This article is one in a series of arguments on free speech in our summer issue.
It is common for anti-fascists to be denounced as hypocrites when we celebrate the deplatforming of white supremacists and transphobes. When Twitter removed Donald Trump’s account, I found the decision to be correct but long overdue; it was a little too late and convenient for social media giants to ban the president from his preferred soapbox as he was leaving office, after years of using the platform to rally and provoke his white supremacist base.
It is indeed disturbing that a few Silicon Valley leviathans maintain almost unbridled and undemocratic power over access to major sites of public speech. We should aim to break up—and put under greater worker control—the oligarchies of techno-capital. In the meantime, I can also see a need to disrupt the production and continuance of far-right speech, which has flourished unchecked across social media.
In a political struggle—which is not just a disagreement—actions entail risks. If we act to push social media corporations to remove powerful sources of white supremacist organizing, we may risk invoking speech protocols that affect our own ability to use those platforms, too. This risk is not newly introduced when we work to shut down white supremacist speech. Social media sites already have histories of banning some of their most marginalized users and their communities: sex workers, who are disproportionately trans women of color. Last August, during a Facebook sweep to ban groups deemed to “promote violence,” numerous anti-fascist and left-wing news accounts were removed alongside QAnon pages and far-right militias. Similarly, taking to the streets with the aim of shutting down neo-Nazi rallies also carries the risk of one’s own arrest.
At the base of that anti-fascist reasoning is a well-founded objection to the idea that white supremacist speech, which is white supremacist organizing, is best felled with more speech rather than disruption. It requires an extraordinary ignorance of history to presume that, in defending the unbounded protections and privileges of white supremacists, we also somehow ensure the fair treatment of people historically marginalized by the media and oppressed by the state. Shutting down white supremacist and other oppressive speech reflects a robust understanding of how speech functions in the world.
Speech is used to do far more than express opinions and ideas about the state of perceived reality. We do all kinds of things with words. In 1962 the philosopher J.L. Austin introduced the notion of speech acts. All speech is enacted through speech acts, Austin argued; the act is the thing done or achieved with our utterances. Some speech acts assert opinions, some describe states of affairs, but many utterances also complete or attempt certain actions: demanding, promising, ordering, threatening, persuading, and so on. Whether their propositional content is true or false is less relevant than whether, for various contextual reasons, they succeed in performing their intended acts. (A judge, for example, has the authority to perform the speech act of sentencing someone to prison, while I do not.)
When we limit our concerns to questions of which ideas and opinions we should permit in various publics, we miss the entire terrain of how speech works. Contemporary debate consistently, and incorrectly, treats speech simply as a tool for sharing opinions and holding up various representations of the world. This view found its ultimate expression in the notorious July 2020 Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which advised that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” It was a given for the signatories that what was at stake was no more than the circulation of “ideas,” some of which, they admitted, are bad.
But when political figures and groups gather and speak in the public sphere, they’re not only positing beliefs about the world, offering their thoughts up to the so-called marketplace of ideas. Such speech is not so much organized around expressing the interiority of the speaker, or describing something, as much as it is organized around the listener. When, for example, Tucker Carlson speaks in horror about “The Great Replacement” of white people and their privileged standing, he indeed offers a false description of the world, the falseness of which has, time and again, been pointed out. But the utterance doesn’t primarily function as a description to be tested for truth or falsity; the listener, if white, is being told to feel threatened or, if non-white, is being imperiled by being named as a threat.
Counter-speech, insisting on the anti-racist truth, might challenge the constative elements of the racist utterance. But pointing out the truth often does little to disrupt the performative force of white supremacist speech acts. My argument is not that racist, fascistic speech should not be tolerated only insofar as it is understood as an action, rather than some sort of mythic “pure” speech. That sort of reasoning—attempting to define the line between speech and action—has bogged down all too much First Amendment scholarship. I merely submit that liberal appeals to truth will not stop fascists.
There’s something peculiar about “free speech” discourse: it has all too many people sounding like the state, insistent on establishing immutable rules and laws, under the pretense of a universalist approach unbesmirched by histories of oppression and power. But it is both offensive and fanciful to pretend that we’re in some sort of Habermasian ideal speech situation, which the woke left is now undermining with a tirade of cancellations. This is the “white ignorance” that philosopher Charles Mills argues can reconcile “liberal egalitarianism and racial hierarchy.” As long as we live under racial capitalism, some people’s speech will always be freer than others. Limiting the excesses of white supremacist and transphobic speech acts in our midst is the least we can do.
The thorny question remains unanswered of which exact speech acts we recognize as oppressive and worthy of shutting down. The answer cannot be that any speech a person or group finds oppressive should be seen as an oppressive speech act: such claims have grounded all too many incidences of Zionists silencing those who support Palestinian liberation, for example. But this brings us back to the political work of understanding and reckoning with historic oppression, its material realities, and the bogus claims to it (such as mythic racism against white people in U.S. education systems).
These decisions will necessarily involve contestation and disagreement; they require listening to communities on the frontlines of liberation struggles and being aware that it is not simply a matter of opinion or feelings as to which groups are or are not oppressed. In calling for peoples’ platforms to be removed or disrupted, we must be vigilant and cautious, because we well know that neither Silicon Valley nor the state can be trusted to make anti-fascist choices. But the left should not avoid the work of collectively recognizing and naming our enemies, and seeking to end the reiteration of genocidal ideologies.
Simply put: we seek to deplatform fascists not because we are attempting to develop a perfect set of rules to delineate, in perpetuity, the fixed bounds of permissible speech. We deplatform because this is a fight we need to win.
Natasha Lennard is a columnist for the Intercept. Her work has appeared in the Nation, Bookforum, and the New York Times, among others. She teaches critical journalism at the New School in New York and is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso).