Free Speech

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?

It isn’t.

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.


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17 Responses to Free Speech

  1. Zaralynda says:

    Personally, I will always try to say something when someone is being offensive. I start off polite but firm because I tend to believe that folks are speaking so out of ignorance and not malice. Generally “hey, please stop that!”. And when I get the non-apology, I’ll tell them that it’s a non-apology and ask if that’s really what they meant (because, again, sometimes it’s ignorance). I’m not demanding a real apology, but giving them a chance to try again, to give a real apology if they want.

    These are where I draw my personal lines. I’m polite not because I think it’s required, but because I want to believe that when folks learn why these things are wrong, they will stop doing them. I understand habits, and if someone says “it’s a habit and I’m trying to break it”, then I’ll just remind that person with each use “hey, language” but I’m not going to get upset about it.

    I understand why people are not polite about it, and I don’t think that it’s required. When you start from the belief that even when folks know why it’s offensive and they don’t care, then, yes, the use of those words is ANGRY MAKING. I’m at the point where if someone starts giving me typical derailing, I get angry about it. You’ve been told it’s offensive, and you still want to do it? You want to purposefully hurt people? No, I don’t understand THAT at all, and that makes me angry.

    Over time, as I meet more and more people who would rather hurt people with their careless language than take the time to change a habit, I’m starting to loose my faith that people are good. When that happens I guess I’ll be one of those people you don’t like, who goes straight to anger.

    Honestly, I don’t really care if you don’t like the anger. Politeness isn’t getting anywhere.

    • Alas says:

      Over time, as I meet more and more people who would rather hurt people with their careless language than take the time to change a habit, I’m starting to loose my faith that people are good. When that happens I guess I’ll be one of those people you don’t like, who goes straight to anger.

      I can’t tell you what you should feel or how you should act, but I do see cause for concern here. I think it’s good that so many people do try to take action and to try to explain how and what and why certain things are offensive. I can also understand why it often feels like a losing battle and how anger and discouragement can set in.

      But to default to an angry response will, I think, undermine those efforts. I’m not saying don’t be angry. I’m saying that no one responds well to anger and, when trying to educate, it’s vital to remain as calm as possible in that interaction.

      • Zaralynda says:

        I don’t think you see my point – it’s NOT vital to remain calm because it doesn’t make a difference. The reaction is the same whether I’m calm or angry, so why try to be “fake calm”?

      • Zaralynda says:

        Also, google “tone argument” because that’s what this is.

        • Alas says:

          First of all, I’m not trying to have any sort of argument with anyone here. I thought this was a polite discussion?

          Secondly, I may have misread your original comment, so let me recap how I took things. It seems to me as though you start out saying you try to educate (firmly, politely) because a person may be ignorant. It then seems you wrap up the comment by saying people fail you too often and you’re going to just default to the angry response.

          What I was trying to get at is that if you do indeed default to the immediate angry response, then you’re perhaps losing an opportunity to correct those making a mistake out of ignorance. And I just can’t see that doing any good.

          Hopefully that clarifies what I was trying to say.

  2. Serrath says:

    “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” — Pearl Strachen

    The first amendment rides a fine, fine line with me. I’ve always fancied myself a social liberal and I try to steadfastly adhere to the principle that everyone may make a personal choice as long as they’re not impeding on the freedoms of others.

    But what about people who abuse their rights? People who use their rights to inflict harm or impede another individual’s right to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness”? While yes, they have the *right* to do such, is it right? Is this what the Right is for? What about the rights of the affected? This extends well past the first amendment and is why we have courts, juries, and books upon books of laws to regulate nearly every facet of interaction. In social settings the “right” to say what you will often gets abused in the circumstances where it extends or encourages physical harm or defamation of certain parties/individuals.

    I’m going to take an extreme example here, so I apologize ahead of time, but it is one that has affected me personally. Let’s use the word “fag”. The word itself comes with such great meaning and disdain that it is often used to perpetrate hate and violence. While the word may be used in a derogatory context without meaning to inflict physical harm, “That fag yadda yadda,” it encourages acceptance of the defaming and derogatory usage. While you can claim this is not the intent of 95% of the people that use the word (“It’s just slang, bro, it means stupid”) the problem lies with that 5% that use it to inflict harm upon others. They see the generally “accepted” term being used by many without others intervening and take that as positive reinforcement for their actions. With the social acceptance lodged in their mind they use this to inflict harm, both physical and verbal – bred out of the inaction of others due to things like “the freedom of speech.”

    Since using quotes seems to be the fun thing… :D

    “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.” — John Stuart Mill

    It is our social responsibility to step in and say something in cases of hate speech or terminology misuse. While I do not expect you to listen to my viewpoint (and I certainly do not expect an apology) I would be amiss and equally guilty if I didn’t mention my negative feelings toward the inappropriate words or their use. This hits again on the psychology of social acceptance.

    I think I went a little overboard and I don’t think you condone hate speech, just wanted to toss in my two cents since this is a “big issue” topic.

