Being Selective About Free Speech

There has been alot of discussion about the protests of Trump, starting in Chicago and continuing in other states his campaign is being hosted, and whether or not these demonstrations violate the free speech of Trump and his supporters. It’s unclear whether these events have harmed or helped Trump, but if nothing else, they have revealed that many people—on the left, center, and the right—seem to have an incomplete or problematic understanding of what free speech is.

[Godwin’s law alert:] Trump’s campaign has presented a challenge to the notions of freedom and democracy, much like the National Socialists had done in Germany, stretching the meaning of these concepts beyond their intended functions. As Goebbels said, the democratic process had “offered to its mortal enemies the means by which to destroy it.” Whether you find the comparison appropriate, Trump in fact has been doing much the same thing: navigating party system in order to incinerate the Republican party, using his freedom of speech to incite violence against those protesting him, trolling the meretricious media to get an almost unlimited amount of free press while violently expelling reporters from his events and proposing punitive libel laws against those who would criticize him as president.

These troubling developments, particularly the many instances of violence against peaceful demonstrators at his rallies, make the selective outrage that some liberals and conservatives have expressed against Trump protesters seem a bit precious. Moderates like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Jonathon Chait, with many others in the liberal center, have argued that the protests were fundamentally undemocratic. Less-surprisingly, to people who belong to crypto-racist, pro-Trump institutions, such as Breitbart and Infowars, the obstructive protests prove that liberalism is a uniquely a bastion of political intolerance. Both of these takes seem to lack any sense of proportion or context, and seem to treat Trump’s race-baiting anti-politics and violence as trivial to the discussion. They are shocked, shocked, that people would behave uncivilly at a Trump event, unless those people are Trump’s supporters or are involved in his campaign. But as Trish Kahle, writing for Jacobin pointed out:

Trump rallies are not some abstract site where speech occurs. They are venues of hate where dissenters are attacked (by Trump supporters and staffers alike), where violence is condoned, and where Trump spews toxic bigotry. This climate of hate and brutality has a pernicious impact, mixing with a nationwide environment in which assaults on people of color are growing amid an uptick in hate groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center found that last year the number of such organizations increased 14 percent; the United States is now home to at least 1,890 of them, with Klan groups accounting for a substantial portion of the jump.

Trump’s campaign is more than just a venue for rhetoric: in many ways, it’s a vehicle of antisocial aggression. If Trump was merely saying terrible things, obstructing his events would be less justified, and would also lack much of the motivation. Even Trump’s GOP opponents, Tea Partiers like Ted Cruz, have acknowledged that the climate of violence that follows Trump has been largely provoked by Donald himself (not that they don’t have a dog in this fight). This isn’t to say that violence against Trump supporters is justified, of course, or that everyone who opposes the Trump campaign is always in the right. Even Kahle gets it wrong in her Jacobin piece, when she begins to argue that free speech should be measured in accordance to the “power disparities” that it functions within, that it’s value should be judged based on it’s “effect on people’s lives,” and that we can defend it in a broad sense while “resolutely opposing speech that scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our society.”

The problem with Trump isn’t that his speech has consequences or exists in a context of power-asymmetries—this is true of all speech. I don’t believe those reasons alone justify being “resolutely opposed” to speech that is hateful or even potentially dangerous, as many leftists seem to think. One great example of the value of protecting speech, even when it is harmful, is the Westboro Baptist Church, whose behavior has been so universally despised that, if anything, it turned people of all spectrums off of the destructive stupidity of homophobia. In contrast, the Trump campaign goes beyond mere rhetoric. It is actively engaged in suppressing speech, and the violence that it promotes is legitimized by the state (the secret service, the police) and our flawed electoral system. Those who think the demonstrations against Trump are the problem are aligning themselves with his campaign’s aggression.

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