Free speech, hate speech, and socialism

BY: Scott Hiley| May 17, 2018
Free speech, hate speech, and socialism
QHello. I am an adolescent who is thinking about joining the CPUSA once I am at the legal voting age. My History teacher told me that in a Communist country, no one has individual rights. I asked her to give me specific examples of what rights I would not have and she said something along the lines of,” We wouldn’t have freedom of speech. Like for example, I wouldn’t be able to say an opinion that was different from how the majority felt.” My question is, since this a progressive party, If we had a Communist President and a Communist country with communist laws, would that mean people who are conservative in any way could not not be able to say or do anything that was politically incorrect? --Madeline
AHi Madeline,

Thanks for writing in, and for a terrific question.  It really got me thinking! In our perspective, dissent, protest, disagreement and debate are a vital part of the democratic process--as vital, in fact, as arriving at and implementing a collective strategy. We don't see CPUSA as ruling a single-party state; instead, we hope to be one of many parties and organizations working together to build socialism.

So, in a socialist USA, will people be allowed to say 'politically incorrect' things?  The short answer is that it depends on what kind of things, and where.  I doubt a government based on our vision of Bill of Rights socialism will be handing out fines to people who use the term 'snowflake', but I also don't think it will issue permits for Nazi rallies, use publicly owned media to promote racist conspiracy theories, or let trolls make rape threats over social media.

There's a lot of gray area there, so it might be useful to think more broadly about socialism, individual liberties, and the fight for equality, beginning with the idea of 'political correctness'.

I think the term 'politically incorrect' is a trap.  It gets used to cover up what we're really talking about, which are patterns of speech that promote white supremacy, male supremacy, and other forms of inequality.  An awful lot of awful conversations wouldn't happen if people had to say "I heard a great joke about how Black people are inferior!" rather than "I heard this hilarious joke, but it's super politically incorrect."

The idea of political correctness also implies a certain kind of censorship and constraint, as if not saying the n-word means I've given up some part of my freedom in response to social pressure.

That Ayn Rand, individual-vs-society line is how the right wing has trained people to think about freedom.  For them, it's not freedom unless it comes at the expense of someone else, the First Amendment was written to protect bigots and trolls, and the whole foundation of liberty is under attack when a university suggests that its students avoid racist stereotypes in their Halloween costumes.  (Seriously, the ultra-conservative Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called that email "an intrusion into the expressive rights of college students that compromised their autonomy.")

Unfortunately, some liberals buy into that idea as well.  They think that shutting down a Nazi rally, or preventing religious fundamentalists from verbally abusing patients outside abortion clinics, would compromise free speech rights for everyone.  It's the 'I don't agree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it' thing.

It's also nonsense.

If our freedom really depended on keeping America safe for racism and misogyny, the Trump presidency would be a golden age of liberty, marked by respect for alternate viewpoints and a commitment to informed political debate. Instead, as hate speech goes mainstream, we see crackdowns on protest, attacks on dissenting voices in the media, and calls to violence against progressive activists.

Watching our country lurch toward fascism under Trump's clique of bigots and billionaires provides a striking confirmation of CPUSA's long-held position: racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are tools of the capitalist class, used to keep profits up and workers down and divided.  They have nothing to do with freedom, and trying to guarantee them a place in our political life endangers liberty rather than protecting it--including for white, working-class men, who are harmed by everything that keeps the capitalist class in a position to exploit them.

So the real question isn't whether rape jokes and 'I'm not racist, but...' will be allowed under socialism.  It's whether we can even get to socialism without winning people away from the influence of white male supremacy and toward a vision of equality for all.

And the answer to that question is no.

Image: Protestors voice their opposition to Milo Yiannapoulos and his right-wing 'Free Speech Week' at Berkeley University  (Wikimedia Commons).
    Scott Hiley has taught French, literature, history, and philosophy at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels.  A member of CPUSA since 2010, he is active in struggles against austerity and for education justice and labor rights. His articles have appeared in the People's World (US), the Morning Star (UK), and l'Humanité (France). He lives in a rural town in upstate NY.

Comments (12)

Elijah Westphal | September 17, 2018 at 7:34 PM

Who decides what is and isn’t politically correct? the media? the government? leftist college professors?

Ben Tucker | May 29, 2018 at 9:21 PM

Of the 6 previous comments, 5 are countering the author and 1 is the author not even addressing the other comments or the subject of their comments.
the subject being “Will Politically Incorrect speech be allowed in a Socialist society”?

The answer is ….NO

    Scott HIley | May 31, 2018 at 2:14 AM

    Beyond our collective policy of Bill of Rights socialism and a broad consensus that free speech is good for democracy and hate speech is bad for it, our members have a lot of different approaches to the question of free speech under socialism. Here’s mine:

    Socialism just means putting the nation’s resources, including media, under public control via democratic institutions like elected boards or delegate assemblies. If I were elected to serve on the board of a local TV station (for example), I would advocate for the policy I used in my classrooms. The more voices the better. Dissent and debate make us stronger; hate speech makes us weaker. You want to advocate for tighter borders? Do it without referring to immigrants as animals and criminals. You oppose social welfare programs? Bring evidence, not degrading stereotypes. If you can’t defend your position without them, then it’s not compatible with democracy anyway.

gary Mueller | May 24, 2018 at 4:03 PM

I’m going to have to disagree, I would never aspire to a government that would forbid people from taking any position or espousing any ideal from the most benign to the quotations of Hitler. I would never support a government that would empower an agency to decide what is racist, homophobic, sexist etc. The Socialist society that I strive for is one where the education of all is equal, where students of all backgrounds, religions, wealth and political philosophy are integrated so that assumptions and myths of each other are squashed. Such an education will allow for the replacement of bigotry by putting a face to the faceless masses the capitalists, oppressors and supremacists try to rally hatred against. The same process of education that will replace the greed and class society perpetrated by capitalism, I hope will replace outmoded ideas of racial superiority, religious intolerance, sexual exploitation and nationalistic bravado.
In short, yes you will be able to express any opinion you have in the world I envision but as time goes on ideas of exploitation and oppression will be viewed with such disdain and irrelevance as to be nothing but the rantings of street corner preachers predicting the worlds end on Tuesday.

