(Guest Post) Words of mass destruction: the weaponization of 'free speech'

A guest post by Robert Fendt. Please address comments appropriately. 🙂

(Note: this text deals with harassment, sexism, misogyny, racism and transphobia. Readers’ discretion is advised.)

Dear reader: are you male? White? Heterosexual? Cisgender? Healthy? Congratulations: this text is for you. It also means you are among us lucky ones who get to play the game called ‘life’ on the easiest setting there is. Don’t believe it? Read on.

Disclaimer: I’m also a white male cisgender heterosexual person. And for a long time, I would have said about me having it particularly easy in life: don’t be ridiculous. But I do have friends and colleagues who are not male, who are not white, who are not heterosexual, who are not cisgender, some of whom have to deal with disability or illness, and listening to them has changed and reshaped my perspective. It’s time it changed the perspectives of us all.

In the ‘western’ countries, freedom of opinion and speech are fundamental rights, designed to protect minorities from persecution. So how ironic is it that nowadays ‘free speech’ also functions as a smoke screen for the harassment of women and minorities?

Imagine being a woman walking down the street. Now try to guess how common cat calls and whistles are, and how many unsolicited comments about your body and looks you get. Try to guess how common it is that strangers come uncomfortably close or even touch you without your consent. If you guessed “rarely”, then guess again. Being a woman in public means being scrutinised and ogled and commented upon, at the very least. And now do me a favor: honestly try to imagine being in that position. Imagine dealing with stuff like that. For every. Single. Fucking. Day.

And yet, some people (mainly men like myself) are actually asking where the problem is. You see, it is (mainly) just speech, after all! (Usually) nobody is physically harmed. So no harm done, isn’t there. Or is there? Being told you are just something to be looked at, to be commented upon freely, even something to be touched at will is nothing less than being constantly told you are a lesser human being. Your person, your feelings are less valuable.

But sexism is not the only problem we currently have. Just ask people whose skin is not ‘white’, or who have a name that is not of Irish or German or British descent, but of African origin, or Turkish or Arabic or Indian. Ever tried to buy a house and not getting that loan, despite the fact that maybe you even are a well-earning academic? Not getting invited for job interviews or being stopped and searched by police is also very, very common if you are not ‘white’: people of colour, or so it is claimed by police, just are more likely to be criminals. And that then supposedly makes it okay to just assume a random person is a criminal based solely on the colour of their skin.

Of course it does not end with sexism or racism; discrimination has many forms. I had a colleague once who was introduced to me as a man. A few years later, she transitioned and asked us to use a new name and female pronouns when referring to her. Was that a weird situation? Well, yes it was at first. But if it was weird and slightly uncomfortable for me, I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for her. And that’s why I never for one second questioned her wish, and I am actually rather proud to say neither did one of our colleagues, at least to my knowledge. She told us her name, and that’s how we called her, end of story. But this is not where it usually ends: if you talk to trans* people, you will almost immediately learn that discrimination and abuse are the norm. The consequences of our oh so very ‘tolerant’ society’s treatment of trans* people: anxiety disorders, depression and other mental issues are very common, as is a frankly alarmingly high suicide rate.

So if you are a woman, if your skin is black or brown, if you are trans*, if you are queer, essentially if you are in any way not a straight white dude, your life has just gotten a lot less easy. And this is not even touching on the problem of intersectionality: if women have problems with sexism and people of colour with racism, care to think about how life is for a black woman? Well? I’m waiting. We white men tend to not think about discrimination too much. After all, it is happening to other people. Literally. So why should we care?

Here’s why: because it’s WRONG. There are lots of good, rational reasons too, like the very reason for black youths being so much more likely to end up as criminals is (apart from a very biased judicial system) the fact that they are discriminated against pretty much from day one. (I.e., society first does not give them a chance, then blames them for failing.) Ending racism and sexism and gender discrimination is also actually good for the economy, since a lot of amazing talent currently remains unused.

But you know what? I actually do not care for those nice rationalisations for something as simple as this: treating a human being like shit just based on something they cannot change, based on who they are, is simply WRONG. And you, I, we all need to stop it. Immediately. Even if it is ‘just’ the internet. Even if it is ‘just’ words.

Because words have power. Words can hurt. Sometimes words can even kill. And there are those who know that and who use that fact. They harass those who are different, who are vulnerable. The especially sick variant of those bastards even actively try to drive people to suicide. Sometimes, too often, they succeed. If you ask them to stop, they just point to ‘free speech’ and continue. Others, and that might be even worse, just shrug and tell the victims to just not be victims. They are just words, after all. Sticks and stones.

And then, and personally I think that a very special place in hell should be reserved for them, there are those voices that not only tell victims to shrug it off, but accuse those who try to improve things of censorship. A recent article in the New York magazine by Jonathan Chait is a perfect illustration of that attitude. In this world view, the harassers’ freedom of speech is actually more important than the mental and physical health (sometimes even: the life) of those they attack.

Among other things, Chait openly mocks campaigns against micro aggressions in his article. You don’t know what a micro aggression is? Don’t worry, Chait apparently does not know as well, as he clearly shows in his article. When a couple is looking for a new car and the salesperson always addresses the male first: that’s a micro aggression. When a non-white person is continuously asked where they are from: that’s a micro aggression. “Oh but your English is so good” or “You almost look like you really are a woman” (to a trans woman) are micro aggressions. They are those small slights you encounter all the time and that don’t look that bad when looked at individually.

