Questioning free speech

Too often over the last year I’ve seen ‘free speech’ used to silence argument. Most problematically, those of us who defend human rights are told we have to be inclusive and tolerant of hate speech, or we aren’t really tolerant at all and the left is one big hypocritical lie. Or we’re told that by being inclusive we’re supporting Muslim fundamentalists, as though there is no scope for nuance in any of this.

“I may not like what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now, when it comes down to ‘like’ I’m fine with this. I don’t need to like anyone else’s ideas or agree with them. You may favour a different actor to play Batman. You may hate a book I loved, support a different political party, etc etc. But there is a line, and on the other side of that line is speech that isn’t ok. Not matters of taste and preference, but talk aimed to destroy the rights, freedoms and lives of people. You don’t like gay porn? Fine, by all means say so and don’t watch it. You don’t like gay people? I find that weird and prejudiced, but there we go. I won’t like you, and we’re still at the ‘like’ level. You announce that gay people should be punished for being gay? We now have an issue over your ‘right’ to free speech. Feel free to swap in any minority group, women, any pro-abuse or pro-exploitation talk, and any talk of eco-suicide being somehow desirable, or other living things being expendable for human profit, and I’ll take issue.

What we’re talking about here isn’t just hot air. ‘I don’t like’ is free speech – it may be vile and uncivilized, but it is just speech and personal opinion. As it happens, I don’t like right wing supporters. As soon as that speech becomes a call for action, it changes. I don’t want to see people lose their rights, dehumanised, made more vulnerable. There’s a lot of other hateful outcomes I don’t want either. If someone is calling for an action I would fight against, I’d rather fight it at the talking stage – it’s better that way. Human rights do not award a select few the ‘right’ to diminish others. Refusing the idea that some should have the right to dominate and punish others over matters of difference is not an attack on the ‘rights’ of a would-be oppressor and I’m tired of seeing it suggested otherwise.

Free speech doesn’t mean a right to be listened to, taken seriously or supported. It does in fact mean that anyone else who wants to challenge what is said has the right to speak it. However, I think we need to deal with the idea that speech is somehow safe, that it’s ok to say things that would lead to destroying lives. Speech that calls for action needs treating in line with the action called for. This is why we already have laws about inciting violence and hate speech.

Free speech may be a key part of democracy, but it doesn’t work without responsibility. Use that freedom to express ideas and intentions that would damage democracy – crushing the opposition, denying rights to specific groups and the such – and as far as I’m concerned, the person doing it has lost any right to hide behind the ideas of democracy to protect their toxic thinking. Use free speech to undermine freedom and equality, and there has to be a robust response. Democracy is a collection of values and ideas, using one to undermine the others is not legitimate.

Faced with haters who want to harm others, we will not have the luxury of being able to uphold every last good principle we possess about peace and inclusion. I’d rather we try to head this off while it’s more a question of hate speech than violent action, because that is the road to least harm. And on reflection, I don’t think we should allow hate speech to qualify as free speech, and should challenge and reject it accordingly.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “Questioning free speech

  • Ryan C.

    Yes! Free speech is not absolute. It has limits, such as inciting violence, as you point out. One person’s right to say what I like ends when it affects another’s right to exist. And “free speech” does not mean other people have to listen to, or agree with, what anyone says. Calling people out on their “free speech” is itself an exercise of our free speech.

    Words mean things. People act on those things. Those actions can harm others. That’s pretty much where I draw the line.

  • John Davis

    This issue first crossed my horizon 40+ years ago in my uni days when our Junior Common Room wanted to invite a guest speaker from the National Front. In my last job I had to face much of the same vitriol whipped up by the BNP when I did advocacy work representing East European workers who were being harrassed and cheated by employers and landlords to name but two. Speech is never ever free….there is always a price on words whether they are written or spoken. In a way, what worries me more than the actual words themselves is the way in which harmful speech finds a fertile ground in which to be received and nurtured. Part of my druid responsibility is to live the last part of the druid peace prayer: “In the greater circle of humankind, may I radiate peace”. Sometimes that’s all I can do…..John /l\

  • Rick

    Hate speech is completely abhorrent and should always be condemned. I think that where I’ve seen this get really tricky, though, is when accusations of hate speech are used to silence legitimate criticism of the hate speech, and sometimes truly hateful behavior, of others. I wonder how possible it can really be to be objective and fair in matters like this. I certainly have my hopes, though.

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