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The Right to Feral Speech
Society is Deprived of Sense-Making Apparatus
"Freedom of speech."
It is hard to avoid coming across a declaration, particularly in the popular press, that freedom of speech is under threat.
But what we are witnessing is not, in truth, a debate about free speech. It's a race to the bottom, to the lowest common denominator of reactionary narrative-driven agenda.
It is a debate about the right to feral speech.
Freedom of speech and expression are core principles of a well-functioning open, democratic society. The so-called "marketplace of ideas" is where we, as a society, are able to conceive, articulate, and critique, concepts and theories about the nature of society, our place in it, and the systems and institutions through which we organise ourselves as a body politic. This is the principle of free speech.
But there is also a practice of free speech. And this is where we currently find feral speech triumphing. The principle of free speech is generally upheld as a right with minimal qualifications; legislators and courts are reluctant to place restrictions on the principle of free speech and freedom of expression save for the most extreme of circumstances, e.g., 'hate speech', that which incites violence or threats to life.
The practice of free speech, however, is not to merely exercise a minimally qualified right for the sake of it. How free speech is practiced holds far greater consequence for a well-functioning democracy, because the practice of free speech is the foundation of the collective sense-making apparatus of a society.
This was known at the birth of democracy. In Athens under the reign of Pericles (~461 to 429 BC), it became compulsory for all citizens to train in public speaking, in the art of rhetoric and dialectic. Crucial to this training was the ability to debate both sides of an argument, as if each side were equally of merit. The ability to consider how another point of view may be arrived at, and to argue it as if it were ones own. The ability to take an argument at its highest, to recognise and address its central point.
Education in Athenian society was centred on public speaking training, because they knew if every citizen was to have a participatory role in the functioning of State, the capacity to persuade, to see both sides of an argument, and to come to reasoned conclusions was the only way a government by people could function. It informed the capacity of the society to make choices. To make sense.
We are a long way from Pericles et al.
Currently, the problem isn't just that the principle is necessarily under threat in certain contexts (although this is true), but that the practice is now characterised by a tempestuous tribalism which seeks only to reinforce and protect a particular narrow worldview, which may or may not be grounded in reality.
Despite the finger-pointing, the practice of feral speech doesn't have a political side. Both the cultural Left and cultural Right ('cultural' in this context meaning the media and commentariat, not any given political party allegiance) seem to believe that this most prized of rights - freedom of speech and expression - is being threatened by the other.
On the cultural Left, the rise of radical identitarianism has created an environment which encourages the right to say anything which supports the affirmation of a related worldview, no matter how absurd. On the cultural Right, the rise of a changing societal tide has resulted in a reactionary reinforcement of 'facts over feelings' (apparently), and the right to say anything which supports the affirmation of these convictions, no matter how misconceived.
Both sides of this ideological divide encourage their supporters to engage with an alternate reality.
Let's consider the respective role of both sides, the Left and Right, in feral speech, and why both sides are equally guilty of depriving society of sense-making capabilities.
The ideological divide on the concept of free speech and freedom of expression has always been present, albeit takes different trajectories to the present day. During the period of the counterculture movement, the cultural Left emphasised as uninhibited a movement of both free speech and freedom of expression as can be found in the past century. But the modern cultural Left is a more openly censorious movement which deliberately seeks to control a narrative, thought and speech. Conversely, through the 1960's and 1970's the cultural Right engaged in deliberate attempts - often through political power - to curtail freedom of thought and expression. The modern cultural Right, however, positions itself as the watchdog of free speech, all that stands between Western civilisation and collapse to the 'neo-Marxist' hordes.
In reality this characterisation of a censorship-driven Left and free-speech championing Right is not a simple delineation. But it does provide a departure point to consider feral speech, because there is a grain of truth in both contexts.
The modern Left is not the working class-based political force of your grandparents, and is now largely clustered among urban, educated, professional classes. It is not a politically active Left in the sense of historic political fault lines, e.g., education, healthcare, or housing, but a morally active Left with a vindictiveness stemming from assumed righteousness: what the late, great, American philosopher Richard Rorty called, a "performative, disgusted, and mocking" Left. It espouses the rhetoric of care on issues like, for example, poverty, but it is often a superficial facade laid bare once the conversation moves from the issue - poverty - to people in poverty - whereby the majority of this demographic are portrayed as angry, bigoted, racist "old White men". The morality of the movement is intrinsically tied to identity.
