Is Free Speech Racist?
, by Gavan Titley

Martin Myers applauds a bold attempt to re-examine one of the sacred cows of liberal societies

February 25, 2021
Man shouting into a megaphone
Source: iStock

Western democracies are characterised by long-standing commitments to social and political rights, including the right to free speech. Everybody, even racists, is entitled to have their say, and to silence them constitutes an attack on all our liberties. Gavan Titley’s Is Free Speech Racist? is less interested in what should be permissible or legislated. Instead, he provides a challenging analysis of how free speech reinforces the centrality of racism within societies that imagine themselves to be liberal, tolerant and post-racial.

At the heart of his book is an argument that racism is dynamic and constantly adapting, and that “invocations of free speech have become fundamental to reshaping how racism is expressed and legitimized in public culture”. This is evident in the way the “war on terror” characteristically reframes speech about terrorism as complicit in terrorism. It results in the emergence of new collective racisms, such as the global demonisation of Muslim culture. The violent attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, for example, legitimised aggressive and racist policing of Muslim neighbourhoods. To challenge the state’s local clampdown on a minority group becomes more difficult when its legitimacy is aggregated with that of the global “war on terror”.

Perhaps more problematically, the articulation of free speech as an unchallengeable value, and one that closes down some minority rights, is not restricted to authoritarian state actors. Within populist discourse, the broad collective adoption of free speech values has significant traction and appeal. Je suis Charlie” in the mouths of Charlie Hebdo co-workers has one meaning; but when used to suggest collective solidarity, it exposes an obvious lie: “Nous ne sommes pas tous Charlie.” Muslims, Gypsies, Torres Strait Islanders do not share the same claim to value when they speak. After Charlie Hebdo, Muslim French citizens expressing discontent at repressive policing ran a substantial risk, since this was construed as a challenge to populist beliefs in French freedoms. Titley persuasively makes the case that, all too often, collective expressions of whose free speech is valued signal a “divisiveness of unity” that conceals wider racisms about who belongs. Last month, Frédérique Vidal, minister for higher education, targeted research addressing inequalities from a minoritarian perspective as a “gangrene”, inspired by “Islamo-gauchisme” (Islamo-leftism) and un-French. We can hear something similar in the way some academics and research are labelled “woke” in the United States or when a UK minister of equalities calls critical race theory “dangerous”.

Free speech as a defining characteristic of liberal societies is rarely challenged. Many among its champions invoke telltale tropes that scarcely disguise inherent racism. Most recently, the craft of Donald Trump’s speech to his followers before they stormed the Capitol Building was his ability to embody First Amendment sentiments while simultaneously voicing the entitlement of white people to retain power. The subsequent closure of Trump’s social media accounts was sometimes portrayed as an attack on his free speech rather than a way of addressing evidence of his violent racism.

Titley’s book offers a detailed, analytical counter-argument to those voices suggesting that the rights of the already entitled are somehow under threat or that speaking out against racism is an assault on public life. There is a deliberate provocation in a book calling itself Is Free Speech Racist? that risks limiting its argument to the same zero-sum game of free-speech proponents. Titley, however, takes the high road; free speech is always more, rather than less, complex in his analysis of the fluid processes by which it shapes racism.

Martin Myers is an assistant professor in education at the University of Nottingham.

Is Free Speech Racist?

By Gavan Titley
Polity, 164pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9781509536153 and 9781509536160
Published 1 September 2020


Print headline: Who are we to speak freely?

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

"The subsequent closure of Trump’s social media accounts was sometimes portrayed as an attack on his free speech rather than a way of addressing evidence of his violent racism." - I don't see this as an either/or situation. Presumably it could be both. No?