I’m kind of apprehensive about writing this, and posting it anywhere public, but here I go anyway: “Freedom of speech” is kind of overrated.
I hope that declaration was both reductionist and sensationalist enough that at least three of you will stick around long enough to hate-read this and hear me out.
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill argues for freedom of speech as one of the primary rights of man that social arrangements should provide, defining it as the liberty to express your thoughts without unjust persecution from governments. However, the idea of freedom of speech predates even classical liberalism – it is thought to have originated in Athens, as part of the origin of classical Athenian democracy. Much like other aspects of Athenian democracy, freedom of speech resonated strongly with the thinkers of the Enlightenment and beyond, and inspired countless revolutionary developments. Notably, freedom of speech was included the 1789 Declaration on the Rights of the Citizen in France, and is also part of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
This well-known bit of context, straight out of my own ninth grade Social Studies class, is here as a reference for why everyone disagrees with my opinion immediately. When I suggest that “freedom of speech” is overrated, it is perceived as a direct attack on the successes of freedom of speech, and all the positive social change that was ushered through enabling individuals to express their ideas without persecution. I am told that I am “no better than a fascist,” by the types of people who are less targeted by fascism (and other extremely authoritarian right-wing supremacist ideologies) than myself, no less. Someone inevitably quotes Evelyn Beatrice Hall – misattributed to Voltaire or someone else of similar character/reputation – with the whole “I disapprove of what you’re saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Occasionally, if the debacle goes on for long enough, there’s a pretty ironic suggestion of banning “the infringement on others’ free speech.” As in, we should ban what I just said, along with, like, banning the demands for trigger warnings on works with sensitive content or any other element of so called “repressive PC culture”.
And then, to piss me off for the remainder of my week, an entirely different “free speech warrior” arrives on his high horse to save me from my opponents-in-debate, smugly suggesting that “you are allowed to say you hate freedom of speech, and I respect your opinions, because I respect your right to your opinions,” with a tone that I have only been able to describe as “the vocal expression of 🙃 .”
I decided to write this article during a week filled with free speech-related events in the first term, ages ago. Namely, there were the American elections that also took over Canadian life, the “genocide awareness project” headed by UBC Lifeline, and a debate over Bill C-16 resulting from the Jordan Peterson fiasco. I had, and still have, my strong opinions about all of these issues themselves (who doesn’t) but I also have strong opinions about how “freedom of speech” ended up playing a role in them. I’m increasingly disillusioned with “freedom of speech” and whether this idea will ever be used to defend what I stand for, namely the safety and wellbeing of those who are already marginalized by our society. This is worded very personally and I would have preferred to be more academic, but I cannot help having personal reasons when the issues that lead to free speech discussions usually affect me in a very personal manner. The stuff that prompted me writing this was personal, including low-key attacks targeting my identities. Also, like, take this informality as my use of pathos or whatever.
I find myself naturally wondering why I should be satisfied with “freedom of speech,” especially in light of recent events – like the election where a candidate used explicit hate-speech like none in his position have in the last few decades, was defended constantly in his right to express these views, won the election, and appointed a severely anti-Semitic conspiracist from Breitbart as a senior advisor. On a less grave scale, people are regularly harassed by the alt-right on all sorts of media, rarely facing legal consequences. There’s, of course, the entire “PC culture” discourse where referring to someone by their chosen pronouns means your freedom of expression was stifled and that you got “cucked by the trans agenda” (and not that you were being a polite person). The “freedom speech warriors” insist that not expressing an opinion in public to not hurt or offend someone means that you’re a victim of the SJW brigade – though I’m not sure how they would react to me feeling genuinely afraid of generalizing a privileged group (or expressing even the vaguest of my leftist tendencies in public where that opinion can be traced back to me) for fear of the hostile reaction that I will face. For fuck’s sake, many of us today understand “freedom of speech” as “your constitutional right to be an asshole,” and presumably we’re mostly not fans of jerks, yet try to defend the ability to be cruel for the sake of it!
I would like to mention that the wonderful editors at Talon thought the “yet” in my sentence was “unnecessary” as there is no apparent contradiction here, which made me think about us as people. Maybe we’re not as opposed to the whole concept of meanness as much as I’d like to think we are.
And here’s the thing: I probably would not mind the unstifled cruelty this much. I’ve lived with cruelty, I can deal with facing more of it. I can, if necessary, dish it right back out. Just as they have a constitutional right to be an asshole, in theory I have the constitutional right to bite back with my own argument (though this is more complex in reality – at the very least in my personal experience certain “extremes” of the political spectrum are better received than others, by which I mean the admittedly right-wing views that I held in the past were responded to in a much more positive manner than any opinion I’ve had in the last six months). Normally I wouldn’t say shit against the right to express your views even if I thought your views were “bad,” but problem is that words aren’t just words. To bring back that esoteric as hell Judith Butler reference: words are always already actions.
