A post about an often overlooked role that speech and expression play in human interactions.
For the past few months the internet has been a buzz with fights and arguments over the concept of Free Speech. Its been quite varied and heated. Recently Libcom.org was the site of a textual slapfight with another blog, and while I don’t really think the position they offered is useful or even consistent really it did get me thinking.
The blog at one point stated there is a difference between speech and acts, the example given was that it is justified and correct to fight the British Union Fascists (BUF) because they represented a paramilitary threat (debatable) rather than just an ideological one. This isn’t a unique distinction liberals who favour maximum speech rights for all do often give a concession to physical defence against unambiguous violence. But the problem is that speech in itself can and often is a form of violence as well.
This happens in a number of ways but one of the most common is the tactic of outing someone. Outing is most commonly associated with queer individuals and Milo Yiannopoulos himself a recent lightning rod for this argument outed a Trans student at a University in Milwaukee, and is believed to have planned on doing the same to undocumented students on the campus of the University of Berkley.
"I didn't know if I was going to get attacked or not. I was just like, 'Dear god, I hope nobody recognizes me.'"
"When you have a room full of people that are just laughing at you as if you're some freak of nature, like you have some kind of mental illness—which is how he described me—it's like, I don't even know how to describe it, but it was way too much,"
Now in this particular case the harassment remained verbal, but it could very easily have had a darker ending, in 2015 21 people were murdered for being transgender in the United States.
In March of this year there have been seven recorded murders of Transgender individuals recorded in the United States.
There’s also been an increase in hate crimes recorded with Transgender people being disproportionately targeted.
“In its 2014 report, the FBI recognized 1,248 victims of hate crimes targeted due to their sexual orientation (18.6 percent of all hate crimes reported) and 109 victims of hate crimes targeted due to their gender identity (1.8 percent of all hate crimes reported). The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported that 2015 saw a 20% increase in the number of hate violence-related homicides of LGBTQ and HIV-affected people - noting that people of color and transgender people are disproportionally targeted. NCAVP reported that 62% of all LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color, and 54% of homicide victims were transgender women of color.”
But this isn’t a situation unique to LGBTQ people, on the contrary it’s a fairly common tactic that can be used against any group and often is.
In El Salvador Roberto D'Aubuisson (pictured) the leader of the extreme right wing ARENA party used to give televised speeches exposing people he claimed to be communist terrorists. In addition to naming them would show photographs of them so they could be recognized. Once outed if they didn’t escape (either abroad or to the underground) they would disappear. Their bodies would usually be found some days later showing signs of torture and mutilation.
“Having established the principle, D'Aubuisson got down to specifics, marshaling charts, photos, videotapes, and computer graphics for an intricately detailed, name-by-name, face-by-face tirade against "El Salvador's terrorist conspiracy."
D'Aubuisson denounced union leaders, priests, academics, peasant organizers, students, professionals, government officials, and Christian Democrats. Among those he named was Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom he told, "You still have time to change your ways." He also attacked Mario Zamora, a leading Christian Democrat and member of the government who—like others identified in the broadcasts—was assassinated in a matter of weeks. “
Now obviously the Salvadoran civil war is an extreme case but it does demonstrate how speech can be used as a systemic tool of terror. And the only thing that makes it extreme is the circumstances, denouncing political enemies both real and imagined in the hopes or knowledge that fellow supporters will take care of the problem for you is very common.
This was how Mcarthyism and the Second Red Scare worked. Once someone was denounced as a suspected Red they were fair game for state harassment and investigations, employers would fire them and they could be publicly harassed and victimised. The once denounced the only way for a victim to save themselves from further attacks was to publicly cooperate with HUAC and denounce others.
And you don’t have to rely on state backing to pull of this off the Fascists have made use of this for decades. First they have an annoying habit of describing everyone and everything in opposition to them or they just don’t like as Jewish. Now this tendency is often cited as justification to write them off as loons, but there is method to the madness. By denouncing someone as Jewish, or a Zionist or a Globalist they’re telling their base to ignore what their targets are saying. And at the same time egging on local Fascists to attack them because they’re not just dissidents they’re actively part of the vast conspiracy against the nation or the white race etc.
For examples I’m spoiled for choice. Indeed so common is this practice that it actually found me. I uploaded a video by Johnathan Meades to youtube about architecture during the Nazi regime. Now I expected some backlash but I was caught by surprise how much vitriol a documentary on urban planning and statues would cause. Most of the negative comments were revolved around Meades being a Jew and a liar, or just a Jew with the implication being that as a Jew he’s lying. One commenter mentioned that Meades mother was Jewish, which she was though she had a deathbed conversion to Anglcanism and Meades himself is an outspoken atheist.
The reaction to this revelation caught me by surprise; it was like a smoking gun to these people. The fact that this man has a connection to Judaism was all the vindication they needed, the holocaust is a lie, because that smug liberal on the screen has a Jewish mother. Like I said is easy to dismiss these people, but unfortunately they are still quite capable of considerable organized violence.
The White Nationalist website Stormfront is suspected of being used as a platform for the occasional violent crime up to and including murder.
In April 2013 Italian users of the site were arrested for publishing a list of names and encouraging violence against the people named.
“The blacklist included: Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia; Riccardo Pacifici, the President of the Jewish Community in Rome; Adel Smith, the President of the Muslim Union of Italy; the Mayor of Padua, Flavio Zanonto; several members of the judiciary; and journalist Gad Lerner, a Jew, and veteran TV talkshow host Maurizio Constanzo. According to media reports, those on the list were targeted because of their support for immigrants. Also listed were then House Speaker Gianfranco Fini and then Minister for International Cooperation and Integration Andrea Riccardi, who have both spoken out about citizenship rights for immigrant children.”
And it’s not just this one website there are others like Red Watch. Red Watch is a catalogue of supposed communists with identifying information. When I was 16 a friend of mine an inoffensive wooly liberal was listed on the site with his photo and then address. Yes someone put a teenager on a database used to target people.
Now nothing had happened to him thankfully at the time and he and his family moved out of the area, (though now that I think about it that could just mean someone attacked the house when other people were living there) though the potential consequences can be serious. In 2006 (the same year my friend told me he was on Red Watch) another person recorded on the site was stabbed.
“What McFadden did not realise at the time was that he was not being punched but stabbed. "I think it went on for a couple of minutes before I managed to get the door closed. I turned round and my daughter was screaming. It was only then, as I put my hand to my face and felt the blood, that I realised what had happened."[
Oh and my speculation on my friends danger wasn’t completely unfounded, far right types are active in my area, in 2013 a couple of them attacked the local Mosque with petrol bombs, and the Synagogue has reported severe vandalism on several occasions.
Now there is more to this topic but it’s already getting quite long so I’ll wrap up. I can anticipate some of the counter argument, that these are all violent acts and should be opposed, but that’s the rub. Every example I’ve cited was started and required the use of speech. The only way to stop sites like stormfront and redwatch from exposing hundreds to potential assault and murder is to shut them down. The only way to stop a politician inciting attacks on the marginalized or a right wing zealot exposing queer and migrant students to harassment is to remove their platforms for example causing so much disruption that no venue will knowingly host such people. It isn’t sufficient to attack and neutralise the ones who carry out the attacks, more will take their place so long as the infrastructure remains intact. But we can’t take effective action against any of this without infringing on another’s freedoms of speech and expression.