With the blow up of controversies like the Charlie Hebdo attack, the flogging of Raif Badawi, and Gamergate, I have been struggling to understand where I stand on the issue of free speech – mainly how to reconcile the need for free speech with my problems with hate speech. Tied up in this confusion is a personal (practically debilitating) fear of conflict – a fear of offending people and being offended – and I think resolving where I stand with free speech involves facing this fear of conflict.

After debating with other people about free speech, I have come to the following conclusions.

Should we limit free speech legally? No, but it doesn’t mean we should automatically condone all speech. People who defend their offensive speech with the right to freedom of speech are confusing legality and morality. They are using their legal rights to justify their words and actions ( i.e. “I have the right to free speech, therefore it is justified for me to spread hate speech or bigotry. In fact my bigotry itself is justified.”) Yes you have the right, but it doesn’t mean that your action is right. Using debates around the Charlie Hebdo attack as context, David Brooks offers some insights about being “legally tolerant,” but “social discriminating” of offensive speech.

In the situation of free speech, the tension occurs between the current oppression of certain groups of people (which in this situation happens to be minority groups, women, LGBTQ, etc.) and the fear of future oppression (something that affects currently non-oppressed people, people with societal dominance). How do you deal with this tension? Where is the balance?

Professor Sheldon Nahmod offers a metaphor: “the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate” and that the government’s role is to “stay neutral; it must keep its hands off of the marketplace.” But the problem is that beyond freedom of speech, the government, legal system, and law enforcement system don’t stay “neutral” because the people dominating these systems are people who are also in the dominant socio-economic groups. The legal system that should exist to protect people, instead is used to maintain hegemony (the power or dominance of a certain group of people).

People of dominant social groups confuse loss of power with oppression. Men, when women speak out about sexism, and white people, when non-white people speak out about racism, yes they are asking you to give up some of your power ( your “ability to do something or act in a particular way,” i.e. your current power to harass or abuse others, often without consequence), but this doesn’t mean they are asking you to lower your quality of life or subject yourself to oppression. They are just asking you to allow other people to raise their own quality of life. Allowing other people to raise their quality of life doesn’t lower yours, it raises quality of life in the society in general; it directly and indirectly benefits you as well. But maybe we can think about this in a different way, instead of seeing it as loss of power or dominance, we can see it as using the power we do have to raise up other people to our level.

Oppressed people, do not blame individuals who happen to be in a dominant socio-economic position for your oppression. Blame doesn’t really do anything, but if you’re going to blame something, blame the system, blame the power structure. Sometimes individuals can’t help it if they have a certain worldview and fear of changing it. Help them see that they don’t have to fear new perspectives. Help them through the immense discomfort that comes with changing your worldview. Don’t blame them for their out-lash and defensiveness caused by this discomfort. If you can help them through this and help them change their worldview, you’ll be actually changing the power structure instead of only pushing against it.

So this last question about offending people (causing people “to feel upset, annoyed, or resentful”)… Before, I had a mindset of not wanting to offend people and not wanting people to offend me, but recently I experienced the extreme discomfort of having your worldview changed, and subsequently, I realized that if I want to change other people’s worldview, I will have to cause that extreme discomfort, I will have to offend them. But this type of offense is different than that of other offensive speech in that it comes from an understanding of the other person, not from fear of (future or current) oppression. And with this type of offense, I will still respect the other person as a human being.


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