What we talk about when we talk about Free Speech
For those who managed to avoid both the event and ensuing social media carnage, on Friday 5th of February, the ex-National Party leader Simon Bridges went on The AM Show and said, while forcing someone to undergo conversion therapy is wrong, making it illegal caused concerns.
What were his concerns? The effect it would have on free speech.
“I personally do have a wider concern,” Bridges said. “That is freedom of speech. That is in a liberal society, in a tolerant society, we have been very tolerant of different views.”
Almost instantly, Bridges’ stance elicited a fiery response from both public and government, who expressed everything from disbelief to fury.
However, one response that shouldn’t be expected, is a surprise. Because, by claiming Enlightenment values that protect our right to free speech and individual liberty are under threat, Bridges joins a long line of people who use the imaginary crisis to maintain hegemonic power systems.
— — — — THE MYTH OF THE FREE SPEECH CRISIS
According to British journalist and author “We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent”, Nesrile Malik, the myth of the free speech crisis is built on two flawed premises: the idea that all speech is equal and that freedom to speak means freedom from objection or consequence.
Language is complex, so it’s worth examining the terminology used and observing what definitions people hold when they use certain words. Case in point, we don’t all talk about the same thing when we talk about ‘speech’.
In the American constitution, genuine free ‘speech’ must have a well-reasoned objective, which is the facilitation of communication between two people. When the speech violates the form of another individual or group, it becomes liable to limitation if necessary.
However, according to those who cry ‘free speech crisis’ when their opinion is challenged, all speech should be free. Something Malik describes as difficult to challenge because, “instinctively, it feels wrong to do so”. It doesn’t feel right to put a ban on what someone can say. However, in reality, not all speech is equal and thus not all speech deserves protection.
This is an important point to keep in mind when presented with the slippery slope argument; a logic which goes something like this: if you censor views you do not like, your views will be next.
Or, the brilliant words of University of Amsterdam academic Magdalena Jozwiak, “today this speech restriction, tomorrow the Inquisition”.
The line of reasoning is popular because it makes a lot of sense. It’s a neat and logical, ‘X, therefore, Y’ sort of argument. However, once one realises that not all speech is equal, that a violent and hateful diatribe is different to a respectful conversation, the logic unravels rather quickly. We see it is instead, ‘this oppressive speech is not condoned, therefore that oppressive speech will not be condoned. Respectful, empathetic, albeit possibly controversial opinions, remain unscathed.
The second assumption touted as truth by those ‘defending’ the ‘crisis’ of free speech is that freedom to speak is the same as freedom from objection; something that can work to bolster inequality by disallowing critical and constructive response by minorities on controversial issues. Even if we exercise our right to share opposing views with care and respect, we can certainly all agree that we’ll often disagree. But as a democracy, the point of free speech isn’t about protecting our right to shout one-way into a void (as much as platforms like Twitter would have us believe), but facilitate communication between parties.
In essence, we have the right to speech, just as much as someone with an opposing view.
———— SPEECH IS SO FREE
This is all before addressing the fact that, today, speech has never been freer. The expansion of social media and other digital platforms means we’ve never had more opportunity to speak and have our voice heard.
This is positive when it comes to minorities who are excluded by conventional platforms but negative when used by extremist’s to promote violent ideology with a newfound sense of entitlement.
Sure, we may observe more instances where people’s speech is policed and restricted, but this is simply relative to the massive influx of voices that can now be heard; many of them being valid and worthy of protection.
So yes, Bridges may feel like we are moving towards cancel culture, but this less a result of malignant political correctness and more because there is simply more speech and thus more objectionable speech that must be policed and restricted.
— — — — THE DANGERS of SPEECH
This is an important discussion because, while sticks and stones may break our bones, words can also translate into physical harm. Primarily because speech creates culture. It informs the social contract we sign up for and dictates what is and isn’t okay to say or do, regardless of the law.
In 2017 Judge David Hale ruled that Trump’s statement ‘Get ’em out of here’ at a campaign rally, constituted incitement to riot which resulted in three individuals being attacked shortly afterwards. During his term, domestic terrorism more than doubled compared to the Obama administration. Over in Britain, a 2020 study in The British Journal of Criminology used Computational Criminology to find a relationship between realistic threats and associated hate crimes.
According to a 2020 study published in International Interactions journal by James Piazza, domestic terrorism was quite frequent in countries whether politicians used hate speech often or extremely often.
In short, we are not without empirical proof that abstract opinion can translate into real risk.
— — — — WHY WE AGREE ON LIMITATIONS
In New Zealand, there is a lot one can say without legal or social persecution. But it’s for the above reason that, as with most things in a democratic and liberal society, we need limits.
Clothing is an easy illustration. As a country, we demand a certain level of clothing be worn in public to ensure the majority feel safe and comfortable. Want to swan around naked in the privacy of your own home? Go right ahead. Want to parade your bare body before crowds of morning commuters? We’ll have to object.
However, it’s often not legalism that keeps us in our pants but a social contract. We don’t want to be ousted and judged by our peers, so we get dressed in the morning. In the same way, it’s rarely laws that dictate our speech but an awareness of what is socially acceptable.
The issue is, that social contracts aren’t objective or natural. They are created and maintained by those with social capital and power who sit at the top of the hierarchy.
If white cis men are the ones dictating what is socially acceptable, it’s unlikely they’ll consider how behaviour or speech they find acceptable could harm homosexuals or other minorities.
This is why, despite what Bridges believes, there is both a time and place to make harmful things like conversion therapy illegal rather than ignorantly suggesting people just don’t participate. If the social construct condones it and your community encourages it, people will participate so they can be accepted.
— — — — IT’S NOT ABOUT SPEECH
All of that to say, that actually, crying ‘free speech crisis’ isn’t about protecting speech at all.
Take a close enough look at those who aggrandise this supposed wave of attack on free speech and you’ll almost always find an agenda to persecute.
These people are rarely concerned with securing the right to express opinions without legal censorship or restraint but instead want to secure a license to speak with impunity. To normalise hate speech, oppress minority groups and disallow objection under the guise of liberty.
When, in 2018, a group of extreme-right figures were rejected entry to Britain after their presence was judged as “not conducive to the public good”, the conversation could be diverted away from their neo-nazi views, hate speech and violence, and towards the supposedly unethical ways their freedom of speech were attacked.
The angle that one has been (or will be) ‘silenced’ is a compelling way to give bigoted ideas a sort of underdog legitimacy.
In a similar way, waving the red flag of free speech allows individuals like Bridges to evade criticism about protecting homophobic language and practices. Let’s not be so angry as to miss seeing the actual bull in the arena.