We can never speak freely

At most, and with some effort, we can learn to speak well.

We can never speak freely

At most, and with some effort, we can learn to speak well.

Ricky Gervais, famously, thinks that we should have the right to offend people. Indeed, so long and so frequently has Gervais been banging  this particular   drum, that it can feel as if he barely thinks anything else. But while Gervais's insistences have previously been confined, for the most part, to the political, his new show After Life — released on Netflix earlier this month — attempts to give the right to offend an existential and spiritual weight.

The hero, Tony — a local newspaper journalist who seems less author-substitute than a sort of parallel reality version of Gervais, a Gervais who was never famous — has just lost his wife. In his grief, Tony has had a realization: that nothing really matters. This Tony experiences as a liberation: he likens it to having acquired a new “superpower.” If it doesn't matter what he does, then he may as well do whatever the hell he likes. Which, because this character is based on an affluent man from the south of England, just means being an asshole to everyone he encounters.

And so Tony tells his colleague that she's boring; yells at a postman for trying to hand him his mail instead of putting it through his door; calls a kid in a playground a “fat little cunt.” No manager is left unasked-for, no slur is left un-dropped. If there is no God, then everything is permitted! Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? How were we able to drink up the sea? With what might did we call our elderly father the r-word? Ah, Gervais! Ah, humanity!

Incredibly rich men like Ricky Gervais are allowed to think they're being daring and controversial for doing pretty much whatever — just so long as they want to be told they're being daring and controversial, someone is sure to be on-hand to tell them that yes, this is exactly how their dull and boorish behavior is coming across. But in the case of his “does that offend you, yeah?” posturing, Gervais is helped still further by the more generally-held notion that there are things — too many things — that you're just not allowed to say any more.

Invariably, the supposed culprits in this are the so-called “woke” left, millennial activists determined to shut down any speech they deem sexist, racist, transphobic, or just too darn daring for their participation trophy-coddled little brains to handle. Left-wing students are widely vilified in newspapers; by the British universities minister for agitating to have great thinkers and canonical works of literature banned from the curriculum for being racist; tearing down statues and murals because they want to cover up their colonialist past; not even breaking for lunch without trying to have all the Asian food taken off the menu at the cafeteria on grounds of “cultural appropriation.” Online, a treacherous “call-out culture” is believed to hector and “cancel” everyone who fails to meet an arbitrary in-group's standards of moral and (in particular) linguistic purity.

This general perception feeds the weird victim mentality of magazines like Quillette, which they use to lend a bogus nobility to their various articles peddling right-wing pseudo-history and defending scientific racism. It is what has allowed the comedian Andrew Doyle to receive what must be, judging by the amount of coverage he has received recently in the British press, a pretty hefty advance for a book ostensibly authored by “Titania McGrath,” a sort of cack-handed parody of an online left-wing commentator — exactly the sort of person middle-aged men like to imagine is telling them they're not allowed to say whatever they want any more. And it is what led Angela Nagle, who used to be seen as being “of the left” before she started hanging out with alt-right YouTubers and voicing anti-immigration rhetoric in conservative magazines, to declare in Kill All Normies that “the politics of transgression” was no longer the purview of the left, but rather a resurgent and dynamic right.

According to Nagle, in the 1960s “transgression” was enshrined as a virtue by left liberals, who sought to profane and dismantle every stuffy hang-up and crusty preconception of a dully moralistic conservative establishment. Left-wing politics was thus lent a subversive thrill, joyfully energizing a vibrant counter-culture. But nowadays, what is stuffy and crusty is the PC left, who in Nagle's view are driving a young people to the right by moralizing about every little thing that, in the name of equality or compassion, we must or must not say.

Insofar as it is rooted in a particular community, subject to certain norms, speech will both work to set, and be subject to, certain limits.

By contrast, spaces like the /b/ board on 4chan, associated with the Pepe-posting culture of online Trump supporters, are the inheritors of a tradition which Nagle insists “can be traced” from the Marquis de Sade through Nietzsche and the surrealists to bell hooks: glorious niches of liberation, in which posters are free to shrug off the constraints of “imposed morality” and laugh at whatever the hell they want to, from suicide to disability. Thus /b/ ripples with what Nagle identifies as a “carnivalesque” laughter, “the laughter of all the people... universal in scope... directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants.”

