What About Free Speech?

Everyone who seeks a more democratic society would naturally agree that freedom of speech is essential. Moreover, no egalitarian collective would ever claim to oppose freedom of speech. Yet, in practice, not all collectives (nor lefty groups in general) support free speech, whether it means allowing free speech in debate or on e-mail lists, or allowing other groups the same freedom to express themselves and demonstrate their own beliefs freely.

Regarding Free Speech at Meetings

In order to allow freedom of speech at meetings, groups need to create an atmosphere in which all the participants feel maximally comfortable about expressing themselves. If any people feel at any time that their ways of self-expression, their choice of words, or their tone or approach simply can 't meet a group's particular standards, then they certainly will not have a chance to enjoy the true freedom to speak or participate.

This is true whenever the homogeneity of a group might be seen by an interested observer as intimidating or unwelcoming. Many of us are aware that more effort should be made in activist circles to include diverse viewpoints, yet we overlook some simple steps we could take to be more inclusive and approachable, such as easing up on demanding that people adhere to the most stringently correct jargon. Whenever we raise a collective eyebrow at someone who says “reform” instead of “shut down” or “vote” instead of “reach consensus,” we are stifling dialogue.

Now, of course, there are limits in terms of propriety. It is understood that people shouldn't be espousing views that are way off the mark in terms of the focus of the collective - e.g., in most collectives, it is not be appropriate to launch into a completely right-wing kind of agenda. However, it is extremely rare when this problem occurs, and when it does occur, the instigator is usually simply ignored. More often, people at a meeting whose opinions are perfectly relevant will feel overly inhibited or cautious regarding how they express those opinions. Too often, for example, members of a collective feel pressured to watch every word they speak for fear that they might unknowingly and unintentionally reveal some connotations of racism or sexism. Unfortunately, this strict kind of political correctness often helps to ensure that the group's true reach remains limited to an extremely narrow range of people, i.e., those who are well trained regarding what terms, phrases, or methods of speaking are politically fashionable and acceptable.

We are not saying that people should be encouraged to babble sexist or racist slurs - and if they do, certainly other members of a group have the right to protest freely. Yet, self-conscious political correctness within these groups has sometimes gotten extreme enough that some participants - especially among those who cannot claim to be part of an oppressed identity group - are double-checking every word they say. We think it's a shame that people feel a need to be this self-conscious.

At the same time, the patterns that have allowed the bossy and outspoken to dominate agendas persist. The sense of entitlement that is wrought by a privileged upbringing, the self-congratulation that comes from a lifetime of praise and approbation, the self-doubt brought about by scorn and oppression: group members’ feelings of inadequacy or grandeur are not erased by an insistence on proper terminology.

Sometimes statements that no one would even think of considering as racist or sexist when said in isolation are read as such depending on the identity the participants. A good example of this problem once occurred when a white male member of our collective was admonished at a coalition meeting for telling a woman of color that he would like to hear a more rational argument for the position that she was taking. He was told, subsequent to the debate, that his request for rational argument was both racist and sexist. The reason given was that white men throughout history have dismissed the opinions of women and people of color as not being sufficiently rational, and that rationality itself is a concept repeatedly used to reinforce patriarchy--which is, as a point of fact, demonstrably true. Yet in the situation that existed, this member of our collective honestly didn't think that the other party in the debate was making any sense. And if there is no rationality in a debate, then what is the point of having a debate? Moreover, is there a politically correct way to tell someone that you find her argument irrational and cannot make sense of it?

It would be a shame if a large number of people in our community even occasionally resisted expressing their opinions simply because they felt that their comments might seem politically incorrect due to the race, gender, or ethnicity of the people involved in the debate. Likewise, those who aren’t versed in the rhetoric of activism should not be made to feel that if they speak up they will be chastised on their choice of words. It is bad enough to feel overcautious about the content of one's arguments, but it is simply stifling to know that such content will also be heavily judged according to context. That situation would certainly not be conducive to free speech; in fact, it might result in an atmosphere that diminishes free expression for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Regarding Free Speech in E-Mail

Within the radical community, especially among anarchists, there has lately been a frenzy to limit e-mail exchanges, establish strict guidelines for e-mail lists, and purge people whose comments on those lists are considered provocative or upsetting. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, as e-mail used to be a very free medium, back in the earlier days of the Internet.

Too often lately, we have seen e-mail lists flooded with ideas about strict protocol to limit the things that are said. Very often now, there are rules against "flaming," meaning that no one should say something on an e-mail list that might be interpreted as a direct insult or attack on another person. While it is understandable that we don't want people to be scared away from lists by nasty or vicious infighting, we also think that honest conflict is essential to open debate. Moreover, it always becomes quite apparent that anti-flaming rules, by nature, are extremely subjective, and that the decision to ban or restrict list participation usually is made by the list administrator and, possibly, the supporting clique in power.

As with all the kinds of purges that we discussed in "Creating Pariahs," the people who are usually kicked off e-mail lists present no threat to the group and hold no power. They are often kicked off or restricted because people who do hold greater power or influence consider them to be annoying or disruptive. Yet the people who are kicked off these lists are rarely the true disrupters. While we often hear about how listserves need to guard against provocateurs and saboteurs, the people who deliberately provoke to undermine a group's politics are usually sufficiently shouted down and leave soon enough anyway.

