Saturday, March 10, 2007

Freedom of Speech

At Lenin's Tomb, Lenin has a great post on "Free Speech and Power". He describes a controversy surrounding the anti-immigration work of an academic named Professor David Coleman, which has prompted students at Oxford to raise a petition calling for his tenure to be called into question. The students argue that "[t]he use of academic power and prestige to bolster racism was bringing the University into disrepute". Lenin points out other similar instances at English universites, and then writes:
It would be too much to say that this racist tendency amounts to a fraternity, but there is certainly an effort in many quarters to give academic respectability to a political philosophy which is uniquely and inherently responsible for genocide.

Enter the Liberal. He doesn't need to think about issues of repression or oppression, or of long-term consequences, or of power. For him, violence is unproblematically wrong (except when Western states are doing it), free speech is unproblematically right (except when some Islamists want to exercise it by protest, and then it becomes a threat to free speech), capitalist norms are all there is to anything, there must be a 'free market' in ideas, racism is bad but repressing racism is equally bad.
The complaints of these and other students have raised the ire of certain people, because the students don't understand that, simply, "If they disagree with the views of an academic, they have endless opportunities to put their own opposing case. That is the way freedom of speech works." Lenin again:
Well, "freedom of speech" does not work like that, and it has never worked like that.


There is no necessary reason why the institutions of power should be devoted to pernicious ends. But of course, power is a factor liberal free-speechers are rarely duly cognisant of: the fantasy of an open discursive field is simply too alluring. The metaphors used to describe this process give the game away: "let a thousand flowers bloom", people say, which unfairly assumes that there is a creative process going on, and also that all of the little flowers are innocent, pretty little things that can share the same space. Funds, power, institutional resources, appointments and so on are finite: their distribution is necessarily political.

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