Free Speech Needs Nationalism

Free Speech Needs Nationalism

I was reading a book written by my great-great grandfather a few days ago. It described (among other things) the account of his journey from Scotland to India in the 1850s to work as a railroad engineer. The clash of values he experienced there was perhaps predictable, at least between the natives and his fellow Europeans. But that was not the only clash; there was also a conflict between the values of Europeans themselves, or at least a transition between those held at home and those abroad:

The new environment we disposed to put the Episcopal service book out of service, it did not seem to harmonize with the new civilization. It appeared to have been prepared for a cooler climate where the blood did not circulate so freely. In those wild, virile, and we sometimes think, lawless days, when we could draw crumbs of comfort from Holy Willie’s prayer, a simple reference to natural laws, would uphold the existing order, although it might appear as the sum of all villainies in the service book.

In particular, he referenced an instance in which three organizers of a conspiracy to murder all Europeans had been shot out of cannons, a spectacular and unusual form of execution. To quote further, and in the vein of the previous excerpt:

They might have been shot or put out of existence by other more usual methods, but blowing them into eternity from a cannon had a wholesome influence on the natives. It cooled their ardor, and struck terror into their religious souls. Anglo-Saxon blood would not tamely submit to have men, women, and children butchered and torn to pieces by hordes of pagan miscreants. They would sooner tear the pagan to pieces.

My religious education is by no means complete, but I do not recall the injunction to tear pagans to pieces anywhere in Christian scripture (“pagans,” here, referring to foreign religious practitioners). To me, this appears to come from a different source—perhaps the alluded to “Anglo-Saxon blood,” or the previously referenced “natural laws.”

But the point here is not to condemn Christianity. Quite the contrary, in fact: my ancestor here clearly prefers and looks fondly upon the Christian ethos of his Episcopal homeland, rather than the alien ethos of India, or the downright disagreeable ethos of the frontier between these two cultures in mid-19th-century Bombay, where neither Christian charity nor Hindu tradition can flourish.

Now I first came into right-wing nationalist circles as a matter of disinterested principle. I was a bit of a libertarian, and while I strongly disagreed with ethno-nationalism (for reasons I could not quite articulate at the time), it seemed obvious to me that a defense of the principle of free speech required a defense of the speech of white nationalists – as well as communists, college professors, and even genuinely evil people like journalists. Such was the nature of the principle, or so it appeared to a 22-year-old in college.

Free speech was (and still is) for me what the Episcopal ethos was for my great-great grandfather. It was the cool water of the stream I wanted to swim in; the culture and language of home. And while free speech fell under fire during my college days, I attempted to fight back by arguing on principle (John Stuart Mill, Christopher Hitchens, etc).

The trouble is that, in the diverse backdrop of college, the censors were right.

Hear me out.

Much of the defense of free speech offered today attempts to do so by saying that the interpretation of speech is subjective. This means that different people will interpret speech in different ways, maybe even in unpredictable ways, and so the speaker cannot be held responsible for how other people act in response to the speech in question. Who—the liberal free-speech activists ask—is to be the arbiter of the “official” meaning of a particular word or phrase, in all contexts and at all times? And if the official meaning of a phrase cannot be determined, how can we safely prohibit certain speech without giving arbitrary power to the censor?

On its face, these look like reasonable questions. But the problem is that language is not entirely subjective. While there may be multiple ways to interpret a word or phrase in a given context, there are far more incorrect ways of interpreting it. If I say “the tree outside is green,” it is not open to someone to interpret my statement into “the car outside is blue.” They may be confused about which tree, or which shade of green, but language is not open to subjectivity in the fashion that many often believe it to be.

But there is a similar phenomenon, which gives rise to the appearance of subjectivity. That is the existence of different linguistic frames, which can be thought of as Kuhnian paradigms for language.

