Yep, I agree with Jordan on freedom of speech, as far as I understand his position. That includes the freedom to offend and if you want to, generally be an asshole (as judged from someone else’s perspective). Jordan truly had an epic moment in the Cathy Newman interview and he totally nailed this, as anyone reading this likely knows. I feel like I don’t even have to say anything else, because far more eloquent people than I have defended free speech more than adequately. (My personal favourite though, has to be Mr. Bean — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubFIlcPSbeE
Like, seriously, take a step back here for a second and think about what we’re talking about —
Freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech? Freedom of Speech???!!!!!!!
…..how did THAT happen? Isn’t Free Speech one of those basic, universal, fundamental, things we all pretty much agree on? Don’t we all know about 1984 and Brave New World and Animal Farm? Aren’t we all aware of how Free Speech is a bulwark against dictators and tyrants? Don’t we all have some basic understanding of history and how Bad Shit Happens through the suppression of free speech? Don’t we all know that at every ‘level of analysis’, from intimate relationships, to families, to corporations, to society itself, the ability of those at the bottom of power hierarchies to speak truth to power is absolutely, fundamentally necessary?
That’s what I thought, growing up. My childhood naivety didn’t last forever, but I do remember believing that. I believe that this unexamined naivety is at the root of many people’s criticism of Jordan for causing such a ruckus out of the gender-pronoun thing. Like, what’s the big deal if some people want to be called by some other label? Is it so hard to just acknowledge a whole group of people’s lived experience? Can’t you adapt and be a decent person? Do you really have to go all conspiracy-theory on us and use the Gender Pronoun War as a kind of gateway drug into your whole crusade against the neo-marxist social justice warriors and others who apparently hold murderous ideologies?
But here’s the thing. Jordan’s initial beef, as he has clarified repeatedly, was not specifically with alternate gender pronouns, but with the legislation that compels their use. For me personally, I have zero personal resistance to new pronouns being invented and coming into common practice. I’m totally, 100% cool with that. But I agree that it’s not OK to pass legislation that compels forms of speech, because it does set a dangerous precedent. This might seem trivial to some people so they conclude, in effect, “who cares? protecting more people’s rights is a good thing!”
I think what many people do miss (myself included until Jordan got me thinking about this), is that we cannot rest on our laurels, so to speak, and assume that Free Speech is some indestructible pillar of society that many of us like to believe, one we can blithely whittle away at to accommodate other values. It is easy to believe that Free Speech is unassailable, especially if you yourself have never experienced your freedom being curtailed in a serious way. Like I said before, it’s one of those universals, right? Like a “Rule of Life”, you might say, that pretty much everybody agree about (at least in modern, Western cultures). We have lots of those ‘universals’: Don’t steal stuff. Don’t abuse children. Don’t rape people. Don’t torture people. Don’t murder people. Do pretty much what you want, as long as you are not harming others. Flush the goddamn toilet, and wipe the seat if you dirtied it! Always remember that there are two sides to every story.
……but……errrrrrr……Then you think about it for a few minutes and you run into the stark reality that these aren’t even close to “universals” in actual practice. Even if “pretty much everybody” agrees in the abstract, we, on the whole, have done a terrible job of living up to them. Even the most basic ones!
Don’t abuse children. Well, go read about the child sex trade and see how disturbingly prevalent it is. Or talk to a social worker, or elementary school teacher, or clinical psychologist, or police officer, and see whether they have any stories of child abuse. You know, like one or two….or a thousand…Or just walk around for a day and specifically watch parents ‘dealing with’ their kids. You will no doubt see many truly beautiful and heart-warming moments; and you’ll also see many, many situations where parents talk to their children in a way that, if they talked like that to pretty much anyone else in the world, they’d be told in no uncertain terms what to go do with themselves… But, in contrast to everyone else in the world, kids pretty much have to take it; they have very little choice in the matter. Not only are they physically dependent upon, and vulnerable to, the whims of the adult, they are also so enamoured with and/or intimidated by and/or emotionally dependent on the parent that they generally believe the terrible things they’re told about themselves. So, on a daily basis in our culture, children are harmed and we generally turn a blind eye to it, out of “politeness” or not wanting to get involved, or whatever other reason we have for opting to be bystanders. “Don’t abuse children”? So much for that being a universal.
Don’t steal, lie and cheat. I wonder how the indigenous peoples of the world feel about modern Western cultures in these ways? Hmmm…
Don’t rape people. Except, #metoo. And if you have issues with #metoo, then fine, just go with the women (and men) you yourself know who have been raped, assaulted or abused. Google “rohypnol”. Or think about how commonly rape is used to terrorize and subjugate people during war. #ohyeahthattoo
Don’t torture. Except, lots of countries, like the United States, do it all the time. U.S. President George Bush Jr., even changed the laws so that torture became officially A-OK. You know, because of “terrorism” and “national security”. Granted, it’s not Bush’s fault that the US tortures people; he just made it more ‘legit’.
