The topic for discussion at the upcoming AAFW meeting is “Ridiculing religion, free speech or hate speech?”. I thought I’d share some general thoughts about free speech I’ve been bouncing around in my head lately. When I say general, I mean general. I’m speaking to the claims of others on a very basic level. Probably the result of wanting to get this blog post done before dinner. As such, I will keep in mind that the views that I’m addressing may be more nuanced than what I’ve put up here.
Now the first thing to note would be how my views on free speech have changed over the years. You could easily dig through the AAFW blog and find me supporting an uncompromising position of free speech. I have eagerly participated in “Draw Muhammad Day”, and generally not caring (or perhaps thinking) about offending others in making a strong statement about free speech.
However, as time has gone on, I feel my views becoming more nuanced. A black-and-white, free speech or nothing view can no longer reconcile itself with my worldview, which has shifted very far-left. Let’s start with this idea of free speech or nothing. A position held by some advocates of free speech is that giving in to one demand for censorship starts a slippery slope into a world where we have no free speech. They like to point out that governments use the oppression of free speech as a weapon against their political enemies. While true, I think it’s missing some context and exists more as an idea than a reality. Take Canada for example, we have hate speech laws in place, but have not descended into a 1984 dystopia. Is the law flawed, yes? Does oppression against certain groups in this country exist, yes? (Though not against the types of people we typically think of when we say “they are just exercising their free speech right”) Nonetheless, I’d like to think that we can, through reason and discussion, come up with standards for what is truly offensive, and what may be nitpicking by the overly-offended.
Continuing on that line of thought, I think it is well within reason to distinguish between speech that does harm to an already oppressed minority, and speech that while perhaps hateful, cannot do the same damage. A generalized example is the issue surrounding hate speech towards Muslims and the reactions to that. When someone is called out for saying something that has clearly offended many, the defense is usually a mix of citing free speech, and accusing opponents of being politically correct (I’d argue that political correctness isn’t even a thing, but an accusation thrown out by those trying to defend themselves from the fact that what they said was clearly offensive [credit to MovieBob for that idea]). Here a question needs to be asked, “Are the people who respond to the hate speech by pointing out that it is hate speech trying to shutdown the free speech of the person who said it, or exercising their own right to free speech?” This is another problem that arises out of the uncompromising defense of free speech: Freedom of speech comes to mean freedom from criticism of speech. If you want to make a racist or sexist comment fine, but when you are called out for it don’t hide behind the banner of “free speech”.
The idea of freedom from criticism of speech also seems to manifest itself in the statement, “you do not have a right to not be offended”. What seems to be meant by that statement is, “Just because what I said or did offended you does not mean the government should pass a law to prevent you from being offended”, which I believe goes back to my point about being to make some judgments on what we can properly label as “offensive”. To what extent it should actually be censored is, I grant, a touchy matter. However, I think there is another position that may sometimes be taken with this attitude, that you shouldn’t act so damn offended. The reactions to the riots in the Middle East, which will no doubt come up as part of this week’s discussion, are an example of this, so let’s take a look.
I can’t help but sense an attitude among some that seems to say, “How dare those Muslims act so violently in response to an offensive movie!” Leaving aside the fact that blaming the riots solely on the movie is problematic, consider what’s being said. How dare you act offended to something that is deliberately offensive. Have we forgotten that free speech has consequences? If you want to go around being offensive for the sake of being offensive, then be prepared to own up to everything you have said. When someone says they have been offended by the very thing you intended to be offensive, don’t go hiding behind “free speech”. Don’t be offended by the fact that people are offended by your deliberate acts of offensiveness.