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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Free Speech, Beyond Clichés

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

In which I solve the problem of free speech, with reference to the so-called trans debate and beyond.

Clichés are not only undesirable because they are aesthetically uninspired, predictable and numbing, but because they are cognitively, too. The notion of the thought-terminating cliché, which has become popular online, is a good example of superfluous language. Every cliché is thought terminating.

Even merely literary clichés, such as having another orphaned protagonist who is orphaned not to explore that state of being, but only to sidestep populating their background with a family; this character does not inspire thoughts on what it means to be without parents and family, indeed their orphan status inspires no thoughts at all.

Two clichés I hear a lot lately are that we are all occupying echo chambers and that we need to expose ourselves to contrary views. The latter point is all well and good if abstract to the point of absolute vaguery (which views?), the former point seems mistaken.

The online world today has many deep problems: it is sensationalised and facile; it obviates the legacy press’s (far from perfect) mechanisms to fund expensive, investigatory journalism without offering a clear substitute; it encourages depersonalised conflict, etc. It also radically exposes us to views different to our own, including views that are without merit.

Fascist racism, transphobic tendencies of feminism, misogyny under the guise of ‘men’s rights’, etc. have all flourished online. If you ask any Black person they will tell you it is hard to avoid racists in these virtual places; any trans* person will say the same about the gender critical hate cult; any particularly online women will have stories of harassment. Disabled, GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveler), Asian, Jewish, etc. people will have similar accounts, too.

As a trans person, sometimes I wish I knew how to conduct this trans debate about which I hear endlessly (another cliché!). Even allowing that there is one to be had, the simple truth is that there is no debate on trans-inclusion (seemingly the contention, although even that is unclear) in which I feel at all able or welcome to join.

The problem is not chiefly moral (although I do have strong moral objections to the ‘debate’ and its terms), but functional. It is an unsurprising issue. If I were someone who believed that gender transition constituted a form of conversion therapy for LGB people; that a paraphilia (autogynephilia) was responsible for the majority of trans people’s gender identities, and that the trans community are engaging in child grooming, I would not be charitable to trans people and their allies. Certainly not sufficiently to debate them.

That all of the preceding is demonstrably absurd does nothing to change the fact that these are core tenants of what has become the gender critical movement (or the sex realist movement, its name is hard to pin down). (Gender critical is itself a deliberately deceptive term; there is a gender abolitionist trans-inclusive viewpoint, while the GCs solely focus on eliminating trans people from public life altogether.)

Those who wish to ‘debate’ trans humanity are not charitable, have never been so, and this is unsurprising given the fact that their beliefs likely cannot be so. Therefore, the word ‘debate’ here only just falls short of willful obscurantism because the debate they do want—sincerely—seems to be one conducted entirely between cisgender people. And this debate is one about how to best manage (or, all too often, eliminate) the existence of trans lives.

Everyone new to this ‘debate’, not desensitized to the fascist tactics used by gender criticals, are soon shocked by the way in which it proceeds. They do not realise that an eliminationist logic is the premise of the debate, not the subject of it. This movement aims simply to wipe out us trans* people, and if rapid dissuasion fails, to do the same to anyone brave enough to stand with us.

That goal is inherent to the their contention with us. It is not one about numbers, because the acknowledged existence of a single trans* person rubbishes their entire worldview and metaphysics. That me and mine continue to breathe air is an existential threat to them, an intolerable one.

We can sometimes be permitted to half endure so long as we accept that we are defective and broken, that we should be medically minimized and socially excluded, that we should live in penance for our status and perform the caricature of the happy pariah, grateful for scraps and derision.

Clearly this is not the position adopted by abstract rational deliberation. Indeed, my view is that their sadism feeds on their own miseries and traumas, neither of which are amenable to arguments in debates. They can change, but to do so they need to experience our liberation as their own. For that to happen, to save even these sad souls, we must be firm in our selves, and refuse to cower, to debate our worthiness.

This is all illustrative of the problem with a fetishistic free speech frame applied uniformly to every subject, which is at the core of the clichés I mentioned at the start of my essay. On free speech, both the left and the right are quite cynical. But the left's cynicism is merely in pretending a general principle can substitute for the messiness of tackling the problem on a case by case basis. The right's cynicism is comparably practical, they only pretend to care about free speech.

Because there are few general principles on free speech native to the left, because the problem is properly strategic, we invariably lift “principles” from yesterday’s right. E.g. the idea that only state censorship counts as censorship at all is clearly incompatible with the left’s conflicts with non-state institutions, especially with businesses but also political parties, the media, and so on. Nonetheless, it is an idea frequently deployed.

In fact, no moral principles float in the ether, outside of human concerns, awaiting discovery like the laws of physics. Free speech is illustrative. Every society has limits to what can and cannot be reasonably debated. No television channel would debate whether it is acceptable to kill all first born males, and if I proposed doing so on BBC Question Time I would likely be regarded as so outside of acceptability I would not even be deemed offensive, but perceived as mentally unwell.

That is not to nosedive into relativism, however. Human concerns are not untethered to all reality, even if how we negotiate them is suffused with history, economy, culture and class-interests. Human flourishing is the goal of all human ethics, but so long as human society is divided by rival interests ethics is always partial to some extent. A bourgeois society is less partial, arguably, than a slave holding society that ‘debates’ murdering first born male infants, but it is not so universal that it can withhold itself from debating whether a trans* person deserves social dignity.

We can expand our ethics through a more universal perspective. For Marx, the working class represented just such a viewpoint, because it had no propertied interest in overcoming class society merely to substitute for it a new class society. Later standpoint theorists in the feminist tradition realised that many of the most oppressed people, such as women, occupied a more universal positionality too.

Where does this leave us with free speech clichés? Historicist viewpoints (particularly ones that refuse to sneak in ahistorical stagist categories of history) cannot appeal to easy answers in the form of axiomatic principles. Authoritarian anti-free speech positions and vague, abstract free speech absolutism dodge the work of interrogating what is and is not permissible to say in a flourishing society.

What should be treated with contempt, what should be seen as provocations to cause harm, what should be protected, what should arouse concern about the mental wellbeing of the speaker? There are no rules of thumb, even if we can eschew relativism. Rather than looking for one principle to answer all of these questions, we should be mature and engage with the problems and even sometimes risk getting it wrong.


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