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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Speaking of Fire and Hate

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

How are two dissimilar things, dissimilar?

With the Queen’s death, free speech has come back on the agenda. Only this time, rather than use free speech as a means by which to attack the oppressed as liberalism’s scarecrow enemies, the British establishment has suddenly found reason to try to define what its limits ought to be. I have addressed the subject before at length, arguing that neither for the right nor the left can the limits and extent of speech be curtailed and controlled by some timeless rule of thumb.

Sidestepping that problem, one example of the attempt to misleadingly frame the issue has recently arrived to us courtesy of the author Nazir Afzal, who has argued that consistency demanded limits to free speech when it came to protesting the monarchy during this period of grief. He tweeted:


Free speech has ALWAYS had its limits

1. You wouldn’t scream “fire” in s crowded room without consequences

2. It’s illegal to be hatefully aggressive towards minorities


3. You shouldn’t be abusive towards a 96 yr old woman who has just lost her life

It’s All of them or None

In truth, because of the absence of the aforementioned rule of thumb, each one of these cases would need working out in its contextual specifics. 1. is clearly just an act of violence that utilises words as surely as other acts of violence utilise physical weapons. By deploying a speech-act (in philosophical lingo) to cause a crowd to panic, bodily harm (at best) is being deliberately risked. 2. solicits acts of violence, often in a form not too different than the speech-acts that would be involved were I to hire an assassin on the dark web to have someone murdered.

However, what is going on in the case of 3? At worst, it is an offensive and indecent thing, but it could also be the mockery of an institution of power during one of the spectacles it orchestrates to reaffirm that power. Either way, there is nothing incoherent about being opposed to 1 and 2 and accepting (albeit maybe only in some forms) 3. Perhaps a general principle cannot be drawn up, but humanity does not need general principles to work out its social arrangements. We never have.

The free speech debate is a mess of stock clichés pretending to be truisms. And the losers of this “debate” are always those who are heard the least, the most oppressed, marginalized and subjugated members of the most oppressed, marginalized and subjugated groups. Moreover, the amount of obscurantism deployed in such “debate” is consistently absurd.

Indeed, an entire three instances of obscurantism can be easily picked out in the case of Afzal’s tweet alone. In the first instance, it is not at all clear what “to be abusive” encompasses. Does it include people booing Charles in Wales? Holding up “Not my King” signage? How about heckling Andrew about his odious associations? The framing is itself a sleight of hand, as though some private funeral event for some private family were being intruded upon. But that is not the case.

In the second instance, and by far the worst implication regards Afzal’s claims, is the entire choice of comparison. Why are minorities and innocent bystanders in the theatre being weighed against the Queen and monarchy, here? Do minorities have to pay in increased hate crimes against them for the generalised right to mock the monarchy? Who decides on this strange juxtaposition, this peculiar giving and taking of rights? It is not, clearly, arbitrary! Power is protected on the one hand, the weak are afforded basic dignity on the other.

And finally, is it even comprehensively "illegal to be hatefully aggressive to minorities"? Hardly a day goes by without major UK publications dishing out hatred to queer people (particularly trans people right now), racialised minorities, immigrants, women, etc. All of which is routinely defended as free speech! The very limits to free speech Afzal is setting up are in themselves entirely and wholly dubious.

True, a neo-Nazi gang would likely be obstructed from marching through a Jewish community festival in modern Britain, and that is entirely good and proper, but it transpires that not only is “to be abusive” completely muddled conceptually, but furthermore that “hatefully aggressive to minorities” is not at all transparently meaningful either.

There is no getting around it, when communities of people decide what can and cannot be said it must be a process of discussion and deliberation. This means far more than just what can legally be said, but what platforms exist for the saying of things, what statements accrue adulation or mockery, derision and even ostracization. It also means how people are protected from, and made to face, the consequences of saying things.

We would accept that a Russian dissident does not have free speech if in exercising it they might be disappeared, but does a young queer person have free speech if the exercising of it might render them homeless? Equally, is it wrong that a popular author who expresses bigotry against a whole community of people pay for that in a loss of adulation and its material benefits? Should people be duty bound to feel about such a person the same as they did had nothing been said?

We want issues to be resolvable in some abstract, bloodless reality, but the kinds of problems that can be resolved in such a reality—problems of logic and math—are nothing like this kind of problem. A problem of how specific human beings, with all their histories and power imbalances, relate to one another. Just and ethical solutions to such problems need to be decided upon from within the same messy state-of-things into which those solutions will be put into practice.

Before we talk of free speech, in many instances it makes sense to question what the preconditions for simple speech might be. All the distraction and evasion involved in this “debate” is pretty illustrative, here; without a basis for an exchange, much of it is merely a verbal contest decided not be the strength of the views being articulated, but how the articulation can or cannot persuade a given audience, who is able to even speak at all. The equation of speech and reason, and reason always in its most pristine and decontextualised form, is itself entirely missing from how we think about speech.

It is not that freedoms to speak fail to be important, nor that all speech is worthy, but that the entire conversation about conversation is treating discourse as if it takes place in another universe, whereby speech is an entirely simple thing. Speech is dizzyingly complex; and the historical debates about it have reflected that complexity. The Ancient Greeks, for example, did not so much talk about free speech as they did bold speech, embodied in the notion of parrhesia.

Even the free speech debate itself has more nuanced origins. John Milton and Erasmus were asserting rights against powerfully established institutions and traditions to test out and seek (some) ideas in ways previously culturally inconceivable. Now, we argue whether comedians should be allowed to make inane, repetitive jokes about the downtrodden as if there is any doubt that they can and will. This is not a continuation of Enlightenment discourses, but a farcical debasement of them.

And as for my view, mocking the Queen is a relatively victimless thing, whereas causing a stampede of people in a theatre or stirring up hatred against the marginalised are abhorrent actions. This is a case of one of the least tricky problems to resolve in the overall thorny issue of how speech is handled, and on this alone it truly takes a great deal of mental effort to create such an issue from such a non-issue.


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