Free speech and the fash

Gavan Titley – Is free speech racist? (Polity)

‘Free speech’ could turn to any topic in the human world, but these days it is often about race. This is Gavan Titley’s question, in his volume in the Debating Race series, published by Polity.

Titley explores the contradictions well, including the idea that society is multiple and hybrid, but assured anti-racism is in many cases a default white. ‘In societies convinced of their postracial status’, he explains, ‘racism is always something else, and happens somewhere else.’

Within that – which I think is missing here – is class. When people start to draw that line in the sand and say ‘well over here it’s all fine, but over there man, stinking racists’, they have not mined their own discourses honestly.

Titley explores this, in one strong section via a reading of Wendy Brown, the stark fact that the economic uprooting of white former industrial lives often finds expression in digitally renewed culture wars linked to aggressive ‘populist’ party politics. Of course, to look at the classed and often masculine nature of white resentment redoubles the problem of racism, but the full complexity of it must be given.

What I got from reading the black radicals, Huey Newton particularly, was a sense of someone using his emotional tensions and acculturated prejudices productively. What I found most interesting about Newton was when he wrote on gay culture and admitted that he found himself uncomfortable with male homosexuality. He wrote through his discomfort, he didn’t suppress it and short-circuit the full process to suddenly arrive at being ‘right on’. Huey Newton, a great warrior against prejudice, actually mobilised his own prejudices in order to try to tackle them.

If there is a problem with political correctness it is surely that this process is cut out in favour of a reified trope. But what Titley denies with force here is that ‘free speech’ processes will somehow solve the riddle. This is the endless rightwing waterfall, that free speech without limits needs defending, that an open and continual discourse will somehow result in capital T truth.

I think this contains the same skewed logic as defenses of free markets as ‘self-correcting’. The idea that a limitless free exchange of views can produce an Elysian Fields of harmony lies beneath some naive free speech demands. I believe it is no coincidence that the two structures of meaning are virtually identical. Other free speech demands, and this is a core point of Titley’s, want to sow anarchy, dissent and ultimately racial civil war.

Far from being a democratic process leading to agreement, concensus or truth, Titley argues, the free speech machine acts as a kind of discourse lab for the right, particularly online. The free flow of debate unfettered by politically correct limits does not solve racism but produces it. It’s a Foucauldian argument in many ways.

The ‘hallmark of the putative “post-truth” era is not just the proliferation of competing “truths” but the structuring force of the reactionary contention that there is a truth, and it is being repressed.’

Postmodernity has vanished from academic discourse as a structuring paradigm and re-emerged in non-academic society as a negative philosophical energy. I wrote about this for the Journal of Critical Education Policy a while back. The neo-right are using the First Amendment obsessively. Proto-fascist groups are using ‘freedom’ in the name of some potentially very unfree future power. Mainstream political parties have been hollowed and refitted as populist post-truth power structures in exactly the same way.

But it would be wrong to just watch the Reddit threads to find confirmation. I saw a white middle class man recently – judging by his house – nailing up a sign outside talking about ‘my white privilege’. There was something about it which whiffed of defense through martyrdom. The fact that the sign went up on his fence seemed important. It would be far too extreme to suggest a No Irish / Blacks / Dogs for the ‘postracial’ world. As though by putting up the sign he would retain his privilege in the coming culture wars, that he would be spared, blind to the fact that of course exceptions would in this case destroy the rule of real equality. But there was a weird, gluey unconscious vibe to watching him do it. There was nothing pure about the act, which gave watching it a compelling feel.

On the other side it had a one-upping feel to it, a woker-than-thou dimension that might also be acting as a virtue signal to his other white middle class neighbours. I could not quite believe that – as I do of Huey Newton, whatever else one might say of him – that here was a man who mobilised his prejudices in order to try to tackle them. And the prejudices are inevitably there, because they are woven tightly into the language we all use.

I went past later and the ‘my white privilege’ sign had been removed in favour of pro-BLM signs. Tellingly, the Guardian had just posted warnings about the slipperiness of testimonies to white fragility. Even the most well meaning actions contain problems. At the same time, he was literally hanging it up on the wall, and there was a world-historic first about it, a moment triggered by the BLM upsurge of 2020.

Everything being ‘problematic’ – a sort of poststructuralist cultural studies hangover – often halts any realpolitikal solutions. This book does not wade into that quicksand, and for that alone I recommend it. It is clear, manageable and does not reproduce that fakely neutral tone that some academic discourses on race do. It does not shy away from complexity either.

This book is both a worthwhile contribution to the history of writing on racism and a timely publication considering recent events. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

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