Freedom of Speech, Violence, and Political Correctness Gone Mad

I started this journey of essays on Medium with one called “The Last Thing I Will Ever Say About Freedom of Speech.” I admitted that the title was a bit of an exaggeration, but thus far I’ve stayed true to it in the sense that I’ve written about speech and its various consequences, without directly addressing the concept of free speech, because as I said in that original essay, I believe “freedom of speech” these days serves as a rhetorical buzzword that distracts from the actual conversation that people are trying to have with their freedom of speech, especially in the United States where this freedom is legally codified in the constitution. If someone wants to sway the American public, and even invoke legal powers against a specific individual or group, making a case that that individual or group is against freedom of speech is a plausible way to do that. Even if the case is built on shaky logic or downright lies. And the insidious thing is that the means for making that case is speech itself — you can’t defend against the accusation without playing into the accuser’s hand.

One tricky thing about freedom is that it isn’t binary. Nobody is either free or not free in an absolute sense. A hypothetical person without any artificial restrictions on their actions will still be limited by natural laws and their physical abilities. Someone living in a society with any form of rules is restricted by those rules. Someone living with material limitations like poverty, disability, or discrimination by their fellow citizens is limited by them. Someone who depends for their livelihood on their boss or their customers is not free to act against those people. Someone who truly loves and cares for their family or friends is not free to do what will harm them. Someone who lives with a violent and unpredictable person isn’t free to displease that person. Someone who lives in a society where the majority of people are liable to hate and be violent to them is not free to move about or act without fear. A rabbit and a wolf may have equal run of the forest, but the rabbit has significantly less freedom because of the threat posed by the wolf.

Now, imagine the wolf were to accuse the rabbit of restricting his freedom in some way, and you get an idea of why I’m a bit annoyed when people talk about freedom of speech in the context of political correctness or combating hateful rhetoric in public spaces.

But it goes beyond annoyance for me, because I am not unaware of the consequences of speech. I’m not talking solely about consequences for the speaker; a common refrain in politics these days is “freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequences”, meaning that we accept that by saying things, we risk disagreement, offense, and even loss of social standing. But that’s only part of the story, and it’s the smaller part at that. The consequences of speech are more often felt not by the speaker, but the people being spoken to and about. If I tell my friend that her husband has been cheating on her, I will face some consequences as their friend, but the people most affected by this speech are my friend and her husband — whether my speech was truthful or not. If rumors circulate that a certain person is sneaking into bathrooms to sexually assault children, the person most affected by that rumor is the person it’s about — whether that rumor is true or not.

Now imagine the rumor isn’t about a person, but a whole group of people — for instance, transgender people — and you’ll understand a bit more about the consequences of certain kinds of hate speech. And you can imagine how that might effect an individual trans person’s freedom to self-identify as trans, if that rumor is widely believed.

I contend that by doing the thing we call “protecting freedom of speech”, we are hurting freedom of speech. By treating speech as a “free action” that has no effect on the world, we ignore the fact that by merely speaking, a group of people may — intentionally or not — reduce the overall freedom of others. The individuals and groups that have been labeled as “against free speech” have often simply identified a form of speech that has such an effect on their own or others’ freedom, and are advocating for a restriction that would on balance improve the freedom of all.

And honestly, freedom of speech wouldn’t be nearly as important as it is if speech did not have real consequences in the world, and when those consequences are known to hurt people, then pure freedom of speech really is the freedom to hurt others, sometimes in ways that will impact their ability or opportunity to speak. For instance, a targeted harassment campaign against an individual can result in their needing to retreat from public life for their own mental health and safety.

It’s also entirely possible for a society that pays lip service to freedom of speech to systematically restrict speech by denying the technologies and infrastructures of communication to certain groups of people. For instance, in societies where people with disabilities are denied access to public spheres, or where poor families don’t have access to the internet, these people’s ability to communicate their ideas is curtailed in comparison to those groups that do have access.

