freedom of speech negates another. These things are difficult and sometimes ugly. This, ultimately, is the debate that we’re now seeing played out in our culture at large and how Western democracies counter the influence of Russia Today. How, for example, are we to square the circle of Russian propagandists exploiting our freedom to spread anti-Western propaganda? Aren’t they, in a very warped and skewed way, “taking the knee” against Western values?
Well, of course they are. The mistake, however, is believing that this freedom is only one sided. What Trump’s muddled and contradictory message actually should remind us is that the freedom to speak is predicated on our freedom to respond. This, ultimately, is the friction that keeps our democracy warm and produces the light that keeps the darkness at bay.