Replying to "the myth of free speech absolutism"
by any memes necessary
For people who don’t know, Pete Quinones, is the host of a very popular podcast, and also writes a substack under the title “By Any Memes Necessary!” I would consider him a friend, and fellow traveler. He remains one of the people who first grappled publicly with the “post-libertarian moment” as a libertarian. (he even had me on his show to discuss my essay)
I give you this preamble to say, he’s someone willing to examine and reexamine his fundamental assumptions about the world. The latest subject? “the myth of free speech absolutism.” (full piece available here, I encourage you to read)
As he rightly points out, being a “free speech absolutist” is proven an absurd position to hold in your everyday life:
“If your 8-year-old learns the word “fuck,” do you let them blurt it out everywhere? Even if you allow it in the home (please don’t), how about in public? No? Ask yourself why not. I bet a lot of it would have not only to do with your reputation in the community but also because it just isn’t done. It’s culturally unacceptable.”
Toddlers cursing - while amusing at times - is a cultural taboo. Conceivably, one could offer a “free speech absolutist” argument in favor of toddlers cursing, but outside an academic debate,1 I don’t see how one could mainstream the practice of toddlers cursing publicly.2 Again, happy to take up this as a matter of debate, but let’s move on to the real crux of his argument.
“Recently I’ve been struggling with the concept of free speech within a political system.”
Paraphrasing, he questions whether a “free press” should be allowed to knowingly propagandize lies, collude with special interests, suppress competition, and amplify voices that advocate against a working system (ie communists.)
The crux of his piece is fairly represented by the following two quotes:
“We’ve been conditioned to believe a “free press” is essential to liberty, but a press that is free to tell lies commands a tyranny over the minds and souls of the people. I would hope through decades of endless war propaganda and especially the “health tyranny” of the last two years people would at least be asking questions.”
I contend that the idea of “free speech” is not only a myth, but a weapon used against us. We know it doesn’t exist within a political system. Those of a differing, and in the moment, more powerful worldview will do everything they can to suppress your speech while championing theirs. This is a truth of politics and it’s not going away. When your enemy is in charge, and dominates all discourse while actively suppressing yours, do you rationalize that they’re the victors in “the marketplace of ideas,” or, do you like Jesus, flip the tables in said “marketplace” and take back what was taken from you?
There are a few points that Quiñones raises that warrant further exploration. I’ll try to respond to them as succinctly as I can. Without defining terms (which is the beginning point of philosophy) this question can’t be answered in full, but lets have the conversation.
1.Is a free press essential to liberty?
The boomer conception of a “free press” - those institutions which hold power to account is clearly essential to liberty under their framework of the world. Clearly, the “corporate press” or “mainstream media” as we often refer to them does not take this form, but use the cudgel of the “free press” to chastise regular Americans who despise their elitist and chaotic left-wing perspective. To answer the question directly? NO a free “press” is not essential to liberty, and certainly the formal appearance of a free press (that is to say media which is “privately” owned as we have in America) does more to confuse the average citizen when trying to understand the ideological game being played across the cable news, newspapers, magazines, twitter, and so on.
2. Is Free Speech a myth?
Yes, Free Speech is a myth. However, I would remind the reader as I have elsewhere, that “myth” isn’t just a pejorative for something that is “not true:. In a piece I wrote last year I discussed for a popular audience how free speech became an explicit political issue in America. In 2022, “free speech” is certainly considered to be a right-wing position - it is an ideal held to by many normal Americans. As I wrote:
For me, the Freedom of Speech has always been the recognition that try as it might, a government cannot silence the minds of free men and women. Those who choose to remain free, will always have their mind and their voice. The tyrants and thieves who refuse to accept this are left with only one option - violence.
This isn’t to say that every person’s perspective is equally unique, valid, and worth listening to. It is to say, for many of us - tyrannical propaganda will never hold sway and including a myth in our rhetoric which is popular
3.Is Free Speech a weapon?
Again, clearly yes. It has been used to cudgel conservatives and the right into silence, and over generations has allowed the Chaotic Left over generations to capture the university system, which in turn promulgates the ideology throughout society. Today however, free speech is considered a right wing position by all the important people in media and elsewhere - in fact free speech has even been divorced from the idea of “democracy” in the minds of most of the blue check mark journalists on Twitter. Now that they hold the power, the chaotic left doesn’t need to use the weapon of free speech, and arguably I think they are terrified at the what a coordinated political right outside the “cult of American Democracy” can do with such a weapon. It would be my contention that free speech - this is to say speaking and organizing against the chaotic left progressive culture - is a weapon that should not be abandoned simply because it has been used by the “other side.”
4. Leftism and absolutism
I am fond of Charles Haywood’s definition of leftism as “maximal egalitarianism and maximal liberation” I think it captures very well the last point I want to make about “free speech absolutism.” As I indicate above, the “absolutist” position, is one that a myriad of conservative personalities adopted in response to the censorious left. By doing so, as the example of a toddler cursing demonstrate they point out the absurdity in their position. The Chaotic Left thrives in areas of absurdity and absolutism because their default drive is “maximalism.” So conservatives as the uncreative lot they are (on average) did not see the trap being laid for them. Ultimately an “absolute” position will enable chaotic elements to succeed because nothing made by man is eternal by definition.
These are my thoughts as they stand today, I don’t think a free press is what it’s cracked up to be, but I don’t think The American Right needs to abandon free speech as an ideal. What they need to guard against is absurd and absolute positions that allow for chaotic leftists to gain a foothold.
Pete will be having a livestream tonight with two men on this subject, I encourage you to tune in.
which I’m willing to have should someone be interested
What is considered to be a curse word varies cross culturally. Speakers of the same language will have different ideas of what a “curse” word is. Therefore, while the word “fuck” might one day be said by toddlers across America, when that happens it will not be considered “cursing”