Free speech is widely acknowledged by leftists, not only as part and parcel of the tolerance that we must display towards each other and their opponents, but as a vital freedom on which the well-being of a society depends. Anarchists are well aware that free speech, if it is to mean anything, must protect minority, unpopular opinions.
However, that’s not where the problem is. I agree that individuals speaking for themselves in the company of equals (and the individual is, after all, the smallest minority) does not present any issue, and there should be absolutely no restrictions to what an individual, speaking for himself or herself, can say, type or transmit. All restrictions in the name of “intellectual property” (no such thing as property), “hate speech” (defined scrupulously as to exclude anything the power elite says or does, like all other laws), or any other such considerations need to be debunked and abolished. This, we can all agree on. Without such a freedom, freedom of thought is sterile, useless, and ideas cannot change. No one has ever changed any ideas by staying within the envelope.
Our main goal is to maintain a free, egalitarian society. Personal expression goes in that direction. While it is true that some people will inevitably have better reputations and will be heard more carefully, while others will tend to be excluded, the multiplicity of public spaces and ideological sub-groups, as well as the natural Anarchist organizational principle to include everyone and give everyone a voice, will also tend to alleviate those disadvantages.
But there is a different level of power entirely in the hands of the mass media. Think about the enormity of this fact: there is a small group of people in this society which basically controls the evolution of popular culture, the formation of archetypes in the individual, even some of people’s most basic beliefs about themselves. I am talking, of course, about script writers and directors; the people who create the contents of the television, newspapers and movie media.
Apart from the imbecilic and juvenile rating system, this power is essentially an unchecked power, a blank check, exerted on societal narratives and beliefs. This is extremely powerful stuff, a power on par with that of the recognized major hierarchies in our society.
Certainly I am not saying that the power of the script writers towards the average person is hierarchical in nature. However, they tell us the lies and delusions that make those hierarchies palatable. And if we are serious about eradicating hierarchies, not just suppressing them for a time, we need to understand how they arise and what sustains them. Just as it would do no good to eliminate government just to have another one emerge from the muck, it would do no good to eliminate hierarchies as a whole without also nullifying or counter-balancing those tendencies in people and groups which create and sustain them.
If you look at television shows, for instance, the lies and delusions are hard to miss. The most popular shows on television right now are those which present narratives which glorify policemen and their work, as well as the “justice system” as a whole. Even though our “justice system” as a whole is a corrupt, authoritarian, unjust system, and policemen are basically nothing more than a legitimized mafia which routinely attacks innocent people, the picture that we are presented, and which penetrates the realm of our imaginary on a daily basis, is that policemen are stalwart agents of justice, and that the “justice system” is a fair and impartial system. How can this not fail to affect popular culture, and support for the law in general?
Consider the “reality shows,” which are half-fabricated, half-edited monstrosities; their basic goal is to portray man’s interests as being constantly in conflict, as a constant competition, that’s the reason why they’re interesting. Even those that have some sort of “redeeming” ending make a point of showing as much struggle as possible.
Even the so-called “news” are more entertainment than facts: the very structure of the news, much like the newspapers, dictates what sort of events are shown and not shown. There is a strong emphasis on crime, political bickering and rhetoric, unproven or even fake emergencies, and rarely do we see anything about what makes life worth living. More importantly, never are these news put in any kind of context or perspective, because they wish to appear “value-neutral.” This is a popular conceit amongst journalists, even though it is patent nonsense: the presentation of any event or phenomenon is necessarily and crucially value-dependent (this is perhaps the one good thing about politically partisan television, like FOX: at least you know what their values are, no matter how ridiculous those can be).
Most importantly, through their portrayals of modern archetypes, they create the ways in which we view others, which means in practice that they dictate the way people will act towards each other; through their portrayals of the past, they create most of our beliefs about history; they forge our present, but also our past and our future. Such a level of power, and especially power of this nature, should not be granted to any individual or group.
Some may argue that my position is inconsistent with a belief in total freedom, and that I am merely demonstrating that I’d rather “enforce” some artificial concept of equality rather than let people be free. But this is a misunderstanding. No one seriously argues that we should let people be free to defraud each other, and that trying to stop fraud is inconsistent with a belief in total freedom. Likewise, few Anarchists will disagree with me when I say that concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite is both inegalitarian and necessarily entails attacks on the freedoms of those who are not part of the elite.
Neither of these examples entail “enforcing” equality above freedom: in fact, this is impossible, since freedom and equality are merely two sides of the same coin. So it is with the power to mold people’s imaginary. The extreme concentration of this power, which we observe through the increasing concentration of mass media, necessarily will, and does, support attacks against our freedom, and therefore inequality as well.
In response to any such ruinous institutions or principles, the goal of the Anarchist, if he is an Anarchist at all, is not to “enforce” any final solution on unwilling participants. The goal of the Anarchist is to set up social institutions in such a way that concentrations of deleterious power can be prevented. If this is found impossible to set up, then this power must be counter-balanced by some other form of power. The best solution to the concentration of narrative power, therefore, is not to censor people, but rather to set up a society where there is no incentive or possibility of concentrating narrative power.
One may also argue that this “narrative elite” is not consciously trying to deceive. In fact, this same criticism was given against Chomsky’s work regarding newspapers and their dependence on keeping within the margins of acceptable discourse and political taboos. Newspaper decision-makers argued that Chomsky was engaging in a conspiracy theory (as if that proves anything), and that no one consciously does newspaper work with the intent of serving the power elite’s interests.
But this is a misunderstanding of the Anarchist line of reasoning. Our reasoning does not rely on the premise that everyone who is part of the system is corrupt and consciously does evil in the name of the system. While I don’t deny that hierarchies do corrupt individuals in the long term, and that there are also sociopaths in the system who are corrupt and consciously do evil, my main argument (and Chomsky’s main argument) is that the evil is an emergent result of the way the system itself is structured, and does not depend at all on the intents of the individuals involved. A government, corporation or media populated with angels will do no better than a government, corporation or media populated with demons; the output will always remain the same, oppression.
One may also argue that I am not against free speech, but rather against capitalism and its effects on the mass media. To be clear, if we define free speech as “the freedom to speak without censorship and/or limitation,” then I am definitely against free speech for the reasons already discussed, regardless of the economic causes of my opposition. If we define free speech as being free from government censorship, then all Anarchists are in favor of free speech by definition; if that is your definition, then I will concede that in that respect I do support free speech. although it seems unnecessarily narrow.
If there is a term which I find superior in that regard, it is “personal expression.” We can clearly make the difference between personal expression on the one hand, and capitalist products (such as those of the mass media) on the other. It is not difficult to differentiate between a person’s blog and a newspaper, between a personal web site and an organizational or corporate web site, between a magazine and an independent zine, and so on.
There is a strong need to promote responsible speech, in order to prevent widespread belief in lies and misrepresentations which are irresponsible and unethical. Fortunately for us, the Internet is becoming one powerful way for the individual to outperform the mass media, and to shut it up. Whether the Internet will provide enough leverage to shut them up permanently will depend on the future integrity of the Internet itself.