Let me illustrate with an example. When most people talk about “negative reinforcement,” they are referring to punishment of some kind. Perhaps they use a shock collar on their dog when it doesn’t follow a command during training, and they call that “negative reinforcement.” This is generally understood among the lay population. However, in the world of psychology, “negative reinforcement” is a technical term, and refers specifically to reinforcing desirable behavior by removing an adverse stimulus. An example: when I was in high school, the student government played a particularly obnoxious rendition of “I like to move it, move it” over the intercom until someone donated five dollars to their cause. We paid to make the music stop. Negative reinforcement.

Notice that these two definitions are not merely different, but actually exclusive. In psychology, punishment is a form of “positive punishment,” because it is adding a stimulus in order to modify behavior. “Positive” does not refer to something being good or bad, but rather, to whether something has been added or subtracted.

What we have here are two different linguistic frames: that of the lay person, and that of the professional psychologist. In objective terms, neither one of these is “right.” All we can say is that both are ways in which the term “negative reinforcement” is used. Here are two different linguistic frames.

As the example illustrates, there will always be multiple linguistic frames, even within nations. Maybe even within families. Growing up, my brother and I had our own vernacular that our parents did not understand (usually related to games we played). But the variety of and distance between these linguistic frames explodes as populations that interact with each other become more diverse.

The implications of this for freedom of speech are severe. When a particular social body has a highly diverse array of linguistic frames, then the odds of misunderstanding increase because the connotations—even denotations—of particular words and phrases becomes ambiguous. Sentences which would ordinarily be benign can seem outright malicious when heard through an alternative linguistic frame.

Some of the examples of this seem outright absurd when you first encounter them. The idea that telling a black person that they are articulate is in fact a racial microaggression sounds like delusional paranoia. And perhaps it is. But that does not mean that the delusion is wholly unpredictable. People who communicate in different linguistic frames (as different ethnic groups in America often do) are bound to misunderstand each other at times. To complicate things even further, misunderstanding can lead to mistrust, and to paranoid, worst-case interpretations of the intentions and meaning of others. Thus, innocuous compliments can become subtle insults, even when no insult was intended (from whites to blacks, blacks to whites, psychologist to non-psychologist, or across any range of conflicting linguistic frames which confound mutual comprehension).

In the same vein, I’m sure my great-great-grandfather’s use of the word “miscreant” would not play well among certain audiences.

In a diverse landscape filled with all variety of linguistic frames, free speech—as culture or as law—becomes untenable. The benefit of free and open discourse simply is not there, because we generally can’t and won’t understand what other people are saying when they speak outside a frame we are familiar with… especially when they in turn interpret our words in manners that seem, to us, false and uncharitable. It may be true that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and that the free marketplace of ideas is the most efficient path to truth, but these truths—if they are true—are irrelevant in a world in which people cannot accurately understand what others are saying.

This means that when well-intentioned liberals argue about how language is subjective, they are not really helping their case. For as much as they are challenging the authority of the censor, they are simultaneously undermining the authority of speech itself. If its just subjective, after all, there cannot be much in the way of communicative value, and the harms to relationships and social unity are self-evidently visible to all. Why not simply ban certain expressions and kinds of expressions, especially the kind which experience has shown to be reliable instigators of conflict between certain groups? Surely, the value of the expression is less than the harm caused by its use, especially when—given the subjective nature of interpreting speech, remember—the expression in question can’t have that much value anyways. After all, it’s just subjective.

But within a linguistic frame, speech is not subjective. In fact, well-written prose is quite clear. “The tree outside is green” is unambiguous, crystalline. When I say to a friend of mine who is not black “you are very articulate,” the meaning of that four-word sentence is absolutely clear. There is no possibility of misunderstanding or offense. When a psychologist speaks of “negative reinforcement” to another psychologist, there is zero danger of confusion over the term.

