Features, Interview

Anshuman Mondal: ‘The politics of free speech is never settled’

Anshuman Mondal is a Professor of Modern Literature at UEA and an expert on free speech. We met in his room, which has an unfortunate location within the Arts building. 

Although full of academics with such creativity and brilliance, the building may give an outsider the impression of a prison from ‘1984’. I sat down with him to discuss the issues present within the realm of free speech. 

As we begin, I ask him about the idea that the alt-right have weaponised free speech and how, in fact, they have achieved this to some degree. Prof Mondal argues this has come about “through social media because the limits of acceptability and unacceptability on social media have not yet been settled.

“This is the politics of free speech at work in social media”. We discussed the anonymity of social media and how the lack of “closure” and “limits” have led to instances such as the German synagogue attack being streamed on Twitch. The responsibility for these events certainly lies somewhere, but where exactly is a huge debate. 

Prof Mondal describes the idea of responsibility solely lying at the feet of companies as a bit of a “cop out” answer and it is a wider issue that must be looked at by states also. This debate has raged on since the increase in the spread of fake news, hate speech and extremism on social media websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. 

With many comedians recently refusing to perform in certain locations due to backlash, I decide to ask about the problems surrounding comedy within an increasingly liberal society. I ask whether more care should be taken in regards to what jokes can and cannot be said. “Comedy, like every other form of speech acts has been, and always will be, subject to the politics of free speech,” he says. “For example, in the ‘70s, when I was growing up, it was completely taken for granted that racialised comedy, and sometimes outright racist comedy, was an acceptable form of comedic discourse. But then a generation of comedians pushed back against that because their comedy came from a different place: the resistance to right-wing conservatism, xenophobia and so on”. 

He argues these comedians “not just mocked that racism, but it kind of made racism in comedy so problematic that an entire generation accepted the idea that racism in comedy and racist jokes were not permissible.

“This is part of a wider society because that was a move towards a recognition of the limits of racist speech and necessary limits to pursue an agenda in which people were seen as equal. 

“That has been pushed back against now, part of this weaponisation of free speech.” 

“It’s not a coincidence free speech is the way by which the right has tried to reassert its powerbase”.

In developing this argument, I proceed to ask the professor about where racism lies within the realm of speech and discourse. Prof Mondal argues that he does not see the concept of ‘race’ as existent and “people are not naturally seen as unequal because of the colour of their skin or because of certain physical features. It is because of the narratives they are told or the ways in which people are spoken about which naturalises racism or the idea that people are better than others. So, it is speech that creates race; it is speech that creates racism,” he argues. 

“Speech is a form of social action. It’s not just a medium of communication. You do things with words, you enact things in the world and things happen because of speech. 

“There is a concept that you are simply letting ideas circulate in the world through speech, so therefore they should be completely unimpeded. However, such an idea is self-contradictory because what you’re saying is ‘speech is enormously important because it allows these ideas to circulate’ and so on. 

“But, on the other hand, what you’re saying is that speech has no effects on the world – ‘it is only words, both important and not important, it’s both full of substance and empty’… and those paradoxes within liberal free speech theory are really important to understand why it gets so tangled up with these things”. 

Interestingly, rather than use the term ‘censorship’, Prof Mondal prefers the label of ‘closure’. 

He believes the discourse against journalism, in particular, “poses a serious threat” as it is becoming increasingly obvious that some are becoming fearful in voicing their opinions. 

The killing of the Saudi Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is an example of how journalism is coming increasingly under threat. 

Khashoggi was sharply critical of the Saudi Crown Prince and the country’s king and it has been widely speculated that the Saudi government was, in fact, behind the murder. 

This is where some argue that the divide between the so-called East and West are blurry. 

The discourse in the politics of the West, particularly in the climate of Donald Trump and Brexit, has become increasingly hostile. Some argue the language used by the President towards the media imposes serious questions about an assault on the concept of free speech. For example, we see the manipulation of facts from the Trump administration and the development of the term ‘fake news’. The reporting of facts by media outlets and news corporation being labelled as ‘fake’ seriously calls into question the validity of how ‘free’ speech truly is. In addition, the increasingly pro-Trump news outlet, Fox News, blurs the line between state-owned media and the freedom of the press. However, the weaponisation of ‘free speech’ is, to a great extent, evident in the UK with the current climate of Brexit. The UEA professor highlights in particular the use of ‘traitors’ and ‘treachery’, “within the discourse of Brexiteers in describing those who wish to remain in the European Union” and argues that “the law of free speech can be a very blunt instrument. A lot of the politics of the concept is about the ethics of what you say and how you say it”. 

Essentially Mondal is saying the use of a discourse that suggests a betrayal amongst those with a differing opinion to the government begins to imply a calling to nationalists within the country, a targeting of those who see things differently to those in power. How truly free are you to voice your opinion? It is yet another example of the far-right’s use of free-speech as a weapon. Yet, at the same time, we see “China, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and, in particular, Bangladesh, also demonstrating the issues with free-speech regimes”. 

Though differences exist, perhaps there are more similarities in the discourse of leaders from east and west than initially thought. Bangladesh has been widely criticised for the standards of freedom of speech within the nation. In 2018, the Digital Security Act was published, stating that prison sentences of up to 14 years can be sentenced for those caught secretly recording government officials or gaining information from government agencies using a computer or other digital device. The sentence also stands for those who spread “negative propaganda” about Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 and the founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Prof Mondal’s conclusion certainly left me with a lot to think about as I left his room. He argues the concept of free speech is “not black and white” and the answers “are difficult to reach and far longer than some may argue”. Rules provide a problematic situation. He states, “The rule could be ‘you do not say anything racist’ but we’ve seen the difficulty of enforcing that because it’s not black and white. 

“The other rule could be ‘you can say anything you want’. But, the absence of a rule is itself a rule. Rather than look to the comfort of a once-and-for-all rule (which is what people are looking for when they simply assert their ‘right’ to free speech), we need to get accustomed to the discomforting thought that politics of free speech is never settled, it is always on the move”.

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William Warnes

Global Editor - 2019/20

Co-Deputy Editor - 2020/21

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May 2022
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