I have always struggled to properly articulate my position on freedom of speech, as a legal concept created by the state. Canada (wisely, in my opinion) has defined theoretical boundaries at which point your speech is understood to also be an act of violence, and treated accordingly in theory–rather than conceiving of speech and violence as infinitely separable per the USA’s First Amendment. Even with the limitations on what can be literally said, though, power continues to distort the ability of some participants to speak their minds, per this naive liberal ideal. Or, to borrow the Markteplace of Ideas–some of us are cash poor and can’t afford to set up a vendor.
Enter political anarchists: (emphasis added)
The Rhetoric of Free Expression
There appears to be a broad consensus in the US political spectrum in favor of the right to free speech. While opponents may quibble over the limits, such as what constitutes obscenity, pundits from left to right agree that free speech is essential to American democracy.
Appeals to this tradition of unrestricted expression confer legitimacy on groups with views outside the mainstream, and both fascists and radicals capitalize on this. Lawyers often defend anarchist activity by referencing the First Amendment’s provision preventing legislation restricting the press or peaceable assembly. We can find allies who will support us in free speech cases who would never support us out of a shared vision of taking direct action to create a world free of hierarchy. The rhetoric of free speech and First Amendment rights give us a common language with which to broaden our range of support and make our resistance more comprehensible to potential allies, with whom we may build deeper connections over time.
But at what cost? This discourse of rights seems to imply that the state is necessary to protect us against itself, as if it is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde split personality that simultaneously attacks us with laws and police and prosecutors while defending us with laws and attorneys and judges. If we accept this metaphor, it should not be surprising to find that the more we attempt to strengthen the arm that defends us, the stronger the arm that attacks us will become.
Once freedom is defined as an assortment of rights granted by the state, it is easy to lose sight of the actual freedom those rights are meant to protect and focus instead on the rights themselves—implicitly accepting the legitimacy of the state. Thus, when we build visibility and support by using the rhetoric of rights, we undercut the possibility that we will be able to stand up to the state itself. We also open the door for the state to impose others’ “rights” upon us.
The Civil Liberties Defense
In the US, many take it for granted that it is easier for the state to silence and isolate radicals in countries in which free speech is not legally protected. If this is true, who wouldn’t want to strengthen legal protections on free speech?
In fact, in nations in which free speech is not legally protected, radicals are not always more isolated—on the contrary, the average person is sometimes more sympathetic to those in conflict with the state, as it is more difficult for the state to legitimize itself as the defender of liberty. Laws do not tie the hands of the state nearly so much as public opposition can; given the choice between legal rights and popular support, we are much better off with the latter.
One dictionary defines civil liberty as “the state of being subject only to laws established for the good of the community.” This sounds ideal to those who believe that laws enforced by hierarchical power can serve the “good of the community”—but who defines “the community” and what is good for it, if not those in power? In practice, the discourse of civil liberties enables the state to marginalize its foes: if there is a legitimate channel for every kind of expression, then those who refuse to play by the rules are clearly illegitimate. Thus we may read this definition the other way around: under “civil liberty,” all laws are for the good of the community, and any who challenge them must be against it.
The entire function of state-granted rights as “to protect you from itself,” combined with the subjectivity of who gets to define those rights, perhaps best describes my ambivalence towards representative democracies as we see them today.
Read more here, although I’m only half-joking when I say you might be put on a watchlist–you know, for protection purposes–for doing so.