Now obviously, we will never all be in the same linguistic frame. Various political and religious ideologies have attempted to create some universal frame, but linguistic frames arise organically, from stories, experiences, and the infinite varieties and vicissitudes of language itself, all of which vary across the broad expanse of human experience. Inside jokes and shop-talk are some of the milder and more minute manifestations of differing linguistic frames—compared to differing languages, for example—yet they still demonstrate the inescapability of some divergence in linguistic frames, even within fairly familiar and insular populations. Some misunderstanding will be inevitable.

But this inevitability does not by itself necessitate censorship. Linguistic frames lie in concentric and overlapping circles, creating spaces of greater and lesser understanding where different groups meet at cultural frontiers, leaving a continuum of comprehension. Somewhere along this continuum lies a threshold beyond which freedom of speech does not make sense. The negative consequences are simply too great, and the benefits just don’t exist. To quote my great-great-grandfather, censorship appears to be a kind of natural law in such circumstances, though it may appear as the sum of all villainies to me.

Yet censorship is a villainy. Freedom of speech is still important, not merely as a means to an end, but for me, as an end in and of itself. I love and enjoy the art of debate, the grappling with deep and difficult questions, and weighing controversial positions. This is not to say, of course, that free speech isn’t useful: it clearly is, when circumstances allow for it. Science, philosophy, politics, and religion would all be impossible without our ability to speak about these subjects, and it is — invariably — these subjects which the censors most imperiously attempt to clamp down on. Perhaps that is why, when people talk about “freedom of speech,” they are referring to the free expression of political ideas (e.g., communism, white nationalism, fascism, democracy, etc), rather than the freedom to release trade secrets, slander others, etc.

Free speech is important because speech is not subjective; because speech can be an action, contra the liberals who attempt to draw a line of distinction (consider, as an obvious example, a priest who pronounces a man and woman to be husband and wife; he is, in an indirect and vicarious fashion, making a promise, and promises are credit for action, which other people take into account when acting themselves on the assumption that the promise is an action).

But this value is diminished when we have too many linguistic frames; when college students and hospital employees are required to take “cross-cultural communication” courses, which essentially teach self-censorship and equivocation. Their purpose seems to be to mitigate conflict, but the unspoken necessary means of this mitigation is the reduction of meaning. We sometimes call the “safe-zone” of euphemistic language which reasonably guarantees the speaker protection from conflict “political correctness,” and politically correct speech is fast becoming infamous for its vapidity and emptiness. Things like “human rights,” “democracy,” and “freedom” are notoriously slippery, as they have both multiple possible definitions (where politics is concerned), and connote different emotional associations, almost all of which are positive to the listener, despite being contradictory when placed side-by-side. Such is the way that people must speak in order to survive and thrive in an environment with too many linguistic frames, and (for the speaker) an unknowable collection of responses.

All of this is to say that the “freedom of speech” — the right to express one’s views without censorship or punishment — requires nationalism. It requires a common population which shares an national heritage, and — it can’t be ignored — a genetic heritage (indeed, the word “nation” itself denotes genetic heritage, from the Latin natio, meaning “birth” or “race of people”). It goes without saying that this is not a claim to superiority of any kind, except for the general superiority of understanding within all groups, which means mutual comprehensibility within shared linguistic frames, no matter which linguistic frame they may happen to be. This shared linguistic frame — necessary for the freedom of speech — requires a common culture, a shared creation myth (1776 and the Revolution of Independence for America), heroes and villains, religious tradition, geography, language, and everything else which influences the use of language. Without these things, the clarity of speech is threatened, and with it, the utility and defensibility of the free speech.

In short, you cannot have freedom of speech without nationalism. While I admire the classical liberal defense of free speech based in principle alone, their efforts will be doomed by the very world they are creating, divorcing values from people who created and hold those values. The result is not freedom, but incomprehension and distrust, which no amount of Locke or Mill can ameliorate. It only results in a bloody return to natural law, and the choice between being torn to pieces by hordes of pagan miscreants, or tearing them to pieces first.

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