From such a lofty moral vantage point, this cultural Left exists with two competing tensions: censoriousness and feral speech. Censorious concepts like 'cancelling' and 'no platforming' are embraced as a legitimate ends to controlling which ideas get a hearing, particularly in universities, and which do not. While endorsing this censorious and vindictive approach to discourse, the cultural Left also embraces its own form of feral speech, where arguments from the absurd to the intellectually dishonest may be advanced, mostly grounded in 'critical theory', unimpeded by facts, basic logic, or reality. This fosters an ends-justify-the-means, unyielding approach to the discourse about important social, political, economic, and cultural topics.
This is the culture that has $50,000 per year secondary schools in the US enforcing critical race theory in the curriculum, and administering pseudoscientific 'implicit bias' tests to 15yr olds. It's the culture that 'cancels' a Black Professor Emeritus at Princeton, who happens to be a Marxist in political leanings, from giving a lecture on his opinion that the Left is too focused on race at the expense of class. It's the culture that allows a sitting member of parliament to argue, fully seriously, that being anti-racist mandates that you must also be anti-capitalist. It is, at its core, a culture of intellectual dishonesty, epistemic arrogance, and unfalsifiable ideological pollution. It will unabashedly forward preposterous ideas and concepts, and while any idea is welcome in a true freedom of speech environment where those ideas are open to scrutiny, this cultural Left is a closed system. They operate on the assumption that their ideas about the world are The Truth, and deliberately shield these ideas from critique by framing any criticism as oppression, the reinforcement of a dominant hegemony. On this basis, they see their core tenets as virtuous and deserving of unrestricted reach, while anything they disagree with deserves to be restricted because it is not congruous with, or is in opposition to, The Truth according to the cultural Left.
So, when you see the conservative Right commentariat headlines about 'free speech' being under threat, or that college campuses have became policed by a morality dogma, or that 'cancelling' has become a weapon to wield against legitimate discourse, these claims are not without some merit. But that is where the merit stops.
Closer scrutiny reveals the cultural Right's apparent concern for free speech to be cynical empty rhetoric. Like the modern cultural Left, the current cultural Right is not the small 'c' conservatism-with-a-conscience of your grandparents, and it took only around 20yrs from the end of the Second World War for the movement to lose its moral compass. Recall that the practice of free speech is not merely to exercise a minimally qualified right for the sake of it. Yet, this is exactly how the cultural Right largely practices it. More precisely, the cultural Right has a long history of weaponising 'free speech' as a means to defend the very essence of the word conservative, which is that certain ideas are sacred, 'the way things should be', and should never be challenged.
The modern cultural Right in democracies might fashion itself as the champion of free speech, but consider the issues on which the cultural Right has been on the wrong side of history in the past century, and used 'freedom of speech' as part of its justifications:
Desegregation of schools
Seatbelt wearing regulation (yes, really)
And in each of these, "free speech" was invoked as a rallying cry. The reality is that much of the cultural Right's seemingly lofty dedication to free speech and democracy is, and has always been, intellectually dishonest and disingenuous. It has been used as a grounds to limit the full democratic franchise to marginal groups in society, and to legitimise discrimination (because if its discrimination in the name of Baby Jesus, then apparently it should be protected). Name one issue in the past century where the conservative Right was responsible for pushing the slow arc of history in the direction of progress? If the purpose of the practice of free speech is to ventilate ideas to improve society, the cultural Right has contributed very little of substance to this ideal. The cultural Right is happy to weaponise the principle of free speech, but they do not engage with the practice of free speech as honest brokers in the debate.
For all the bluster about freedom of speech from the conservative Right, closer scrutiny sees its own form of discourse shutdown under the mantras of “political correctness” and/or “snowflakes”. While these retorts do not amount to entirely de-platforming an individual's view, they are still a form of 'cancelling' insofar as they seek to delegitimise the counterargument without addressing or attempting to refute the central point. In this respect, such ripostes are often the last resort, intellectual pity-party which conservative Right-wing commentators and columnists like to fall back on when their ideas come under scrutiny. The idea that the cultural Right is any more open to scrutiny and critique than the modern cultural Left is a hollow sham, because the cultural Right is not, nor has it ever been, interested in close examination, scrutiny, and evaluation of their ideas and opinions. They are not interested in the practice of free speech. They are interested in preserving their worldview. The “free speech is under attack” trope is by now a grubby torn page in the conservative playbook. At its core it isn't about freedom of speech at all, but the protection of the cultural Right's political ideals. Freedom of speech is just a convenient front, with a legitimised face because most anyone - Left or Right - who values democracy, values freedom of speech.
