Image: The cover of the book is a white background with the title in large black bold letters taking up two lines. Across the word "speak" is a stretch of red tape. Across the top in red smaller letters is the author's name and "ceo of pen america" and across the bottom is, "Defending Free Speech for All."
Whoooh, boy, is this one going to be a doozey- and not in a good way. I virtually picked up "Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All," from the library because it was available and I needed something to pass the time until my intended books became free. Before this, I had never heard of Suzanne Nossel, nor her organization PEN America of which she is the CEO. I knew going in that I might not like it as much of the free speech discourse these days comes from white supremacists or white neo-liberals who want to protect white supremacists. (For those who do not know, I use the term liberal here to refer to liberals in the USA who see themselves as one of only two political options and sometimes think they are leftists when they actually occupy the center-right wing these days while most conservatives in the USA occupy the far right wing.) I did not realize just how much I would detest this book. I tried to keep an open mind and I finished it for one reason: no one can claim I took away her "free speech" before reviewing it.
The first thing you need to know is that Nossel is a liberal white cis Jewish woman who is also a Zionist. The oppression you will see given the most attention and direct reference in this book is anti-semitism. Anti-semitism should absolutely be included in a big way within these discussions. However, as time passed, it became clear that either consciously or unconsciously, Nossel can only really see oppression that would affect her personally. Furthermore, despite having multiple sections calling out the problems with exaggerated responses to overstated harm (something I agree with,) she also calls any critique of Israel and any Palestinian liberation activism anti-Semitic. She does this multiple times, so I am sure that I am not just misunderstanding a one off comment. I was able to tell the exact demographics that Nossel came from before I looked her up based on her writing. She also uses multiple examples of her complete cluelessness and inability to see oppression that does not affect her- even if people are telling her directly and explaining it.
The most glaring examples of this are, once again, multiple anecdotes about Black women coming forward to talk about quite obvious racism either overtly or in the form of microaggressions. Every time, Nossel openly admits to not believing what happened was racist and needing these Black women to walk her through it and explain to her even further why something is racist. This is not the only instance of this kind of thing. So, Nossel not only calls liberation movements antisemitic by default, she also defaults to NOT believing victims of racism and misogynoir until they make a massive case about what should be blatantly obvious to someone who is the CEO of a freeze peach organization. She does mention how she eventually is convinced, but it exemplifies a long pattern of her contradicting herself in almost every argument she makes, most of the time defaulting more to protecting the oppressor and calling for limitation of the speech of the oppressed ironically enough.
Another glaring issue that shows the privileged viewpoint that strengthens Nossel's unawareness of reality is how she will make a statement, then claim she "sees no evidence" to the contrary. One such argument is that racist or other oppressive speech does not have any lasting impact on the targeted population. Are you serious? The only reason she "sees no evidence" of the harms of oppressive vitriol is because she didn't look for it. There are extensive social psych and sociology studies on this. How anyone could think that protected white supremacist speech has no lasting impact is beyond me. Once again, a very troublesome (but unsurprising) stance from a white liberal free-speech-at-all-costs type.
Where else does she contradict herself or misinform you may ask? Well, to detail every instance would require this review to be close to the length of her book. Instead, I will focus on the remaining ones that made my brain explode in irritation and wtf-ery. One of my favorites is how she basically insists that the best way to fight white supremacist fascists is to give them a platform and it will either resolve itself or a "debate" will resolve things. Basically, let the white supremacists gather unfettered and they will go away- there is no evidence that this is the case. She invokes anecdotes where antifa, campus activists, and others had a huge hand in resolving, and boils the success down to "just let the nazis talk and, see, they will just go away!" Once again, she insists that having Nazis speeches and rallies on campus does not have lasting impacts in the negative for the targeted populations. She claims that the best solution to hate speech is giving them a platform and then using "counterspeech" to combat them. She argues that absolutely any belief or point can be successfully argued with the right words (yes, including white supremacy- I guess just use the right dog whistles and it will all be ok.) So, I disagree with this, but I thought, hey, I understand the argument and will continue to hear her out.
The problem is that she follows this with a section on all of the kinds of "counterspeech" that you should not use. No distruptions, no blockades, no protest that isn't 100% legal and state sanctioned, no interruptions, nothing that would in any way disrupt the platform of the Nazis or other harmful speakers. So, what counterspeech is the best antidote for hate speech? Very little apparently. As a result, Nossel does what many liberal freeze peach proponents do- they actually fight for the most deplorable people to have the right to speak while simultaneously taking away the speech of those most affected and kettling them into a little metaphorical free speech zone. She has a clear disdain for antifa actions, disruptive protest, and pretty much anything effective. If you aren't willing to sit a nazi down to tea and have a logical discussion about why genocide is bad, you're an enemy of free speech and freedom.
There's more. In her discussion on hate speech she talks about hate crimes. Who better to be the arbiters of justice and stopping hate than... the police? There is not a single mention of how often cops are the ones who commit the hate crimes. There is no mention of the problems with racism and other oppression at the hands of police. She discusses them as tools and heroes in the fight against hate. Ok, when is this happening? I will not hold my breath (unless a cop forces me to, I guess.) Her romanticism of the police is matched by her fawning over the founding fathers, not realizing the irony that the laws she invokes where not written with her included and definitely were not written with Black women included. When a Black woman says to her at an event, "the first amendment was not written for me," Nossel once again doesn't get it and needs to be dragged along wherein she still doesn't really get it. In true white liberal fashion though, she does manage to repeatedly quote Martin Luther King Jr out of context, sticking to the quotes white people like, and ignoring the ones that would have called out this book for the mockery that it is. If you want to talk about the importance of free speech, maybe don't glorify slave owning white fathers of genocide.
The sad thing is, there are some good ideas here. Criticism of callout culture, especially when misdirected due to false information, the problems with overstating harm and calling any disagreement "violence," how any restriction of free speech can possibly be used against marginalized people, and so on. This book could have been a decent exercise of, "I disagree, but I hear you." Instead, it just left me feeling happy that it is not a popular book and hoping that the contradictions and misinformation do not spread outside its pages.
This was also posted to my goodreads.