By Shane McDonnell
Proper societal organization relies on effective decision making processes. These processes influence our places of work, local communities, education, health services, and political institutions. Democracy has been a light in the modern world, separating us from tyrants, dictatorships, communism, and our pre-democratic past. However, some of the nations most vocal about the virtues of democracy are inhabited by many people who don’t vote and feel disenfranchised by the electoral system. This feeling of apathy is the by-product of peoples’ rage at feeling forgotten, used, and abused by a system that privileges elites.
Much debate has surrounded the concepts of democracy and freedom of speech since masses of black clad individuals denied a speaking platform to Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley in February. Yiannopoulos’ views and those of his ardent followers range from the questionable to the extreme right. To take one example, a supporter shot an unarmed protester in the stomach and wasn’t charged. Only once Yiannopoulos’ pro-pederasty views became known was it acceptable by some to deny him a platform (in addition, it was only then that Milo’s publisher cancelled his book). The message from right-wing conservatives is that one can be racist, transphobic, pseudo-scientific, and Islamophobic, but not a pederast. Platforms can be denied, but only by ostensibly legitimate groups that accept the right ideology (like CPAC).
Yiannopoulos has carried out hurtful stunts in the past, such as his outing and humiliation of a trans woman at UW Milwaukke. Milo believed he was protecting/saving women on that campus from a predatory man. Despite his rhetoric, he never proved his claim that the individual he outed was forcing her way, via the manipulation of law, into female locker rooms for nefarious ends. Some believe his cancelled speech in February of this year was intended to out immigrants to a crowd of both his and Trump’s followers. Given the violence of some Trump supporters and Milo’s previous outing, why allow another instance to potentially happen?
Freedom of speech is a protection from government oppression. It allows for debate, the spread of information, and perspectives. Articles 10-12 of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (adopted in France in 1789) reference the individual’s responsibility when speaking and the need for a public force to protect all. Freedom of speech does not mean our views must be heard at universities, in print, on television, etc. (for example, no one denies that Yiannopoulos’ publishers are allowed to refuse to publish his book). One can still speak freely without these venues. Yiannopoulos’ February speech was protested by members of anti-fascist/antifa and libertarian-socialist/anarchist groups. Both groups see violence as justifiable under certain circumstances, such as when fighting a group or policy that takes rights away from others and causes suffering. Not all antifa members are anarchist, but all anarchists are anti-fascist. The antifa movement could potentially be a very broad group of individuals and political philosophies united against fascism.
Arendt, in “Truth and Politics”, predicts our alternative facts world: “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute. In other words, factual truth informs political thought just as rational truth informs philosophic speculation.” Being invited to speak at a university is more prestigious than a platform at a neighbourhood assembly. It presumes well-researched and peer-reviewed facts. Anarchists reject the idea that the law or the state restrict speech. But communities should be able to say that certain forms of speech and their proponents are harmful, and that they legitimize racist and misogynistic pseudoscience (e.g. people of color are less intelligent than white people, or, that if a woman was really raped her body would prevent itself from conceiving). In Spain there are no comprehensive legal prohibitions on racism, yet certain legislation exists to combat racism and hate speech. Similarly, being denied a platform is not a violation of one’s rights.
If we don’t confront hateful speech, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia become normalized. When Charles Murray’s speech was shut down, some articles did not report the reasons for the protests against him: specifically, his 1994 book The Bell Curve claimed to ‘scientifically’ prove that people of color are less intelligent than white people and therefore not worth educating. Similarly, many don’t recognize how how right wing groups, some of which are heavily armed, promote this type of thinking. The message sent is that the actions of these ‘bad apples’ are permissible. The Southern Poverty Law Centre reports the formation of the Fraternal Organisation of Alt-Knights (FOAK) is a paramilitary unit for protecting Alt-Right marches and speeches, especially around Berkeley. FOAK members ascend in rank when they instigate and beat up political opponents. This is not an escalation comparable to gang violence; it is what many have feared: fascist groups uniting in support of a common ideology (many tenets of which are supported by the current president).
As platforms can be taken away, so can they be given and shaped. Noam Chomsky touched on this when he coined the phrase ‘manufactured consent’. ‘Manufactured consent’ is consent given by an individual or a populace which is created by a third party. Such consent can be seen in how the same narrative is put forth so consistently that the only acceptable options are those it suggests. Alternatives never get a hearing, and so the populace chooses from the choices provided. One either supports troops on the ground or a drone strike, higher unemployment or jobs in the fossil fuel industry.
