The claim of many in the far right that their free speech is under attack is often a veil for other political fears or hatefulness. This is why the work of HOPE not hate to understand this must continue.
Over the last six weeks, HOPE not hate has explored free speech in a six part mini-series. We have provided insight into free speech laws and traditions in the UK; explored how elements of the British far right idolise the United States free speech tradition; and explored how the far right are often viewed as both protecting and co-opting free speech.
To illustrate the variety of positions on free speech found amongst the radical right and far right, we also produced case studies on the populist radical right figure Nigel Farage; the anti-Muslim activist and former leader of the English Defence League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson); and white nationalist group, Patriotic Alternative (PA).
In this week’s final piece, we will briefly discuss the challenges posed by far-right free speech narratives and explore the effective, yet complex, solution of deplatforming.
Challenges of Far-Right Free Speech
While elements of the far right and some radical right figures and groups co-opt free speech for their own benefits, we must also recognise the manifold challenges posed by far-right free speech narratives.
Firstly, when it comes to the idea that free speech is being suppressed by political correctness, a 2017 YouGov poll we commissioned shows clearly how widely this narrative resonates with much of the public. Of those polled, 51% agreed with the statement “Political correctness is used by the liberal elite to limit what we can say”. This rises to 70% amongst Leave voters, 67% amongst 2017 Conservative voters and 80% of UKIP voters in 2015.
Conversely, just 49% agree that “Concern about political correctness has been whipped up by the right wing media to undermine those who believe in tolerance and anti-racism”, sinking to just 33% of Leave voters, 33% amongst 2017 Conservative voters and 20% of 2015 UKIP voters. Though hypocritical, the work of far-right activists to position themselves as the ultimate defenders of free speech is, as clearly evidenced by the above polling, potentially quite effective for resonating with more mainstream conservative voters.
Challenges such as the variability of free speech stances and the success of far-right rhetoric around free speech amplify the importance of our work of researching and raising awareness of the far right’s use of free speech narratives. We as an organisation will continue our work to deplatform extreme actors whatever their political leanings.
Under UK law, there is a clear, yet seldom acknowledged, difference between the right to speak versus the right to speak anywhere. Since we began our deplatforming work, we have successfully advocated for deplatforming countless far-right voices to ensure that, without suppressing legal rights to speak, far-right voices are reaching the smallest audience possible, to ensure dangerous ideas are kept relegated to the sidelines. As HOPE not hate’s Dr. Joe Mulhall writes, though controversial, deplatforming works.
Dr. Mulhall highlights how Facebook’s decision (note, we were not involved in this effort) to block Britain First from Facebook, and Twitter following suit, left the organisation on small, marginalised platforms with a much smaller following. This has undoubtedly been a key factor in the decline of Britain First as a dangerous force in the UK. Similarly, in March 2018 Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was permanently banned by Twitter, and then in February 2019 he was banned from Facebook, where he had more than one million followers, depriving him of his primary means for communicating with and organising his supporters. Another major blow came on 2 April 2019 when YouTube finally acted and placed some restrictions around Lennon’s channel, which resulted in his views collapsing.
It is important to note that the challenge – the far right’s misuse and manipulation of free speech – and the solution discussed here – deplatforming – are ever evolving and particularly interesting at present.
Firstly, the online environment is changing, with increased deplatforming and increased calls for legislation to regulate social media and online engagement. Yet, as the online environment increasingly becomes the public sphere, with this shift we must consider whether or not the defence that the far right are able to exercise their right to free speech only in certain domains holds up. If the far right are in fact stripped of the ability to broadcast their beliefs in the only domain in which they will be heard (the internet), we must consider critically what that means for free speech practices in the UK.
That being said, the reality that elements of the far right are looking to silence others and spread hate (and sometimes violence) means that regulations must continue to be enforced. A sophisticated liberal view recognises limits and acknowledges that freedoms can, sometimes, undermine themselves (i.e. one’s freedom of expression denying another’s). In short, the far right should not have their right to expression stripped, but it is also not a legal infringement to continue to limit their ability to express things that limit other’s expressions.
We must also consider whether, in becoming more accepting of deplatforming, we run the risk of overreach and of not allowing people to make mistakes, as was argued in a recent Harper’s Magazine letter signed by over 150 writers, academics, and artists. While hate speech usually involves clear moral and legal transgressions, there are areas which can be less clear cut and which require especially close attention to the details of a case.
Consideration of making mistakes is pertinent particularly in response to changing norms. Whilst the onus remains on people to learn more about these changes, and a refusal to engage may be a legitimate reason for being called out, sincere unawareness despite efforts to learn will occur. In such cases, an apology and an indication that someone is trying to learn is all that is needed.
Many in the mainstream of political opinion, including staunch advocates of liberalism, themselves fail to grasp the nuances of free speech as it plays out in society. As signatories to a response letter to the Harper’s letter note:
“What the [Harper’s] signatories are describing are things that have happened to journalists, academics, and authors marginalized by their respective industries for years […] The problem they are describing is for the most part a rare one for privileged writers, but it is constant for the voices that have been most often shut out of the room.”
In practice, as Nesrine Malik made salient in The Guardian’s responses to the initial letter, what those reacting to supposed ‘overreach’ are often really reacting to is the greater democratisation of free speech, not a lack of it. As she astutely puts it:
“To those unaccustomed to being questioned, this all feels personal. They have confused a lack of reverence from people who are able to air their views for the very first time with an attack on their right to free speech. They have mistaken the new ways they can be told they are wrong or irrelevant as the baying of a mob, rather than exposure to an audience that has only recently found its voice. The world is changing. It’s not “cancel culture” to point out that, in many respects, it’s not changing quickly enough.”
The Main Takeaway
While many in the far right position themselves as true defenders of free speech, it is clear, upon further investigation, that their claim that free speech is under attack is often a veil for other political frustrations, fears, and poorly masked hatefulness.
Despite positioning themselves as unequivocal supporters of free speech and as victims of silencing by the government, social media and campaigners both in the UK and around the world, it seems much of the far right aims to defend freedom of speech if, and only if, it is beneficial to their messages.
The far right is becoming more sophisticated in organisation. You can now sit in your bedroom with your computer or cell phone and be a far-right activist with little to no social cost, and there is danger with that ease. As Dr. Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radial Right (CARR) writes, “a healthy democratic society needs to understand that freedom of speech works both ways and, for example, it is incompatible with invoking violence or hatred toward a particular set of people”. This is precisely why we cannot turn a blind eye to the hypocrisy of the far right, and why the work of HOPE not hate must continue.