Don’t murder people. Last time I checked, I think we were a bit past zero murders for the year so far…..
Do what you want but don’t harm people. Except, go look at a newspaper. Any newspaper.
Flush the toilet and wipe the seat. Hahaha…. #publicbathrooms
There are two sides to every story. Except when one of the sides is one of your friends. Then, to hell with the other guy’s story; he’s probably a liar anyway.
Free speech is no different. We agree in the abstract, but in actual, everyday practice, we are far better at suppressing free speech than allowing it.
– Have you ever sat at the dinner table with a family that just…..doesn’t…..talk……..about certain things? …..hahahaha….little joke there. The real question is, have you EVER sat around with a family that was wide open, and every topic is okay to ‘bring to the table’? They do exist, but they’re about as rare as white rhinos.
– Imagine a teenager saying, “hey Mom/Dad/Grandpa/Grandma/, you know, I have to say, I really love having sex. It’s awesome…seriously…I’ve done it with almost all my friends. Like, we’re safe and everything, it’s mostly just oral and you know, hand jobs and stuff. But wow! Who knew? Hey, can I borrow the car keys?”
– What about, “I’ve decided to join a Star Cult, where we’re gonna pray to aliens, and they’ll deliver us before the end of the world, to a rad place in some other galaxy?”
– “I’m becoming an environmental activist; I’m spending next summer working with indigenous groups and other activists to block the construction of pipelines across their land”?
– “I’ve decided I’m not going to have kids”?
– “I am gay”?
– “I am an atheist”?
– “I am going to major in Drama and Art History”?
– “I am trans-gender”?
– “I like to say the word Fuck a lot. It’s fucking awesome. Fuck….yeah….”?
Silencing people happens all the time. There are whole generations of comedians who have built their careers around how men and women silence each other in relationships. We’ve invented great words like gas-lighting, and bullying, and intimidation, and emotional abuse, to describe just how Free Speech dies a quick and ugly death in far too many of the interpersonal situations people find themselves in.
Corporations nuke Free Speech all the time too — Codes of Conduct, “the corporate culture”. Especially when Authority is involved, you just know that there are certain things you don’t say, certain ways you don’t behave, certain people you can’t say certain things too, certain modes of deference that are necessary when interacting with people up the hierarchy, etc.
The suppression of free speech through socio-cultural mechanisms is, in fact, a pretty normal part of what makes a culture, a culture. Social norms and mores operate by shaping behaviour in certain ways, discouraging and punishing some behaviours and encouraging and rewarding others. This is how culture works.
But in addition to “normal socio-cultural mechanisms”, we also have Laws, and these Laws have a whole other level of power because they can actually bring State violence down on people. Laws determine, in effect, when violence can be “justified.”
We collectively decided, as a culture, to enshrine Free Speech into Law, making it one of our fundamental values, grounding and stabilizing it so that, as culture changes over time, this Value will remain; we will protect it, passing the torch from our own trembling hands to future generations.
But on the other hand, we practice suppressing Free Speech in practically every social situation we are in! There is an inevitable tension between the ideal of Free Speech and the practical exigencies of life. On the one hand, we want to hold to our values; on the other, we realize that there are other values at work in real situations — values like caring about people’s feelings, preserving harmony in a family, respecting elders, or simply “getting along with people”. Struggling with this tension is what Free Speech is all about and is a fundamental part of the functioning of our culture.
We have socio-cultural mechanisms for curtailing offensive, disturbing, hateful speech, such as confronting and exposing people, shaming, shunning, etc. They don’t work perfectly, but if we reach beyond these socio-cultural mechanisms, which are inherently part of the actual situations in which we find ourselves, and we try to use legal means to limit Free Speech, then we are in a serious pickle. Nowadays (as Jordan has pointed out many times), we are in the position of allowing the State to legitimize violence to enforce what we say and what we don’t, and to me, this is indeed dangerous. For example, in just the past decade, I have seen the Canadian government pass legislation that could be used to criminalize speech against the fossil fuel industry, in the name of “protecting Canada’s national interests.” Legally speaking, an environmental scientist who believes the fossil fuel industry is killing the planet and stands up against it, could be labelled a “terrorist” and face legal consequences. This is scary stuff….
Any time, ANY time, the State takes action to prevent people from saying certain things, or much worse, compels people to say certain things, I think we should subject this action to the most intense scrutiny and debate possible, before allowing the government to exercise that power. And if government exercises this power without the proper process (we discuss “proper process” in Part 8: Post-modernism), this should be resisted by The People as strenuously as possible.