There’s also the unavoidable fact that pure freedom of speech also means the freedom to lie. A lie can be benign if it’s obviously untrue, or if it doesn’t lead people to believe things that influence their decisions in meaningful ways. But lying is a skill that can be developed, and informal schools of deception exist all over society — from the marketing departments that have learned to convince the public they need something they don’t actually need to “pick up artistry” subcultures that teach their members the art of convincing women they aren’t creepazoids. There’s an old saying that says “a lie can make it halfway around the word before the truth is done putting on its shoes.” There’s a reason for this: a lie often has a motive that makes it especially persuasive or compelling; the truth is often boring or counter-intuitive, which makes it less persuasive to people with little or no knowledge of the subject.

The problems associated with various forms of speech cannot be solved by solely focusing on “free speech”. They are problems of inequality, violence, safety, education, and accessibility. Just as the freedom to own property means nothing if you’re systematically prevented from accumulating enough wealth to purchase property, the freedom to speak your mind means nothing if you don’t have the opportunity to learn, the support to develop your own ideas, and listeners willing to hear and understand what you have to say.

But that’s not what really bothers me most about the free speech “debate”. It’s the fact that I and many others with similar values to mine are often accused of opposing “free speech” when our intent is to act on the information we’ve gained by listening to others’ speech. That is, to conclude that someone who spreads rhetoric connected with fascism or other destructive political movements is not someone to be trusted to defend the well-being of all, and in fact may be involved or at least complicit in the systematic oppression and exclusion of groups of people like me. To perceive such speakers as a legitimate threat to the hope of a social order that enables the most freedom for the most people, and to alert others to that threat.

We see violence as a wave on which threatening or hurtful language is the crest. The crest is not the wave, and the crest itself is not going to move the boat. Yet, when we see the crest, it helps warn us that a wave is coming. Someone who hasn’t learned to recognize the connection might think we were only imagining it. But that doesn’t mean the violence isn’t coming, and we would appreciate if someone would take us seriously when we talk about our fears.

It’s a great thing to be willing to listen with empathy to others, even if we don’t immediately understand a goddamn thing they’re saying. A much greater thing than to simply nod and smile and pat them on the shoulder and say something like “God bless this country, where even an imbecile like you is allowed to prattle on in public.” And when I hear rhapsodic appeals to freedom of speech in response to urgent pleas from people who fear for their lives… it sounds to me more like the latter.

I, and many others with views similar to mine, want to treat hate speech and microaggressions like we would a suspicious-looking skin growth on our society. By itself, on the surface, it may cause no significant harm, except for some minor discomfort. But if we don’t examine it closely, with the help of rigorous social and historical research, we may miss the opportunity to remove a deadly cancer until it’s too late. People who misgender trans people may be joking, or they may be simply mistaken, or they may be deliberately working to chase these people from public life and undermine their authority on their own identities, with the end goal of eliminating them entirely. The same could be true of casually racist, sexist, or ableist comments or attitudes. Yet when we attempt to call attention to the potential dangers hidden beneath a certain word or phrase or idea, we’ve unfailingly been accused of being against freedom of speech, or of trying to silence the people we disagree with. There are people who really are trying to silence us, the racial and gender and religious minorities and other people who threaten the social order they’re trying to preserve. Sometimes they do it by scaring us back into our homes with threats, sometimes by discrediting all that we say with incessant ad hominem attacks, and sometimes by actually killing us as we gather in public places like churches and mosques and schools. All we want is for that threat to be taken seriously, and for the discussion not to be sidetracked into a debate about what we should or should not be allowed to say to one another.

I hope you’ll take this into account next time freedom of speech seems to be threatened in your local institutions. I hope you’ll take a closer look at such accusations and see how realistic they really are. And most of all, I hope you’ll keep listening, thinking critically, and considering the consequences of your actions on others. Thank you for reading.