    Scott Hiley | May 31, 2018 at 6:29 PM

    Thanks for writing in–and for saying something of substance. You’re right, I think, that over time oppressive mindsets and behaviors will disappear, but I have a couple of reservations about a strategy based on waiting for socialism to establish equal opportunity in education, then letting things sort themselves out. I don’t think we’ll get to socialism if we don’t make progress against this stuff here and now. As far as having an agency to make rules about speech, I don’t think that’s how socialism works. Socialism works by turning resources over to the people. That includes things like television channels, public parks, newspapers, and other forums for political speech. Those different forums will probably be governed by elected boards, who will set policies for what can and cannot be said and done there–just as corporate boards and editorial boards do today. The struggle for these types of institutions is already beginning. People are organizing and mobilizing to make it known that certain ideas and certain ways of expressing ideas will be met with counter-protest and resistance. How many neo-Nazi rallies have already been called off because of counter-protests that massively outnumbered them? That’s my vision of how socialism will work–except instead of marching in the street, people will be running for positions on the board of the local television station or parks and rec department.

Carl Marks | May 22, 2018 at 2:11 PM

Another white male telling us how the world has to be. Socialist thought is freedom. Socialist speech are the words of freedom. Any other speech expresses oppression, bigotry, racism and poor manners.

RM Salsman | May 21, 2018 at 2:18 PM

Hiley seems to believe people have free will under communism and none under capitalism. There is no evidence for the assertion. In fact, humans have free will under all types of systems, but under communism, unlike capitalism, they’re compelled to think and act as Leninist-Marxist thugs wish.

dmac | May 19, 2018 at 4:05 PM

the First Amendment was written to protect bigots and trolls
its written to protect everyone, even you.

John Galt | May 18, 2018 at 7:20 PM

“There is no such thing as “a right to a job”—there is only the right of free trade, that is: a man’s right to take a job if another man chooses to hire him. There is no “right to a home,” only the right of free trade: the right to build a home or to buy it. There are no “rights to a ‘fair’ wage or a ‘fair’ price” if no one chooses to pay it, to hire a man or to buy his product. There are no “rights of consumers” to milk, shoes, movies or champagne if no producers choose to manufacture such items (there is only the right to manufacture them oneself). There are no “rights” of special groups, there are no “rights of farmers, of workers, of businessmen, of employees, of employers, of the old, of the young, of the unborn.” There are only the Rights of Man—rights possessed by every individual man and by all men as individuals”–Ayn Rand

“The highest tribute to Ayn Rand, is that her critics must distort
everything she stood for in order to attack her. She advocated reason,
not force; the individual’s rights to freedom of action, speech, and
association; self-responsibility, NOT self-indulgence; and a
live-and-let-live society in which each individual is treated as an
END, not the MEANS of others’ ends. How many critics would dare
honestly state these ideas and say, ” . . .and that’s what I reject”?—Barbara Branden

    Scott Hiley | May 19, 2018 at 2:37 AM

    I’m going to say something that many of my comrades will find heretical. I actually kind of enjoyed Atlas Shrugged when I read it in high school (The Fountainhead was more of a slog.) I still remember the scene in Atlas Shrugged where Hank Rearden stands up and tells the court that he doesn’t recognize their right to try him. That said, I also enjoyed Game of Thrones, but I’m not going to grab a sword and try to unite the seven kingdoms. John Galt, Hank Rearden, Howard Roark et al. are pretend. They function well enough in a fictional universe to dramatize a philosophical point, but you run into big problems when you try to match that fiction up to the real world.

    Most people who experience capitalism as workers (rather than owners of capital) know that free choice isn’t a big part of it. In real life, the vast majority of people do not make free choices. They don’t choose student debt or poverty wages; they don’t choose to get evicted because their landlord fell behind on the mortgage; they don’t choose to get their hours cut because they stayed home with a sick kid when there was no coverage at work. Those things happen to them as a result of choices made by others, on behalf of the owners of capital. The owners of capital treat workers EXACTLY as a means to an end. Freedom for the capitalist means restriction and coercion for the worker.

      Melanie Bender | May 30, 2018 at 8:29 AM

      Wow! Nailed it Scott!!

      Ronnie | January 08, 2019 at 6:31 PM

      You are correct; the vast majority of people do no make free choices. They have the right and ability to do so, but instead of making those free choices they do nothing. They don’t choose student debt or poverty wages…they just don’t study to earn scholarships or learn new higher-paying skills; they don’t choose to get evicted because their landlord fell behind on the mortgage…they just don’t put money into savings as an emergency fund or a downpayment on their own home; they don’t choose to get their hours cut because they stayed home with a sick kid when there was no coverage at work…they just don’t realize kids get sick sometimes and have a back-up plan to deal with it when the employer is depending on the employee to keep the doors open so there is income from which the employee can be paid.

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