No wonder it is practically impossible to have any effective national dialectic: an intellectually arrogant and self-righteous Left-wing commentariat faces off against a reactionary and intellectually self-pitying Right-wing commentariat. The former feels entitled to censor views that don't accord with its moral code, the latter feels entitled to denigrate any views that don't align with its worldview. And both pepper the broadsheets, airwaves, and online channels, with their respective forms of feral speech. Challenge the statements of someone on the cultural Left, and you'll most likely be accused of being an "ist" or "phobe" of some identity type. Challenge the statements of someone on the cultural Right, and you'll most likely be accused of being an "elite" or "politically correct", apparently those who talk down to the common man. In neither circumstance are the merits of an argument ever considered. In neither case is there any attempt to directly address the central point. In neither case is there any attempt to Steelman the opposing viewpoint, and interrogate it with intellectual honesty and rigour.
Depending on your journalistic predilections, this issue may appear asymmetric. But this feral speech landscape we have now makes a mockery of the role of free speech in democracy, independent of the political divide. The consequence is not just that it is impossible to glean a signal through all the noise: the consequence is that we are devoid of effective sense-making apparatus in society.
This marks a stark difference from the Left vs. Right divide of your grandparents, which was a fairly narrow centre-Left/centre-Right spectrum. The national dialectic on important issues was supported by a media of broad-based newspapers and national broadcasters. They didn't rely on attention or screentime, and didn't have to publish misinformation or disinformation as clickbait to survive. The broad parameters of the debate were defined and known, such that the disagreement on the issue at hand was at least orientated around identifiable fault lines. Now, there is no common debate, and no common narrative - it isn't merely a case of people having different opinions on an agreed set of facts, but people having a different set of facts depending on whatever narrow fragmented silo of belief they find themselves in. And once in that belief silo, they are aided and abetted by the algorithms of the attention economy, fed content which reinforces their worldview and creates outrage at ‘those others’, and convince themselves they have arrived at this worldview entirely because of their own independent thinking: because they've “done their research” or “done the work”.
People are now willing to accept the most misconceived, dishonest, or fallacious arguments, once it accords with their side, with their worldview. Factual accuracy, intellectual honesty and rigorous inquiry, are shortchanged in favour of reactionary opinions, sensationalist framing, and narrative reinforcement. And while we broadly lay the blame for these issues on social media and the emergence of independent online media, the broadsheets have not survived this decay. From the Guardian to the New York Times, narrative reinforcement largely triumphs over rigorous inquiry and intellectual independence. This issue was superbly encapsulated by Bari Weiss's resignation letter to the NYT:
But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.
And a deep cynicism underpins both sides of this ideological mess, which is exploited by both the cultural Left and cultural Right. When misinformation or false narratives are exposed, they are met with disregard and cast aside as the cost of doing business in a battle of competing worldviews.
When have you seen any media outlet take an issue that it may not agree with, and examine it with intellectual honesty, curiosity, and rigour? Have you seen it in the 1,000th article in the Guardian post-Brexit that the referendum was just angry, racist, "old White men" venting against immigrants? Have you seen it in yet another lowest-common denominator opinion piece in the Spectator about "the Left", or about transgender rights? Have you seen it in any of the online media outlets or social media personalities you follow, where the rapidity of reactionary content is proportional to the level of brainpower invested in the opinion?
A well-functioning democracy is predicated on the effective practice of free speech in order to make sense of the issues of the day, and to move forward with satisfactory solutions. And while there are certain instances where the principle of free speech is being undermined - and those need to be addressed - in reality it is the degeneration of the practice of free speech into feral speech that is the major obstacle to continued functioning democracy. Because the purpose of the practice of free speech is to help society distill a signal from the noise. Neither side is even bothered to see whether there is a signal to be heard from the other - and there always is. Instead, both sides seek only to turn up the volume on their own noise, in the hopes that they will drown the other side out. If both sides of the cultural divide are committed only to narrative reinforcement, then all we hear is static getting progressively louder.
The consequence for the degeneration of the practice of free speech into feral speech is that we lack any effective sense-making apparatus in society. We are an eyeless, earless, hulking mass aboard a rudderless, lightless vessel, floating in the dark. Where the Ship of State washes up is anyones guess.