Free speech seems to be on heavy rotation at the moment. It is spoken about, analysed and agonised over. It is treated with reverence by liberal democracies, it is an ideal that is unquestioned. We should have free speech.
Should we though?
Many of the people who advocate for completely free speech seem only to want it for the purposes of hurt. In fact they act like assholes to prove how important free speech is. It leaves the majority of us thinking how useful can it be if they are the advocates.
On the other end we have people who most would call hyper PC but really they’re wingers. To those outside of the land down under, a whinger is someone who complains a lot. These people are the ones who complain all the time that something is offensive. They attach their interpretation to someone else’s words and assume the insulted pose.
Now I don’t agree with either camp but waiver somewhere between the two like I imagine most of the population do. It is clear that free speech is important. It is one of the things missing in many countries that live under dictator rule. Clearly free speech is necessary but how necessary?
Here are my top 3 thoughts:
1. What is it? Is it absolute?
What is free speech? This should not be a difficult question. To my mind it is being able to say whatever you like without fear of persecution or punishment. That is all it should be, but it’s not.
Those who believe in absolute freedom of speech seem upset when they are challenged. It is as if they believe that their free speech overshadows a rebuttal. While reactions are often overblown, free speech is there for all parties. To speak and be spoken too.
That is the power of it, we are able to talk freely and debate ideas. If you say something horrible or wrong than I have a right to challenge you. This is a challenge to the absolutists, they seem upset when they are challenged. It is as if they are unaware of how free speech works.
As mentioned these people also tend to invoke offence as free speech. It is not a violation of your free speech to be respectful in approach. Not doing so just makes you a prick.
The other side of the coin are the soft triggered people. I believe that you should not be subjected to torment unnecessarily but these people’s tolerances are low. The world is not a kind place, even without humanity it’s rough. Protecting you from something you find offensive is the same as a Christian protecting their children from evolution.
The hair triggered people seem always to be left of the political spectrum. Gay people should have the same rights as the rest of society they would argue. Saying I don’t think they should get married is not a hate crime. (Before you explode I think they should). Not only does overreaction make you seem childish it also makes trivial your views. To the rest of the world it just looks like you’re throwing another tantrum. How does the world know when it is serious this time.
Allowing things you consider wrong to be spoken about allows all views to see the light of day. It shows the ridiculous from the serious and you might learn something.
Should free speech be absolute? My thought on this is no, it is not absolute. Free speech absolutists (generally conservative) hate it when you criticise their imaginary friend Jesus. Those on the left don’t want you to say anything that could offend.
On both sides they don’t believe in true free speech, and one would want to censor the other. No matter how you cut it, you will impinge on one groups free speech. Perhaps free speech needs to be absolute even if not ideal.
I don’t believe you should be able to incite violence but you should be able to question someone’s belief. If not I would have very little to write about and probable would have harm come to me.
Should gay people marry is a valid question. It changes a long-held custom in our culture. Shutting out either side is dangerous, but having a conversation illuminates. Saying don’t talk about it pushes it under ground and takes it to dark places. I believe this is what is happening in Australia with this subject.
There is a limit, it should not be absolute but you should be able to say offensive things. Don’t say kill all christians but question their faith. Without it many of the causes we support today would be dead. If we didn’t have free speech wheree would woman’s rights be? You can’t shut down free speech when it offends you and you can’t offend and call it free speech.
2. Words Have Power.
My life has revolved around words and the ideas they generate. The person I am today is so fundamentally shaped by the words of others. Many of those word were banned at some point, those thoughts shut out. This is the reason I believe in free speech. Words have power.
They only have the power that we give them. This is important because of the amount of power we give those who insult us. To say: what you said doesn’t offend me is the quickest way to shut down an insult. It takes the power away from the offender and gives it to you.
It may surprise you looking at me now but in my early years I was picked on. It got to the point where I wanted to change schools, it was so horribly painful. Then I did something one day and it changed everything for me. I laughed. When a bully was saying incredibly hurtful, I laughed. It gave me such power and he walked away confused. I still got made fun of but it died back because there wasn’t a pay off. I took control of the situation and it changed me.
I am not saying that every case can be handled this way but there are a large majority that could. How would someone react if they called you a name and you laughed.
Words have power, incredible power but it’s not just given to the one who says them. You can take it, repurpose it and make it yours. I will talk in the next paragraph about the exceptions but doing this built-in me a resilience. It meant that I could handle more, the world can be horrible but it means I fall much less.
There are instances when it becomes too much. These times are dark and it is important to acknowledge this. Words are powerful and you should employ them whether you feel powerful or weak. If it gets too much talk to someone, be it a friend, councillor or family member. Talk sooner and more often, those words were my saving grace and I know they’ll help you.
We cannot always change others, they will be offensive and horrible. What we can do is change us. Strengthen us so we can fight the important fights. Build ourselves and harness those words.
3. How long before we are offensive?
The main opponents say we should censor because we are being offensive. It is true that free speech leads to offence but it is important to protect that freedom. What happens when you are the one being silenced because of offence?
History is not a straight line, it is not always progressing forward. Often it will get much darker, the tides turning on you. If you outlaw offense what happens when your views are no longer accepted?
It was only at the turn of the last century that women got the right to vote in Australia. That is not that long of a time since women didn’t have a voice. That it would be considered an offensive thought to allow it. It was through offense and freedoms of speech that we moved forward.
If we censor what is allowed to be said, we are in danger of loosing it when we need it most.
How long before you find yourself fighting to bring light? In spite of all the people you may offend. How do we determine what is good offense and what is bad? We can’t and shouldn’t. I have the right to offend you and will do so if we believe different things. I will do it in as respectful, and perhaps humorous a way, but I will do it.
We can’t be short-sighted in anything we do. Particularly one as powerful as this. Protect offence and you keep a tool of protection.
Free speech is important because of the power it has. The power the user and receiver can take from it. It changes the world for good and bad but without it only silence will flourish. I am not a historian but I can’t think of a time that silence has given rise to prosperity.
We must always aim to be respectful, this should go without saying. To offend should not be the point, but it can be. To be offended is your choice, to either have or give your power.
Free speech is about the right to speak and my right to react. No matter how offensive you have that right.
The power in free speech goes to the logic and fair. The fact ladened not the myth burdened. A big reason that we live in a post-truth world is that we are too concerned with the feeling a comment generates. When the focus is there the facts disappear into the background. Argue the point not the feeling, with that a liar will be seen.
Be offended it helps you grow. Be outraged you might learn something new.