Often, there are urgent pleas to silence or ban disruptive posters on the grounds that the group’s work needs to be protected and given priority. Yet the work could very well continue unimpeded if people were willing simply to disregard postings they found offensive or personally disruptive instead of engaging and encouraging them. We have found that after an annoying subscriber is removed from a list, the traffic on that list often ceases, since there is no longer any provocation to get heated about. We believe that banning from a list should be only an absolutely last resort that almost never needs to occur. (Perhaps only if the volume of mail sent by one person is untenable; say, more than ten posts a day….)

Meanwhile, we can't help noticing that those who do have power and influence with groups are rarely watched or criticized for any of their own aggressive list behavior, even as they drive to get others silenced or expelled. In other words, the people who are most eager to silence others are often simply the kind who can dish it out but can't take it. If too many such people are allowed to have their way, then the freedom that was once so prevalent in Net discussions will probably be lost forever.

Regarding Free Speech for Others

Just as we need to allow maximum freedom of speech within our own circles, we need to extend this principle outside of our circles, even if it means allowing the expression of views that horrify or disgust us. Otherwise, we will not truly be sticking to our own principles, we will lose moral credibility, and we might even leave ourselves open to charges of hypocrisy.

Ironically, some of the people on the left who make the most noise about not being allowed to speak or assemble freely are the same ones who might violently try to stop ideological opponents from exercising those freedoms.

We have been baffled by certain anarchist groups who've actively sought to threaten or perpetrate violence against radical right-wingers in order to stop them from peaceably demonstrating in the streets. This approach is problematical for a number of reasons, including the fact that too much time might be wasted on some small collection of fascist wing nuts while everyone ignores the more powerful fascists sitting in the seats of our government. However, this tactic is also seriously problematical according to our own principles. Assuming that a right-wing group is not itself setting out to cause violence or terrorize anyone (even if the agenda that it espouses could ultimately have those effects if ever followed), it has as much right to march in the streets espousing its views as we do.

This is not to say that people shouldn't counter-demonstrate. If a collective decides that some parading collection of right-wing nuts is actually worth its time and attention, then this collective has every right to counter-demonstrate along with any coalition that it might join . Yet, counter-demonstration is not the same as threatening to beat up the other demonstrators and initiating some thuggish turf war. If such a scenario develops, actions may speak louder than words as confused onlookers begin to wonder which group, exactly, is the one that wants to quash other people's liberties.

Regarding Free Speech in Publications

Publications - such as newspapers and magazines - become a more complicated issue, because of limited space and editorial prerogative. Clearly, a publication devoted to a certain kind of viewpoint has a right to reject articles that are completely inappropriate, especially when space is limited. Nonetheless, a publication should at least stick to its own professed values. If a publication professes openness to a wide range of left-radical or anarchist viewpoints, then it shouldn't suddenly turn around and suppress some viewpoints for fear that they might be too radical. If a publication has a letters or feedback section that is supposed to be open, then the editors shouldn't be cautiously screening those who disagree with them.

Freedom of speech becomes a bigger issue at a publication when the editors follow inconsistent or sloppy process. A publication that is supposed to be run or edited by a collective should stick to this principle. Unfortunately, some publications that claim to be run collectively really do have an editorial hierarchy with some chief editor to whom almost everyone defers, and that chief editor often is the ultimate judge of content. When that sort of hierarchy occurs, there is more danger that collective members may find their viewpoints suppressed.

One important guideline to keep in mind with regard to all editorial work is whether the editing done is actually necessary and/or helps to make the writing stronger, or whether the piece is chopped up more arbitrarily, for reasons having little to do with the strength of the writing. If the piece is edited in such a way as to cut out certain opinions being expressed, then we might begin to ask questions regarding freedom of expression. If the writer of the piece consistently finds that her articles are being chopped up more severely than others' even though the quality of her original writing might be at least as good as anyone else's (or perhaps even better), then it becomes clear that she is being subject to some arbitrary standards: Are some editors who have more influence and power suppressing her writing because of their general opinions regarding her or her viewpoints? That sort of question certainly will raise issues regarding freedom of speech.

In General

We admit that freedom of speech or expression is not always a 100 percent clear issue, especially when it must be weighed against seemingly contradictory principles such as editorial prerogative or the right of any given group or individual not to be treated disrespectfully. Nonetheless, in most cases, the choices are quite clear. Distasteful speech needs to be addressed with dialogue and engagement, in the spirit of increasing awareness and understanding on both sides. There are many ways in which groups that theoretically support freedom of speech need to be more careful about following their own stated principles. Almost always, if this kind of question even arises, it is best to err on the side of maximum freedom.

Please send your comments and suggestions to: collectivebook@yahoo.com.

"Is This What Consensus Looks Like?"

"Is This the Just Society We Want to Model?


[Why This Booklet?]
[Introduction to Consensus]
[The Particular Vulnera-
bility of Collectives
[Power Sharing]
[Red Flags to Guard Against]
[Ploys To Subvert Consensus]
[The Problem With Politeness]
[The Need For Kindness]
[Creating Pariahs]
[Respect for Differences]
[Personal vs. Group Issues]
[Micro-Managing Behaviors]
[Skepticism is Healthy]
[There's Hope]

[A Model for Justice?]
[The Dearth of Due Process]
[What About Free Speech?]

[Codifying the Collective Process]
[Relinquishing Control of Projects and People]
[Staying True to the Mission]
[What’s a Lone Person to Do?]







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