Friends, free speech is a thorny issue, and it always has been.
Ok, maybe not always. I mean there was those few millennia where there was no free speech and the powerful just listened to what you said, and if they didn’t like it they stabbed you.
But these days we have free speech and that is a very good thing.
However, we’re still having trouble working out when someone’s free speech is being violated and when it isn’t. And this is an argument that the whole world seems to be having right now.
To me it sort of boils down to the difference between telling someone they’re wrong, and telling them to shut up.
There’s nothing wrong with the first, but there’s a lot wrong with the second.
The central tension of free speech is the line between enabling quacks and hate-mongers on the one hand and silencing people just because we disagree with them on the other.
There was a case a little while back in which a student organisation was going to have a discussion about women’s rights. Some of the students objected to the talk because it was basically going to be a bunch of guys talking about women’s rights, without inviting any women to join them, and that seems a little weird.
On reflection the student organisation agreed and cancelled the talk.
In response one of the aforementioned dudebros who had been initially invited to speak wrote a laughably hysterical article about the ordeal. I shall not link to the silly piece of fluff here, but shall instead summarise it in two points: “the only reason why anyone would disagree with me is because they’ve been brainwashed by feminists!!” and “this is a full-frontal attack on free speech!!”
Due to the absolute conviction of the writer the first point in the article actually appears convincing, until you do that thing they taught us in ‘critical thinking class’ where you divide the article into “facts” and “opinions” and see whether the one supports the other (and they don’t).
Wait, you didn’t have that class?
That’s a shame.
Anyway, the second point bears more serious attention. After all it is true that the dudebro was invited to a dudespeech, before being dudeblocked. Clearly, he did not receive the opportunity to express himself that he had been promised. Does this mean his right to free speech was curtailed?
Well, the head of the student organisation in question responded quite adroitly with his own article. In it he explained the reasons for cancelling the talk and further argued that free speech had not been curtailed at all. He pointed out that organisations that have access to venues and audiences have a responsibility to those venues, and those audiences to use them in a positive way. And furthermore that having access to a venue, and an audience, does not mean that one has to give someone else access to either of them.
In other words if the aforementioned dudebro was truly overcome with butthurt he could always make his own arrangements to have the discussion at a different venue, and if people were really interested in coming to listen to him then they would do so.
And the student guy was right. Guaranteeing free speech does not mean guaranteeing access to a venue or an audience.
Now compare that to what happened to Anita Sarkeesian. I’ve already spoken about this once. What happened was that she cancelled a talk because someone threatened to murder her, and anyone who dared to listen to her. Specifically this pitiful halfman threatened that she would “die screaming like the craven little whore that she is”, and that he would then massacre everyone else nearby.
Note the key difference here.
The whiny little worm who threatened Sarkessian didn’t ask for a venue change. He said that it wouldn’t matter where Sarkeesian spoke, that place would be his new target.
This is someone trying to restrict free speech.
This is a serious frikking problem.
But if, at least to me, these two cases seem clear cut then why does the title of this article claim that the issue of free speech is complicated? Well, to answer that let’s look at a case that is similar to the first one.
A student organisation was going to put on a showing of the popular feminist play ‘The Vagina Monologues‘. But they decided to call it off because a number of transgendered students objected because they felt that the version of femininity that the play represents is too narrow.
I think that the organisers were completely wrong to cancel the play on those grounds. This is firstly because they are essentially criticisng the play for not speaking to everyone, and no work of any kind will ever speak to all people, and secondly because the play forms part of a larger struggle for gender equality so by shutting it down the trans students are actually weakening their own cause.
But here is where it gets complicated because I also believe that they were completely within their rights to cancel the play anyway.
Deciding to put on a play is the organisation using their free speech. Trans students objecting to it is them using their free speech. The organisation changing their mind and cancelling is them using their free speech again. And me criticising them for doing so is me using mine.
There is nothing morally wrong in any of this. I think that the play should have gone ahead, which would have enhanced the free speech of the performers. But the organisation that decided to cancel on them is under no obligation to make it happen.
And the problem is that we don’t really have a language to accurately separate out these two things. I think that they were ‘wrong’ to cancel the play but also not ‘wrong’ to do so, because there are two different types of ‘wrongness’ at work here.
It was not morally wrong for them to cancel the play because they are under no obligation to put it on. But it was wrong of them to cancel it, in a completely different way, that I can’t really find the right word for.
But in any case the point is that we seem to have lost touch with these two separate issues:
1. Saying that someone is wrong, and
2. Respecting their right to be wrong if they want to.
I think that student organisation was wrong to cancel the play, but I respect their decision because they are within their rights to do so. They didn’t violate anyone’s right to free speech they simply chose not to enhance it.
That still won’t stop me from criticising them though.
I think that the impotent, anal fungus who threatened Anita Sarkeesian was wrong to do so, because his reasons were crappy, and was also wrong to do what he did, because he violated her right to free speech and the right to safety of all the people who wanted to be there.
And since his ‘speech’ involves silencing others I think it would be really nice if someone found a way to make the wretched, shit-stained leech shut the fuck up.
It’s a fine line to draw, and there is a lot of grey area in it. But for me this is the difference.
There is also another issue though.
Recently I’ve been encountering more and more people who argue that they have a right to offend people and, naturally, a lot of people who are being offended by them.
It should go without saying that everyone does have the right to be offensive. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before anyone who says that Buchey-Feld invaded Iraq just to get oil and riches will be saying something that is deeply offensive to millions of people.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have the right to say it.
Like I just did.
But the problem arises that sometimes the reason why people are being offensive is because they are clueless and bigoted.
There is a difference between people being offended because you are attacking closely-held (false) beliefs and people being offended because you’re just being an asshole.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen somebody post something openly racist, sexist, homophobic, or mindlessly bigoted in some other way, only to react with shock and rage when people criticise them for it.
They often say things like “these are just my opinions!” or “you’re only angry because everyone is too concerned with being PC these days!” or something equally vacuous.
And when they get criticised these bigots say that their right to free speech is being infringed upon.
The reason why they are wrong is that people aren’t getting angry with them because they are challenging the social norms around political correctness. They are getting angry because the people are engaging in hate speech, and they don’t like hate speech, because it’s a bad thing that should be hated.
A person’s free speech isn’t being violated if someone else tells them they’re a bigot, and then shoots down their argument.
(Of course it should be noted that bigots very rarely actually use rational arguments so it is often difficult to try and use rational arguments to counter them)
There are a number of comedians who make a living out of being offensive, but they generally do not get accused of hate speech because they really are challenging norms, which is the job of a social critic.
Too many people think that their right to free speech also shields them from having their ideas criticised, and it doesn’t.
But when people tell others they disagree with that they should ‘shut up’, or when they actively try to prevent them from speaking, that’s when the line gets crossed.
But like I said: it’s complicated.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]