Like when Trump decided that calling Mexicans rapists or proposing a “Muslim registry” (among other “deplorable” things) was how he was gonna roll and then when a good number of “definitely not racists” decided that he could say whatever he wanted to as part of his inalienable constitutional right to be an asshole, that was undeniably related to (may I even suggest led to) the rise in hate crimes against racial minorities. I’m not stupid enough to believe that without the guy all the perpetrators out there would be non-racist folk and we would sing Kum Ba Yah holding hands around a campfire, but the fact that Trump could say these things in the first place energized his supporters into taking more action. This is not even counting all the unreported hate-crimes, nor instances that will not count as such but were likely driven by bigotry, nor the types of things that the administration will do against said minorities. Actions with material consequences on human lives, in short. Or, perhaps on a more micro-level, take the pronoun and trigger warning discussions that have swept up academic spaces especially. This may better illustrate the words are always already actions thing, because in this situation the action of misgendering someone, or of recalling someone else’s trauma, literally is as simple as words. In the case of misgendering, it’s words that are correlated with increase in suicide rates among a vulnerable group of people;
even if they’re words in passing, the experience of it all is analogous to the Chinese/Spanish water torture for quite a few individuals. For refusing to add trigger warnings, it’s words that could have protected someone from being forced to recall and react to trauma. Yet, academics and students alike insist that they have the right to what they express (or don’t express) when it comes to such sensitive and impactful words. The moment we ask them to moderate their expression, they instinctively defend their words from the big bad coddled millennials.
As a society we seem to be very dualist in our collective approach to politics and human rights, acting as though our ideas are definitely distinct from our material/physical reality. We pretend as though people won’t ultimately act on their views, if given the power to do so. Freedom of speech, or rather “your constitutional right to be an asshole,” relates to our conception of this false binary because views catch on when they’re expressed, and they lead to actions, like the rise in hate crimes against visible minorities post-Brexit. I’m not sure why it is seen as a sign of maturity and enlightenment to say something like “you are entitled to your opinion and you should get to express it,” as if one’s “opinion” that being LGBT+ is unnatural and should be eradicated (for instance) is just that: an opinion that stays as such, without affecting the way people interact with others at either a macro- or micro-level. That opinion, when expressed, will have dire consequences. Why is it a sign of maturity and not of ignorance and unwillingness to defend marginalized people, if I am endorsing someone’s right to express that without any checks on what they can or cannot say? If I disagree with that opinion, and would like to avoid the material consequences of it being expressed, it shouldn’t be regarded as the absolute worst thing to do if I suggest that there be some checks on how much of that opinion should get expressed (if any of it should see the light of day at all).
I had a lot of thoughts in my brain when I decided to write this. I didn’t really touch on many of them. I didn’t touch on the number of times freedom of speech is used to defend the right to not only be an asshole but to also be straight-up factually incorrect and purposefully misleading. I didn’t really touch on the sometimes-insufficiency of “freedom of speech” in how there is an implicit promise that it will not be equally ensured for all viewpoints, and definitely not for all citizens of the state – the state only ensures freedom of speech for the views that it can tolerate, and finds ways of crushing all other dissent. I didn’t touch on the loopholes that are used to violate freedom of speech when it is used to fight against, not with, power and institutions – an example that pops into my head right now is the Nixon administration’s reported use of the War on Drugs as a tool to suppress Black and Leftist voices that they could not openly silence. I also didn’t touch on what a legal suppression of free speech looks like. That’s pretty topical in my home country, where our government has been regularly violating this through the crimes against its journalists, opposition politicians, and any other form of insurgence against the state. I could have made this entire article about that, just to remind some of you this: asking for trigger warnings, or for bans against hate-speech, is not even an infringement on your freedom of speech; stop getting off on the idea of causing pain to people.
Freedom of speech has become everything and nothing. We took the idea of legal freedom, freedom from persecution by the state, and hardcore bastardized that whole notion to somehow also include “freedom from the social consequences of our opinions,” essentially creating the perfect breeding ground for the phenomenon of “I can say whatever I want so I will, because who gives a shit?” Somewhere along the way we forgot why so many thinkers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, and revolutionaries really wanted freedom of speech to be ensured, when they were planning and working for the type of society they wanted to live in; freedom of speech was meant to be a means rather than an ends. The whole point of defending one’s right to express their political thoughts without persecution is so that they can petition for the improvement of people’s lives, and not to be “an asshole” for the sake of it, you know? These thinkers did not so casually dismiss the material consequences of opinions, their intention being people could use their words to promote positive social change. Instead we have, as a society, bastardized this intention by suggesting that any sort of limitation on what one can or cannot say—including something as simple as “warn us beforehand about the content of your expression” or “don’t say shit that is blatantly false just to make life harder for me and my loved ones”—is an infringement upon the basic right to say whatever the fuck you want for the sake of it. We seem incapable of the nuance necessary to consider whose opinions were expressed, and whose existence suppressed.
I’m not making a legal argument here; even if I were, with my “unpopular opinion” I don’t really have the power to call for any tangible change. Besides, “freedom of speech” has not been a strictly legal concept for a long time now, and when I call it “overrated” this largely applies to the idea of minimal social ramifications for saying anything we want, regardless of the very material consequences that words have. So I want to reconsider how we define freedom, where we situate the impacts of our speech, whose livelihoods we consider valuable enough to protect from harm. I want us to consider the truth of the statements whose expression we’re defending. I want us to question our values, think about why we want to enable people’s unregulated cruelty – whether we consider a regulation as part of some social contract, built on mutual respect and values of equality, to be at the same level as regulation through the involvement of a coercive state apparatus. My argument isn’t about freedom of speech as a whole, and I recognize the potential for good that this notion has, but I would like to witness that positive potential in action one of these days. Till then, as far as I’m concerned our societal understanding of “freedom of speech” is still overrated.
Freedom of speech may not have begun this way, but how we engage with it and how we staunchly defend it has enabled it to become the “constitutional right to be an asshole” – at the expense of truth, consideration for consequences, and respect for others’ lives. I’m afraid that the more we encourage this the more we are allowing opinions to bleed into reality. I’m done with my silence implicitly defending a vague as shit concept if all it’s used for is to spread pain and cement hierarchies.
Special thanks: Every philosophy major dude I’ve ever spoken to, G*d bless