How free is Free Speech really?

In one of my recent posts, inspired by an article about helicopter parenting, I said it committed the cardinal sin of playing the Free Speech (and the Supposed Threatening Thereof) card in reference to the idea of safe zones:

It no longer matters what a person intended to say, or how a reasonable listener would interpret a statement—what matters is whether any individual feels offended by it.

It’s time to have the talk about Free Speech.

There’s one particular scene in a 90s sitcom you might have heard of, “Friends”. It was put up on Netflix recently and the millenials noticed some jokes or plot points can be viewed as racist, sexist or homophobic in our current political climate. Turns out I’m officially a the millenial, because I too think some of the scenes are quite dated. This is one of them. The setup is: Joey’s hot flatmate (played by the model Elle Macpherson) introduces some changes to the apartment, making it – for want of a better word – more feminine. Joey’s former flatmate, Chandler, bless his soul, decides it’s wrong and… well, see for yourselves:

Joey’s turning into a woman! Gosh darn, what an insult to a manly man’s man!

What makes Joey realize this truly tragic metamorphosis is his reaction to his friend’s mean words: saying: “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” Only a woman would say that!

(sigh)

This scene comes to my mind whenever I hear a complaint like that quoted before (and I hear it often from my colleagues and peers, even from my own father, surprised that empathy is a thing). Dear Chandler, Joey, dad, peers, colleagues and authors of the article: if you don’t emphasize, if you don’t care about other people’s emotions, about how they can take what you say if you put it insensitively, then you’re not manly, you’re not “just saying”, you’re not executing your right of free speech. You’re just an asshole. Simple as that.

If you care about your audience, if you emphasize with whoever is listening to you, if you anticipate how your message can be understood or misunderstood, you can say pretty much anything just as long as you adjust your message accordingly. So, yeah. It one hundred percent is not about what you say but how you say it. And it’s not a feminine thing. It’s a human thing. We have emotions, all of us. Even men. Even you.

Now that we know that delivery matters, are we really free to say anything? The article quotes some guy saying:

“How likely are [kids] to consider the First Amendment essential if they start learning in fifth grade that you’re forbidden to say—or even think—certain things, especially at school?”

I have news for you: there absolutely are things you’re forbidden to say, in school or otherwise. Things like slander, threats and hate speech are actual, punishable crimes. Your precious free speech you want to defend so much is already not 100% free.

And those dreaded safe spaces? These are just people deciding they don’t want to listen to shit some asshole might want to say while waving a Free Speech banner. And they are allowed to decide that by – surprise surprise – Free Speech! The same Free Speech assholes wipe their mouths with applies to everyone else around them. Your right to say anything doesn’t mean everyone owes you attention. No one is obliged to listen to you, no one owes you a platform and when you speak, everyone around you is entitled to execute that same freedom of speech by telling you to shut up. And if you cry “censorship!”, tell me: how’s this different from you complaining about being quieted? How is that not censorship?

Safe spaces are democratic areas of people deciding what they want and don’t want to hear. If you have a problem with that, go find another place. That’s really the only thing you can do.

Because freedom of speech is like every other freedom: yours ends where someone else’s begins.

2 comments

  1. I agree that free speech doesn’t necessarily denote freedom to any and every platform. You should be able to say whatever you want, but wherever you want is up to the people around you.

    However, I’d argue that safe spaces aren’t exactly productive, because they only bolster the ideological filter bubbles people find themselves in online. If we are to ever end hyper-partisanship, we must be willing to hear each other out, and that comes with the risk of being offended. Deciding what you do and do not want to hear is a good way to ensure you stay in a rut and never evolve your political opinions. We all have the beliefs we have now because we were convinced or taught in the past.

    • Why would one exclude the other?

      You’re right in that zones are ideological filter bubbles and if you can’t really learn about the world without leaving one and open yourself to be challenged. But safe zones are safe *zones*. Historically, the whole civilization was based on such bubbles: tribes, cities, states, nations. In the era of globalisation the zones are back not as a permanent solution that will now encompass the world, but just as needed for this particular group of people in this particular time and place.

      Also, I think there’s a whole world of difference between a safe zone and hyper-partisanship. One is “I don’t want to hear X” and the other is “I only want to hear Y”. I’m sure a civilization can be mature enough to have one without falling into the other. To avoid that, of course, it would require vigilance from our part, even within the zones.

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