We can see how this works in the context of antifa protests through the following example. In the coverage of the fights that broke out between antifa protesters and Trump supporters on Patriot’s Day, most of the media neglected to share the fact that numerous Trump supporters hold neo-Nazi beliefs. Instead, they focused on the violent actions of the antifa groups. Issues of freedom and the right to protest in a meaningful way hardly came up at all. The choices presented (if you don’t support all speech all the time, you are violent and hate free speech) exemplify manufactured consent.
The Equal Time and the Fairness doctrines used to assure a balanced media. The latter disallowed biased coverage of stories, but was removed under the Reagan administration. The former is essentially defunct, as shown by the amount of free airtime Trump received during his campaign. The Equal Time doctrine is supposed to ensure that all sides of stories be granted the same amount of coverage and air time, thus eliminating the possibility of one story or version of events dominating the airwaves. It is a worrying state of affairs when one version of events can dominate whole news segments. This is especially true in our contemporary state of media consolidation. The idea of competition evaporates. People justify this consolidation by referencing some form of innate rationality such that once all the facts are presented we will see the irrational falsities. However, as Chomsky’s theory illustrates, discussion is framed to prevent all the facts from being made public. For example, in the discussions about Hilary’s election loss, the debate has focused on Russia’s potential involvement and not the fact Hillary won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. The justifiability of the electoral college is never brought up.
All this raises the eyebrows of lovers of democracy. ‘Democracy’ comes from the ancient Greek ‘δῆμος’ (demos) meaning ‘common people’ or an ‘assembly of the people’ and ‘κρατία’ (kratía) meaning ‘power’ or ‘rule’. Hence ‘δημοκρᾰτῐ́ᾱ’ (dēmokratíā) is the rule/power of the people. Yet some individuals reject this interpretation. David Graeber, in “There Was Never a West”, says the ‘kratía’ in ‘democracy’ is not equivalent to ‘ἄρχων’ (archon) meaning ‘ruler’. Graeber is etymologically distancing us from the notions of votes and leadership by the people. Rather, ‘kratía’ as ‘power’ is very much tied with force and violence. Though Graeber acknowledges the origin of the slur by the elitist opponents of ‘δημοκρᾰτῐ́ᾱ’, democracy is the violence/force of the people. Democracy has failings, as many have pointed out. Hannah Arendt says “in a debate about facts the only persuasive factor that sometimes has a chance to prevail against pleasure, fear, and profit is personal appearance”. We see this usually in political and governmental debates, and during elections. Facts slide into ad hominem rhetoric. A discussion about affordable medical care, treatments and drugs becomes a Red Scare-lite.
Consensus decision making, though democratic, is not based on the idea of majority wins. It seeks to include all parties and affected groups and individuals. Using consensus means finding solutions that everyone actively supports, or can live with. Further, by demanding and encouraging all points of view and participation, the manufacturing of consent can, at least theoretically, be reduced. Consensus decision making puts power back into the hands of the would-be electorate. Power is not given to a minority of representatives, it stays in the group. Nietzsche appears to lend support to consensus decision making in “The Wanderer and His Shadow” when discussing universal suffrage. In that same aphorism Nietzsche shows his awareness of low turnouts for elections and seems to have dubbed a low turnout as itself a vote against the prevailing system. Being allowed to vote several times in a lifetime is a poor substitute for having the power ourselves to make the decisions that affect every aspect of our lives. Instead, power and decision making is taken away by the elected. Rather than empowering their electorate in a symbiotic-style relationship, these officials’ friends are rewarded. As Nietzsche says, “What at present goes by that name is distinguished from older forms of government only by the fact that it drives with new horses; the roads and the wheels are the same as of yore.”
When we criticize antifa violence we criticize violence that attempts to stop racism and racists. Similarly, when we criticize anarchist violence we criticize violence that attempts to stop intolerance; that attempts to disrupt the capitalist system; that is used in self-defence against police brutality; and that ultimately protects rights. By labeling each side as bad as the other we neglect the danger the Alt-Right and these spin-off groups pose. These groups do believe in racial superiority and ethno-states. They support the capitalist system which puts the environment and all our well beings at risk. They support the heavy hand of laws which specifically target vulnerable groups in society and incarcerates them in prisons-for-profit. These groups are extremely conservative with regard to LGBT+, women, the environment, workers rights, people of color, diversity in general, religion, and economics. The superficiality of the conversation about antifa violence ignores each side’s values and agenda. Antifa and anarchist values are certainly more palatable than those of the Alt-Right.
Shane Mc Donnell is a political activist in the Republic of Ireland. He received a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Theology in All Hallows College, a sister college of Dublin City University (DCU). Following that he received a master’s degree in Philosophy and Public Affairs in University College Dublin (UCD). Currently he is a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), campaigning to grant free, safe and legal access to abortion services for pregnant people. His main interests include Nietzsche, libertarian-socialism and geo-politics.
This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them. Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.