But of course: the problem with this theory is that it is flatly and obviously false: a fantasy painted by a writer whose book is primarily interested in punching left, despite the MacGuffin of it purporting to be about understanding the right. Yes, some people identified with the “online left” can be heavy-handedly pious at times: but “the left” is also a spectrum that runs the gamut from the British Labour party to the IWW to crudely humorous podcasts like Chapo Trap House, which for better or worse can hardly be accused of sanctimonious moralizing.

And the right, of course, is far from free of moralizing itself. What else was the recent controversy that raged from Ilhan Omar, through Congress to Meghan McCain, and then to her caricature by Eli Valley, really about, than the right having decided that all criticism of Israel is off limits? (To the extent, of course, that any criticism of gentiles who appear to be weaponizing Jewish fears and suffering in order to silence concerns about the human rights of Palestinians, can be dismissed as anti-Semitic?). In the context of Omar-McCain-Valley, it would seem very strange indeed to say that it was the crusading left-wing congresswoman, or the wildly provocative Jewish cartoonist, who was invoking norms of political correctness in order to shut down debate. Nor are campus controversies solely the purview of the aggrieved left, as the examples of George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel and the recent (and curiously undercovered) controversy over “anti-police” comments at UC Davis make clear.

Moreover, I am far from convinced that any sort of straightforward distinction between “moralizing” and “transgression” can even be sustained. Is transgression, in truth, all that transgressive? As Michel Foucault points out in “A Preface to Transgression,” “transgression has its entire space in the line it crosses.” “Transgression is an action,” Foucault tells us, “which involves the limit” — “transgression incessantly crosses and recrosses a line which closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration, and thus it is made to return once more to the horizon of the uncrossable.” In short: by representing what it does as somehow proscribed or wrong, transgression helps us sketch the bounds of good conduct. Just as nonsense circumscribes the bounds of sense, transgression does not simply transcend or dissolve the limits of how we might possibly behave: it also sets them.

In the case of 4chan, this is particularly striking: the “transgressive” behavior and language which Nagle identifies with /b/ precisely serves to demarcate the limits of a particular community. “/b/ is the guy who tells the cripple ahead of him in line to hurry up,” runs an anonymous poster's manifesto, as quoted by Nagle. “/b/ is the first to get to the window to see the car accident... /b/ is the best friend that tags along to your first date and cock-blocks throughout the night. The decent girl you're trying to bag walks out on the date, /b/ laughs and takes you home when you're drunk, and you wake up to several hookers in your house who /b/ called for you.”

If someone went on /b/ and did not act like the other posters do, did not use language in the way that they do, did not call everyone and everything by homophobic slurs, refused to hound the grieving families of teenage suicide victims, then they would simply not fit in. Thus /b/'s laughter cannot be what Nagle claims it is: the carnivalesque “laughter of all the people.” /b/'s laughter is only — as should have been obvious to everyone to begin with — the laughter of /b/. And if you wanted to share in it, as a member of the /b/ community, then you'd have to be careful not to transgress /b/'s norms. (More recent news, which broke after I’d written the bulk of this article, suggests to us that what communities like /b/ ultimately induce in the world at large is not raucous laughter, but mute horror.)

In truth, no language is free from the police. Insofar as it is rooted in a particular community, subject to certain norms, speech will both work to set, and be subject to, certain limits: closing discourse down in some directions; opening it up in others. As far as I can tell, “freedom of speech” only really makes sense as a pretty minimal, legal right: the right not to be arrested by the state, for example, for speaking out against it. Beyond this, there is no perfectly free speech, of the sort that Ricky Gervais, Andrew Doyle, and others seem to dream of: speech anyone should be forced to listen to, that no-one should be allowed to disagree with, that you cannot be judged as a person for uttering.

For the most part, when it comes to speech, “how free is it?” is the wrong question to be asking. What we should really be interested in is who we speak with, who speaks alongside us; what exactly we are speaking for. Not “does this offend you?” — but who might our speech harm? Only by coming up with the right sort of answers, to these sort of questions, will we be able to figure out how to speak usefully, and well.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.