Should all speech be free?

11 01 2013

In my previous post for CFI, I made a comment about how my views on free speech likely differ from the majority of the atheist community.  That is to say that I have some disagreement with the idea that all speech should be free.  Reasonable restrictions can, I believe, be placed on speech.  Before getting into this issue as it relates back to feminism and safe spaces I need to elaborate a bit more on my stance towards free speech.

It is safe to assume that the atheist community holds a liberal conception of free speech.  Generally, free speech is viewed as an unquestionable right.  We should allow the neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptists to speak freely because restricting their rights to free speech has the potential to start a slippery-slope until no one has the right to speak, is how the argument generally goes.  All speech should be encouraged as exposure to a variety of different ideas is the best way to determine which one is right.  Truth will naturally win out in the end.

Liberal notions of free speech, however, face the problem of contradiction.  It is possible to find situations in which a group that champions freedom of speech will engage in tactics to silence speech when they find it unfavourable.  As an example, I refer readers to an incident that occurred on Reddit (a supposed bastion of free speech).  The short version is that the person who created /r/jailbait was outed by a writer for Gawker.  Reddit quickly flocked to defend the rights of the man to post pictures of underage girls.  Attempts to post the link to the Gawker article were actively censored.  I could also point to the United States as an example of a nation that supposedly enshrines free speech but has no problem censoring it when the speech in question might harm the agenda of the state.  The point is that those that champion free speech will not hesitate to actually silence speech when it may reveal an unfavourable fact about those champions.  It’s ok for someone to speak in a manner that is oppressive, hateful, or, in the case of the Redditor in the story, promotes child pornography.  Speaking out against this speech though?  Unacceptable.  Granted, this doesn’t apply to all advocates for free speech.  They’ll agree that this hypocritical behaviour is unacceptable.  However, the problem of whether all speech should be free remains.

My contention with the idea that free speech should be an unquestionable right, that all should be allowed to speak freely with no restrictions, is that I don’t buy into the notion that people who engage in oppressive and hateful speech should be allowed to speak.  Defense of racists, and misogynists is not something I want to advocate for.  I believe that we can place restrictions on speech without descending into a totalitarian dystopia.  Canada has not descended into a hell-hole because of the country’s hate speech laws.  As a community that wants to approach things critically we should be able to have a conversation over what constitutes hate speech and make reasons for why there is a benefit to restricting such speech.  Telling the misogynists that they can’t use gendered insults or threats of rape doesn’t mean we then turn around and say that you can’t make a few blasphemous statements.

To use an example that the atheist community can identify with, consider allowing a creationist into a biology class to say that evolution is false.  I’d be surprised to find many in this community that would disagree with the suggestion that we do not allow that to happen.  The school should actively restrict the ability of the creationist to talk about creationism in the biology class.  This is because the aim of a biology class should be to teach biology, not Christian myths.

So how does this apply to safe spaces for feminism in the atheist community?  It means keeping out the “trolls”.  Those who only want to derail the conversation and are more interested in insults and intimidation.  Further, this would help to ensure that such safe spaces remain a place to discuss feminism.

Now for some this may come across as an attempt to censor all criticisms of feminism, but this is not the case.  Criticism of feminism happens all the time, especially amongst feminists.  These are people who all come from different backgrounds and thus have different ideas about how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on.  That sort of criticism is fine.  Here is where a critical approach comes into play.  At what point does the criticism cross the line from being constructive to disruptive?  I would argue that it starts with people that simply want to say that feminism is poisoning the atheist movement, who engage in logical fallacies to make their arguments, and goes on to the people that engage in gendered insults and threats of rape and death towards feminists in the community.  I believe that restricting this sort of speech should be permissible as it adds nothing of value to the conversation.  While I think it’s clear, at least to me, that such speech should be restricted.  The question of how to deal with the feminism 101 comments is a different matter.

First off, what do I mean by feminism 101 comments?  These are the sort of comments that ask the same old questions over and over again. E.g. “What about the men?”, “Aren’t you just engaging in reverse sexism?”, “Does patriarchy really exists?”, “I’m not a feminist but I believe in equality for both sexes”.  Sometimes the person asking the question is innocent enough, they honestly don’t know because they’ve never been involved in such a conversation.  However, most of the time this results from someone’s refusal to look up “Feminism 101” and find the answers to these questions that have been asked again, and again.  The questions become a way to derail the conversation and prevent feminists from moving on to more critical discussions about how they should move forward.  The restriction of feminism 101 comments would depend on the nature of the event/conversation.  If the purpose is to discuss feminism 101, then allow such comments.  If the purpose is to discuss how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on then the feminism 101 comments are likely to be a distraction.  They should be discouraged if not actively restricted.

None of this has to occur at every single atheist conference.  It will largely be up to the organizers as to what restrictions they want to place on speech, if any at all.  The purpose of the conference and the beliefs of the organizers would likely dictate how far each conference goes to establish rules regarding speech.  The same thing goes for forums, blogs, and video comment sections.  The people running those sites are the ones who get the final say on what is permissible speech.  One point that some advocates for free speech miss is that these are private events/places.  This isn’t the government cracking down on your right to speak, it is another individual (or group) making rules for their place of gathering/discussion.  No one is forcing you to go to an event that has rules you disagree with.

Restrictions on speech should be made where we can agree that the speech causes more harm than good.  I do not think it is a loss to the community to keep hateful voices out.  Doing so may allow us to get back to conversations that really matter to us, rather than being bogged down in this conversation.



One response

13 04 2013

I think most people who argue for free speech are mostly arguing for the freedom to offend, instead of “trolling” or all the other examples you gave. I disagree that a school should limit any student’s speech and I think most atheists would agree with me. Everyone should feel free to express their belief, just like we have the right to ridicule such beliefs, especially those of a creationist in a biology class.
Defending neo-nazis and holocaust deniers’ freedom of speech does not mean one is “defending racists”. The argument comes down to whether you are able to discern and ignore hateful speech or if you need some one to do it for you. Who would you appoint to be the person who can limit someone’s speech?
You ignore the possibility that if most of us “agree that the speech causes more harm than good”, the expression of unpopular ideas can be silenced and cause a tyranny of the majority against ideological minorities.

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