I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. -Evelyn Beatrice Hall
This will be my first and only disclaimer for this post: I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of behavior that goes against the ideals of free speech carried out on blogs, on twitter and in forums. This is a broad issue and none of the examples I will use in the course of writing this post are intended to target specific people.
Nothing new under the sun
Free speech is an issue that has been hashed over and refined for centuries. Governments and religions have made attempts to suppress speech that runs contrary to their agendas. There have been laws made guaranteeing a right to freedom of speech. It’s recognized as a global issue and one that has a real global impact thanks to the Internet bringing us all together.
I honestly don’t have anything new to add to the debate, but since this is an issue that is cropping up all the time, I figured some reminders couldn’t hurt.
Freedom of speech is not limited to YOUR freedom of speech
This is the thing that pisses me off the most. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that one can have freedom of speech, but everyone else can only have their freedom of speech if it doesn’t offend the person who has appointed themselves center of the universe.
I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen a conversation go something like this:
Person One: And then this [noun, perceived as offensive] face-pulled the entire room and we wiped again.
Person Two (usually someone not even part of the conversation): [Noun] is such an offensive word. How dare you even use it in this context? I feel physically ill now.
Person One: I’m sorry if it offended you. Didn’t mean to.
Person Two: So now you’re saying that I’m being overly-sensitive? Don’t give me that!
To which I always want to say, “Person Two, get off your goddamn high horse.”
Wherein personal differences ensure someone is always offended
Here’s a little secret about interacting with people who are not-you. Because they are not-you and have their own ideas about what they see as truths in their own lives, they’re probably going to offend you at some point or another. It doesn’t matter how close to a person you are.
I’m closer to At than I am to anyone and he offends me from time to time. It doesn’t matter about what, but we have gotten into some heated arguments over how he views a certain issue versus how I do. When we first got into the disagreement, I tried for a few hours to demonstrate to him that he was being offensive, that he was holding onto a clear double-standard and that he should change. To be more like me!
All of which was pretty stupid on my part. But I’m getting to that.
What you can do
I see a few options for how you can react when you see or hear something that offends you:
1. You can explain, calmly, that you find what was said to be offensive. You can go on to explain how or why you feel it is offensive, if you think it needs the explanation.
Stop there. Don’t demand apologies or get hysterical if you don’t like the apology that is offered, if one is. Don’t make it your life’s work to keep an eye on that person to make sure that they never use language that you find offensive ever again. Don’t make it worse by using offensive language with them. Not only will it not improve matters, it will also demonstrate that you’re a hypocritical asshole.
2. You can ask yourself if what you saw or heard was even worth talking about. I find myself getting mildly offended on a somewhat regular basis when my faith or my political viewpoints are broadly ridiculed by someone else (you know, all [whatever] are brainless idiots because xyz).
And then I recall that I also employ hyperbole when I am dissing on another group. And then I pat myself on the back because unlike all the other morons on the planet, I don’t discuss politics or religion online when not in a political or religious forum. (I hope you all see what I did just there.) And then I shrug it off, because I suspect the person who said the offensive thing doesn’t really believe that I -ME. ALAS- am a brainless idiot because I have a certain political leaning. They might think it for other, more concrete reasons like that I sometimes act like one, but I can’t control that until I learn to stop acting like one.
3. You can ignore them! This is the beauty of the Internet, people. If someone offends me on a routine basis on Twitter and it’s getting to the point where I want to smash their face in with a brick, I block their account. Or I stop reading their blog. Or I add their email address/userID to my spam filters and then I go on blissfully secure in the knowledge that although they might still be saying something I don’t like, no one is making me look at it.
Something to keep in mind: it’s your responsibility to walk away. It is not the other person’s responsibility to stop.
Political correctness is a stupid ultimate standard
Yeah, I said it. There’s a brilliant article about it from Violent Acres, she who is still my ultimate blogging hero. And you should go read the whole thing, but here’s the best quote from V that I could find to summarize the point:
Political correctness does not create a more tolerant society. It creates a society of people secretly consumed by resentment because one honest slip of the tongue can earn them a label as an intolerant boob. Political correctness limits speech and creates hatred where none existed in the first place.
We’ve all seen it happen. Some person says something that isn’t on the list of Approved Politically Correct Phrases and then that conversation between Persons One and Two happens and each side of that conversation goes away with resentment for the other person.
How is this helping anything?
Every time you tell someone what they can or cannot say, you’re attempting to kill free speech. I don’t care if you’re doing it overtly or trying to shame someone into falling in line with your personal belief system. It’s not okay.
What about hate speech? Can I police that?
First, what is hate speech? According to a definition at Wikipedia, it’s:
…outside the law, any communication that disparages a person or a group on the basis of some characteristic such as race, color, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other characteristic.
I went with the “outside the law” definition because we’re not talking about the law here, just interpersonal interactions.
If we want to talk about the law… In America, laws prohibiting hate speech are unconstitutional (again, from Wikipedia):
…outside of obscenity, defamation, incitement to riot, and fighting words. The United States federal government and state governments are broadly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution from restricting speech.
On the personal level, honestly, what makes anyone think that they even have the right to try to police what other people can or cannot say?
I’m not talking about policing chat in private areas, such as guilds, guild forums or your personal website. In those places, I believe the owner(s) absolutely have the right and the ability to lay down the law about which speech is or isn’t acceptable.
But when it comes down to someone else’s website where there is no policy against it? When it comes to jumping all over someone on Twitter because they used a word in a way you don’t like? You don’t have a leg to stand on. You have no right to tell other people how to speak.
And, as Lara pointed out to me, you also have no right to expect other people to listen to what you have to say. Just like they don’t have the right to demand that you listen to what they’re saying.
I admit it sucks, but it’s not free if it’s only free for some people
Lest people think that I’m advocating a world where it should be somehow considered morally and ethically okay to use language that is largely considered to be offensive, let me assure you that I don’t.
I will agree with you all day long that rape isn’t funny. That it shouldn’t be used in the context of a joke or to describe how much one is winning a contest.
But if you point at someone who does use that speech and you say “They should be silenced,” then we disagree. They should be educated, not have their voice taken away from them. They should be given a chance at real dialogue about how they are crossing a line, not angrily lectured by someone speaking from their emotions and feelings.
It’s true that they might not choose to change how they speak, but that’s all on them. You can only control you. So quit trying to impose that on everyone else around you.