Democracy thrives on, indeed requires dissent and controversy and debate and argument. It requires protest and the ability to organize en masse and say things that offend some people. If you don’t have this ability, the State (i.e., the powerful minority who control the government, banks, big corps, most traditional media outlets, etc.) can do what it wants. Our collective human history of suffering, violence, genocide, colonialism, mass murder and incarceration, is an impossible-to-dismiss testament to the need for people to be able to speak their truths, even if those “truths” are offensive to some, even to most. You HAVE to be able to risk offending people, without risking the force of law being brought down on you, in order to have a democratic society that works.
The biggest counterpoint to this that I generally hear is people saying that if you can freely offend people, what’s to stop people from being total assholes? Bullies? Verbally abusive?
It’s a good question, but we already covered the answer — socio-cultural mechanisms. I.e., We stop this from happening.
– We stop bullies in the schoolyard by teaching kids about bullying, by empowering the bystander and normalizing the behaviour of standing up to bullies en masse.
– We stop racist or hurtful speech by not going along with it, not ‘politely’ laughing at the jokes, and instead calling people out, ‘rocking the boat’, and making it clear that you think that kind of behaviour is dick-ish and unacceptable.
– We stop abuse in families by bringing it into the light instead of hiding and protecting and “covering” for the abuser, bonding together with the victims and empowering them to take back control of their families.
– We stop abusive relationships by taking responsibility for getting involved in the bad shit that we see going on around us. This doesn’t mean running around and sticking your nose in everyone else’s business. But it does mean not turning a blind eye to what you see happening in the relationships that are around you. It means reaching out to people you think are being victimized, asking them if they’re okay, offering them support, and then following up, again and again and again. It means speaking to, being honest with, maybe even taking a stand against, someone, even a friend, who you feel is harming other people. It means reaching out to the people in your friendship circle who you know are struggling, and inviting them out for coffee, dropping them a Facebook message, or in some way or another, regularly letting them know you are there for them. It means bonding together with those being victimized, and presenting a united front against abusers. It’s the same thing that workers do when they form unions to collectively empower workers against abusive bosses or unfair employment practices.
In short, we deal with shitty people (or rather, shitty behaviours) the same way we ALWAYS HAVE — through getting involved, speaking out, offering support, and standing together. This is how culture works, and I think that’s what we should emphasize — taking personal responsibility to stick your neck out and help the people around you. (Jordan would agree with this too, as far as I understand). (NOTE: The fact that this so often doesn’t work in society is an important point, but again, you’ll have to wait until we get to Part 8: Postmodernism, where we’ll confront this head-on.)
If we combine the power of people helping each other, with the power of ‘the tribe’ to self-regulate such that the ‘bad guys’ among us are socially sanctioned, then we have tapped into some serious transformative potential. I think this is what needs to be overwhelmingly emphasized, instead of trying to enact legal and other state-level interventions. But for this to work, Free Speech is fundamentally necessary. Otherwise, the dark things that happen, stay hidden and are never exposed to the light of collective condemnation.
Now, of course, if there are legitimate cases in which speech needs to be legally constrained, then okay, let’s have a big conversation about this (again, “proper process”; see Part 8: Postmodernism). This is how we determine which cases are legitimate (e.g., yelling fire in public spaces; crank calls to 911), and which aren’t (e.g., voicing an opinion that hurts another’s feelings), and how to best deal with them. Because we have no litmus test or sufficient data to determine what’s “true” in most cases of the important things people argue about, the best we can do is duke it out in the arena of discussion and reasoned debate. ….unless we go back to relying on Power and Authority to dictate “proper behaviour” to the masses. That’s exactly what Jordan took a stand against, and on that specific point, I do agree with him and think he should be applauded for being a whistleblower and standing up against what might be a dangerous legal precedent.
In sum, as a general principle, I do believe that freedom of speech is practically sacred, highly vulnerable, and should be fought for with courage and guarded with “eternal vigilance.” It should only be curtailed when it is truly justifiable to do so. And figuring THAT out is not something I, or anyone, can summarize in a principle. Figuring out when to curtail speech is a practical problem, a problem of social discourse. It’s something that society has to have a big ol’ discussion about, probably a big ol’ argument about in which, probably, lots of people’s feelings will get hurt. Decisions to legislate the curtailing of speech should never be imposed, certainly not quickly, with a short-term agenda, or without the “proper process”. And if Free Speech is curtailed without this proper process, it is our duty as citizens of a free society, to protest and resist this as strenuously as possible. Without Free Speech, we do not have an actual democracy, and it is to our collective peril to forget this or become complacent about it.
In sum, Jordan and I agree, so far as I know, on the whole issue of free speech. And so does Mr. Bean.