The right uses the notion of 'free speech' against us

Somewhat lost in the chaos of the past year is a shift in language that has profound implications for open democracies.

Fringe extremists, nationalists and racist groups have tried to portray their cause as a battle for "free speech."

That's a common trope of right-wing provocateurs.

The most famous example, so far, has been the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in which alt-right and other extreme right groups gathered, in an event that turned violent, leaving one counter demonstrator dead.

Google search data even shows a link between the term "free speech" and the August 2017 event.

Some of Milo Yiannopoulos' most provocative events have been staged under the banner of "free speech," a claim repeated to defend his visit to Australia.

Part of today's political crisis stems from this cultivated confusion that conflates freedom of expression with extremist ideas such as racial superiority, or blanket bans on people based on their religion (as long as it's Islam).

Ideas, in other words, that are frankly incompatible with a modern democracy.

Yet, co-opting words like "freedom" and "justice", which stand for ideas central to democracy only increases divisions within political society.

This trend has infected a number of debates in Australia - most notably the same sex marriage debate, which former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tried to make about "free speech" and "political correctness", and the debate about the "right to be a bigot" in the right's attack on discrimination law through section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The linguistic judo moves by far-right and alt-right trolls are made much easier to pull off with the proliferation of the internet and social media.

One tactic of globalised extremist movements is to coordinate efforts while using more mainstream language to draw in more would-be followers.

A recent report by UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue on nationalist movements concluded: "White supremacist movements managed to penetrate the mainstream by strategically framing their fringe narratives through [the] socially more acceptable lens of freedom of speech and criticism of multiculturalism, the globalist elites and political correctness."

This effort is aided tremendously by bots, trolls, and rapidly created websites.

In fact, this technology can significantly boost the voice of a smaller number of people, using it in a coordinated effort.

Tools and tactics applied to social media and the internet have uncoupled the noise made by an online crowd from its actual size, or location.

Consequently, smaller numbers of people, using social media can make events appear bigger than they are.

As destabilising as this battle for influence is, there is a precedent for rejecting the "free speech" argument as a defence for divisive tactics meant to corrode broader political discourse.

In the 1950s, American philosopher Sidney Hook wrote that the concept of free speech carried with it the expectation that the competition in the free market of ideas will be honestly conducted.

Hook made a distinction between heresy - arguing radically different and controversial ideas - and conspiracy - which involved speech and actions to undermine the entire political system.

"The failure to recognise the distinction between heresy and conspiracy is fatal to a liberal civilisation, for the inescapable consequence of their identification is either self-destruction, when heresies are punished as conspiracies, or destruction at the hands of their enemies, when conspiracies are tolerated as heresies."

Applied to the "free speech" claim today, one could ask: are alt-right and ethno-nationalists simply arguing for an "radical" political position such as banning Muslims or equating feminism with nazism?

Or, are they taking actions to orchestrate scenes and events to create polarising violence and imagery?

People are free to argue whatever idea they please - that's free speech.

But if they're using the idea of free speech as a shield for actions to divide and drive wedges into society overall, it's conspiracy.

It was this basis that US liberals used to take on communist infiltrators in the union movement in the 1950s.

And while Hook's heresy/conspiracy dichotomy had implications for real-life events, the place where it should be applied today is the internet.

That's because civil libertarians still look back to the 20th Century when the remedy for so-called "bad speech" was simply "more speech".

Such a remedy doesn't take into account technological changes which mean there is now no economic scarcity to the published word.

Today, much of the problem isn't the ability to speak - but the ability to be heard, which itself can be gamed online.

The alt-right is highly motivated in part because of the failure of mainstream political parties to articulate a meaningful view of the world for swaths of the public.

They recognised a void and have moved to fill it.

If parties that embrace liberal ideals want to avoid an illiberal future, they'd be wise to move into that void themselves.

Understanding how language is exploited and co-opted by organised groups is a great place to start.

This story The right uses the notion of 'free speech' against us first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.