The problem with micro aggressions though is that they happen continuously. Whether you are an immigrant or child of an immigrant or a woman or a trans woman or an openly gay man: you will be reminded that you are different, constantly, multiple times a day. And this is the reason that those small slights have big effects and are important. Fighting them doesn’t mean censorship or banning words. It means raising awareness that even words have consequences. Mr Chait apparently does not agree: he seems to be much more concerned with the horror of possibly being told that he was out of line than with the people that get hurt or offended by something he said. In his world, people being offended is just a symptom of hypersensitivity. As a result, the offended are the ones needing to change, not the offenders.

Also very strange to Mr Chait seems to be the concept of trigger warnings. For example, a trigger warning is when the professor warns the law class that they will be dealing with examples of rape and sexual abuse today, thus enabling rape victims who might be present to know what is coming. Chait claims a trigger warning’s only purpose is so people do not get into contact with stuff that makes them uncomfortable. Strangely enough, he promotes controlled exposure in the next sentence, which might actually be a good idea depending on the individual circumstances, but which also requires (you guessed it): trigger warnings. A trigger warning enables the audience to make an informed decision, nothing more, nothing less. When dealing with sensitive subjects, it is simply a matter of courtesy and respect. Of course, in the world of Jonathan Chait and friends it is evil censorship and ‘political correctness’ and therefore has to go.

I’m not going to comment on the complete Chait article. Whoever is actually interested in reading his long-winded, convoluted piece of self-righteous trite is welcome to find it themselves. (Actually there are two pieces now, since he noticed people not agreeing with him and apparently felt the need to defend himself, not with too much success in my opinion.) I will say one final thing about it, though: it is an extremely privileged person sneering not only at those less privileged but also at all those who try to change things. (Sadly he probably doesn’t even realise this.)

Yes, free speech is a human right, and a very important one. It is a critical weapon against political persecution. But it is not limitless. It is certainly not worth more than the mental and physical health of your fellow human beings, and it must not be perverted into a tool for hurting and silencing those among us that are most vulnerable. In a free country, I am also allowed to walk ‘wherever’ I like, but there are limits and nobody questions this. For example, I am not allowed to just mow down people in the process, and when I step on someone’s foot, I apologise.

There is also a difference between e.g. opinionated content in a newspaper or on a website and stalking a person on social networks and yelling at them at every opportunity. A magazine article might be offensively stupid, but reading it is not actually mandatory for anyone. So the author has had every right to write and publish it. That is free speech. And we have the right to criticise (or ignore). That is also free speech. Online stalking, doxxing and forcibly outing people are not, however: those things are just harassment.

My own mother, actually a rather wise woman, taught her children a simple rule: your own rights end where your fellow human beings’ rights begin. If you are constantly being attacked for what and who you are, if everything you do and say in public is being sneered at and laughed at, if people even threaten to rape and murder you on a regular basis just because you argue against discrimination: then this is NOT ‘speech’ deserving of any protection. It is verbal violence, plain and simple, designed to silence those who are different, to limit their freedom of expression, to make them disappear from public discourse. Those who do this openly demonstrate that they think their own freedom of expression is more important than that of others.

Of course speaking your mind has its risks, and never to offend anyone is simply impossible. If you speak of the things you care about, you will sometimes offend people. The really important bit is how you react when people tell you that you made a mistake. Do you own up to it, apologise and get over it? Or do you stubbornly insist on your rights. Yes, you may do that. But you will have to live with others calling you an asshole for it. Hey now, don’t be a victim and get all offended. They are just words, remember? Sticks and stones.

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(Guest Post) Words of mass destruction: the weaponization of 'free speech'

2 thoughts on “(Guest Post) Words of mass destruction: the weaponization of 'free speech'

  1. 1

    Dear reader: are you male? White? Heterosexual? Cisgender? Healthy? Congratulations: this text is for you. It also means you are among us lucky ones who get to play the game called ‘life’ on the easiest setting there is. Don’t believe it? Read on.

    Thank you, this is brilliant! Been looking for something we can refer our more privileged friends to that might help to clue them in about the world outside their privileged bubble.

    treating a human being like shit just based on something they cannot change, based on who they are, is simply WRONG. And you, I, we all need to stop it. Immediately. Even if it is ‘just’ the internet. Even if it is ‘just’ words.

    Precisely, and this one simple principle is in many ways the very foundation of true social justice. It’s depressing to see how many fail to live up to such principles on account of their own agenda or their own ideology or their own unchecked privilege or unchecked biases and preconceieved notions. Fixing this is going to require raising the public consciousness in a big way.

    A magazine article might be offensively stupid, but reading it is not actually mandatory for anyone. So the author has had every right to write and publish it. That is free speech. And we have the right to criticise (or ignore). That is also free speech. Online stalking, doxxing and forcibly outing people are not, however: those things are just harassment.

    This / QFT!

    Writing or saying offensive things that others can choose to ignore is one thing. But abusing the right to free speech in order to justify doxxing and outing people, or sustained harassment, or threats of any kind, are completely indefensible.

  2. 2

    I, too, was raised with the “your rights end where someone else’s begin” concept for dealing with conflicting (or seemingly-conflicting) conceptions of “rights”. I find it similarly useful. Great piece!

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