Free Speech and Fighting Fascism

Three events which presage the world to come and require us to choose which conflicting values we prioritize. Up to now there has been a building uncomfortable stalemate on some of our social tensions, the Trump/Bannon era will escalate these tensions, and require us to be far more active in how we live our values. I think we will have to actively choose which values are most important.

One: Star Brietbart writer, well-known internet troll and fashionable fascist Milo Y goes on a college speaking tour, invited by a conservative student group. At one stop at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he bullies an individual transgender student who had fought to be allowed to use the women’s locker room. He used her dead name, showed pictures of her before her transition, and mocked her while the audience laughed. Expecting awfulness, but not that direct and personal,  she was in the audience. The President of the college wrote a bland apology, and she, Adelaide Kramer wrote a blistering reply.

At another stop on his tour, at the University of Washington, an anti-fascist protestor allegedly punched and stole a MAGA hat from a Milo and Trump supporter. This supporter later found and shot that protestor.

On inauguration night, while giving an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched by a masked anti-fascist protestor.

The last event (but not the first two) provoked wide debate.  Some argue that it is a bedrock principle of America that free speech should not be met with violence or even threats to violence or giggling at remixes of violence. Other argue that punching Nazis is as American as Captain America and Indiana Jones, and we should celebrate it, honor it and wish for more.

I’ll begin by saying I am generally very supportive of free speech. I think in many cases being uncomfortable can lead to greater learning, and that engaging with people we disagree with, even when they are provocatively extreme. I think arguing with people in good faith makes us both smarter, but also can makes for a better society when we realize our opponent is arguing in good faith with good intentions. And I firmly believe that most of us have good faith. I want my students to confront the best version of the arguments they disagree with (and I want to as well) because it makes for better, smarter arguments and better, stronger democratic society.

Also, I have a hard time with that punching video. I don’t enjoy such violence, and the giddy celebration of it honestly makes me queasy. I have been punched without expecting it on two occasions in my life, once in elementary school, and once from behind in a soccer game in my teens. I find something deeply troubling about sucker punching as political action. I worry about what happens when Nazis are punched, protestors are shot and police escalate violence in order to impose law and order.


I am beginning to be persuaded of the limits of my support of free speech. I am starting to see how free speech has already proven inadequate to protect the vulnerable among us and therefore protect our democracy. Fascist hate speech is a special case, and it demands we recognize the limits of the wonderful self-correcting calculus of free speech. We must deny fascism a platform, punching Nazis is a tactic in service of that goal. This is not a tactic I would normally support, but so many of our normal tactics to contain fascism have failed.

Respect for free speech and engagement doesn’t seem to work with fascism. It doesn’t work when your opponent advocates “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and uses their free speech to bully and harass individual marginalized people and marginalized populations. It doesn’t work when you think you are arguing with an opponent within a framework where you both value the constraints and supports that democratic institutions provide. The proverbial “fire” in a crowded theater is an inadequate metaphor. Insidious fascist free speech is “the type of people in this theater are a unique threat and should be encouraged to leave… these race or religion or sexuality of people who are a danger to our society do not belong in “our” society” … “they are not leaving so we need to take steps to remove them…” This speech uses its platform not to confirm the place of democratic institutions, but to undermine them.

I strongly believe that universities are special places. I believe students should be allowed to say stupid things while they are learning, and that teachers (and guest speakers) should be able to say provocative things and study provocative topics. I often feel that the correct answer to provocative, but misguided free speech is more, well-guided speech. But what about when free speech is not just intolerant individual bullying and harassment, but argues for drastically expanding and energizing discrimination by race, religion or gender? I can’t help but feel that such speech deserves special recognition and a new set of tools to combat it, because blanket support of free speech and tolerance of opposing views fails to contain hate.

I think the critical missing link in our dialogue about free speech (and punching Nazis) is the rise of hate speech and our lack of realization that society does not simply need to protect free speech, but to specifically and positively protect the vulnerable. Nazi-punchers and protestor-shooters (there will be more, how could there not?) are not merely bad actors to ignore and trust the system to address. This escalation of the stakes of free speech debate is a reminder of the consequences of our collective failure to deny hate a platform as it was building it. Now that the head of Brietbart, Stephen Bannon, is a top White House advisor, we are witnessing what happens when we allow fascists to hijack free speech.

I find Milo’s speech at that University of Wisconsin rally and the email from Adelaide Kramer alternately both chilling and inspiring. First, chilling. This is specifically targeting an individual vulnerable student for embarrassment, ridicule and worse from someone who is known to specialize in such harassment in the past. Adelaide Kramer did not need “#UWMStandsTogether” as the UW-M President Mone wrote. She needed her community to realize that to protect the legitimacy and viability of their institution, they needed to deny fascism a platform. They needed to realize that their responsibility to protect the vulnerable members of their community needed to overwhelm their understandable devotion to free speech. “Celebrating diversity” (as the President’s letter advises) invites fascists like Milo in, and will prove to be wholly inadequate for fighting the incredible power our country has granted them especially if we treat their speech as equal and protected.

Let me pause for a second and offer some evidence to my claim that transgender Americans are vulnerable and need protection. To some this may be self-evident, but let’s look hard at what it means to be marginalized in our society. A survey of transgender Americans was released in December. 27,715 people completed it. For a group that is a relatively small percentage of the US population, this is an incredibly large number of respondents. One in ten reported that a family member was violent towards them because of their transgender status. Forty percent report having attempted suicide. Roughly one in three reported having experienced homelessness. Another report estimated that 1 in 2600 young black trans women are murdered, more than 10 times the overall rate for that age. Milo uses a slur to identify Adelaide and mentions that this makes him politically incorrect, but this survey shows that his casual disgust of transgender Americans is not about hurt feelings, but represents a callousness about people’s safety and their very lives.  These people do not need more free speech, they need a society that accepts them as full citizens and protects their access to public goods and public laws. This survey is a reminder that this is not the case.

So, here’s my worry, and my prediction: if we continue to value free speech so absolutely that it overwhelms other values, such as protecting the vulnerable, many people who have experienced their misery being ignored, will now see it openly mocked and celebrated. More of them, and their supporters, will start to think it is time to punch the fascists who have taken this next step. This will leave the rest of us (the well-intentioned neglecters) with a choice, do we decide to protect the vulnerable and their allies, who have lashed out violently? Or do we opt for law and order in the empty hopes that justice will come later? I don’t think there is any doubt which path the current government will take. Many have already said “it is much too early to punch fascists.” After all, we are not at war (yet). But when that side treats advocates of a tolerant, civil and democratic society as the enemy, I worry it might be too late.

Let me close with the inspiring part. The kind of bravery that I want to celebrate, the kind of bravery I want us to stand up and notice, is in Adelaide Kramer’s email to the Chancellor of UW-Milwaukee (and cc’ing hundreds). In all her cussing fury, she is fighting for her rights, but also fighting for a just and equitable society which grants equal citizenship to all its members, recognizing when some need protection. But we need to deserve her bravery. We need to deserve her hope. We must do so by fighting for her, and when we do so, we are fighting to preserve the very institutions that support the free speech we claim to value.