    I think ultimately I’m reiterating your point #1 under “What you can do” and stressing the importance of action as opposed to inaction. As always, Alas, I love your blog and respect your voice. Keep on rocking. :)

    • Alas says:

      Of course, those who abuse their freedoms are the problem with having freedoms in the first place. Too many people don’t understand the responsibility that goes hand in hand with having that freedom. I try to explain it like this:

      I swear quite a bit. But not around children. I have the right to say whatever I want, but I also have the responsibility to be mindful of my audience.

      It’s sort of a no duh kind of thing, but there are an overwhelming number of people out there who don’t think things through. Sometimes I dislike the self-censorship I impose on myself, but I’d like it less to be known as someone who is completely insensitive to those around me. Some people simply don’t care. Some people really will try to use words as weapons. And that’s why this whole thing can be such a mess.

      I don’t think you were overboard at all and I really do appreciate the comment! I appreciate stressing action over inaction because the world will never change if everyone just sits around and waits for it to happen.

  3. Jen says:

    Thank you. I’m sure you’ll get some flaming for this, but I absolutely know what you mean and I agree. (I wasn’t more than mildly entertained by VA when she was still writing, but I have to say that she does have a very good point with that statement you quoted.)

    • Alas says:

      Thanks for the support!

      The thing I always loved the most about V was that she didn’t hold back or pull any punches. I admire her gusto so much, because I’m always too much of a coward to just come right out and say things. I certainly don’t agree with a lot of what V said, but I always felt I had to admire how she went about saying it.

  4. Grimmtooth says:

    One of my favorite ever speeches regarding this very subject was in a movie, “The American President”, written by Aaron Sorkin, who has a flair for this kind of rhetoric.

    “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.

    Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

    There is a distinction, of course. The US notion of “free speech” provides protection against the State imposing limits on speech, but does not impose limits on OTHER organizations. Thus if someone comes to my blog and I censor or forbid them for what they said, they can say a lot of things about it, but “free speech” isn’t one of them. Go start your own blog, call me out. It’s a free country. But I rule my blog with impunity.

    It’s interesting that “political correctness” is currently, apparently, perceived as a positive against which some people are bridling. When the term first started to ping on my Radar (queue Grampa Grimm) it was intended as a derogatory term used to describe those that would impose unwanted restrictions on speech to avoid offending anyone (in the anti-PC-er’s eyes). From the way you describe it, now to be “politically correct” is widely regarded as a good thing? Upside down, the world is. I should consult this computron device more often for timely updates!

    At any rate, the key thing that is missing in most cases where this sort of chafing happens is simple respect. I should respect you well enough not to use terms you find offensive, and be quick to correct when a new one is discovered. But also you should respect me well enough to explain clearly what the offense is without using … dare I say it … floral slurs along the way. Because that’s what usually makes these things into the mess they become … simple disrespect. Even the term “politically correct” is disrespectful in either context, so no wonder it’s become such a point of contention.

    • Alas says:

      That’s a great quote, Grimm! I’ll have to give that movie a watch. I think I have seen it, but it’s been too long for me to know for sure. :P

      I’m not sure that PC is actually widely viewed as being a positive thing, but I think the buy-in to be PC has tipped the scales slightly in that direction. A lot of people still use it in the usual pejorative sense, though.

      I really like the point you make about respect. It’s a great summary of everything I was trying to say about how interactions ought to go, and much better put than anything I wrote. (/shakes fist) However, even though I respect you a great deal, you’re still getting exposed to my floral slurs. You bashful begonia you.

  5. Joe Ego says:

    The answer to speech is more speech. Whether somebody chooses to question, debate, or otherwise confront speech they disagree with is entirely of their own choosing.

    You are entirely free to use abhorrent language just as I am entirely free to respond to you.

    At the same time, I am entirely free to walk away or ignore you just as you are free to refuse to engage any response from me.

    Is it bad that I ignore people using abhorrent, demeaning language? No. Let them speak for themselves. Let them announce to the world their thinking and their attitudes. If they find like-minded people then we will all know them for their association. And we can marginalize them. Together.

  6. Iyeri says:

    I agree with most of what you’ve got going on here. :)

    I would, however, argue that most of the time that people rail against “Political Correctness” they’re doing it to tell people they’re stupid for being offended… typically by something offensive. It’s a lot like when people start a sentence with ‘no offense but’ and I hold onto my hat because I know I’m about to be blown away by new heights of offense. That said, since I’m pretty sure you don’t mean that anyone who doesn’t go around spouting racist epithets at every turn is PC past the point of all reason, I agree that being hypersensitive to every little slight is silly.

    As for me, I TRY to be mindful of my language as much as I can. I can’t control what other people say, and I wouldn’t try. But as for myself, I try not to hurt with my vocabulary. Really my snark and inconsiderateness do enough of that anyway.

    • Alas says:

      Like I said, you can only control yourself. Obviously, we should all make every attempt to not be out there deliberately offending people. I have language I use at home that I would never use on the internet, because the internet is such a big place and full of so many people, that I would be bound to offend any number of people if I didn’t self-censor.

      But the point is, even if I should offend someone, they don’t get to tell me I can’t say what I said.