Freedoms of Speech

Freedom of speech has limits. Some people probably will get angry just at reading those words, but they’re also completely self-evident: Ordering the murder of another person is illegal; Spreading harmful rumors is illegal; giving false testimony in court is illegal. However, concurrent with knowing these limits exist, people still feel very comfortable declaring that there aren’t and should never be any limits on what a person can say to another person or group.

Somewhere along the line a belief grew on the ideals of open discourse like a fungus: This belief simultaneously declares that speech can topple emperors and that speech is harmless. The pen is mightier than the sword, yet if you are skewered by one you should be able to ignore it and walk it off, that harassment and criticism are both the same kind of air and can both be breathed as easily as one another. We say that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” and elide that the sticks and stones are often directly instigated by the words – saying, simultaneously, that all speech is precious and that all violence is abhorrent – you might as well say that you love guns but hate bullets.

The question is, then, not of whether we should limit freedom of speech, but of whether the limits we have in place now effectively prevent harm while allowing a free society with a healthy economy of ideas – and whether those in charge of enforcing those limits are doing so effectively and judiciously. What forms of harm must we prevent people causing with words? What forms will we permit? What kinds of speech are so sacred that they must not be abridged under any circumstances?

Right now we see a lot of people defending the rights of bigots to do public bigotting without interference on grounds of free speech. Most bigoted speech eventually boils down to an incitement to violence with plausible deniability; nowadays even the fig leaf of not actively advocating genocide has started to fall away. Which raises the question: Why, if telling one person to do violence to another person is illegal, is telling a group of people to do violence to another group of people legal?

“Are you offended?” They like to ask. I’ve grown to dislike the word ‘offended’. It means nothing, it reduces every instance of cruel hate speech and harassment to hurt feelings. I’m not ‘offended’ so much as that I understand that every careless slur slightly increases the chances of someone being beaten, someone being raped or murdered, because it contributes to a narrative where their life has less worth, where they are intrinsically stupid or violent or deceptive. Individually, these words dissolve and become nothing, but in aggregate, spoken by millions of citizens, they create an environment of acceptable cruelty and justified victims.

We love it though. We love to defend the freedom of speech of white supremacists and Nazis. There are two interpretations of this that occur to me: The optimistic view would be that Nazism is viewed as the most extreme and egregious ideology possible, therefore if one is willing to stand up for Nazis then one therefore should logically be willing to stand up for any form of speech. Of course, most of the people who stand up for Nazism generally don’t actually bother to stand up for other forms of political ideology, perhaps more personally inconvenient and likely to actually be targeted by government censors and police rather than civilian censures and shaming.

The pessimistic view is just that white supremacy and Nazism is actually super popular. There is a not-insignificant weight of supporting evidence for this hypothesis at this point.

The limits of what is and isn’t ‘speech’ also get pretty tricky. The courts have deemed fit to decide that giving money is a form of free speech – when you give it to a politician. Funny how that works out. Certainly the choice of what to wear is an aspect of freedom of speech – but is choosing to wear a white robe just speech or is it providing an alibi for your comrades to murder?

I have two points here. One, when someone argues that hate speech shouldn’t be legal, that is not a stance fundamentally opposed to freedom of speech as we understand it, rather just one of many necessary attempts to clarify where the boundaries we’ve already drawn lie. In other words: What forms of speech are so intrinsically harmful that exercising them predictably and willfully reduces your fellow citizens’ freedoms?

Two, given that we understand that speech can do real harm and can transgress boundaries that one would expect to be enforced by law, what are we supposed to do if the law does nothing? Vigilantism is not admirable, but if the law will not help under circumstances of life-threatening danger – if words will summon the sticks and stones to break my bones, I am comfortable with fighting against those words by any means possible. Your rights end where another’s rights begin, and if by exercising your freedom you would deprive them of theirs, it becomes a matter of self-defense.

These boundaries will never be clear – but they may never be clearer than they are right now.

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