Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Not So Ineffective Words (2017-10-01)
Randall Munroe at xkcd.com
, October 2017
At the beginning of september, there the ongoing saga of "free speech" took another turn as an execrable publication found itself pummelled for mocking the wrong people. Much as I sometimes disagree with Glenn Greenwald, his point that tolerating speech you don't like doesn't entail or mean that you "embrace and celebrate it" is an excellent one. Yet after reading his article, and various other lengthy discussions of "free speech," I found myself wondering what the hell it is supposed to be. Greenwald's point and Cory Doctorow's on compelled attention at the least help delineate what it is not. Another key thing "free speech" is not, is some sound that is meaningless, such as white noise. But definitions by negation always leave me uneasy, because they so often mark woolly thinking if not a refusal to admit what we actually mean. In the obligatory xkcd cartoon, Randall Munroe provides welcome partial clarity, in the context of the meaning of the first amendment to the united states constitution. All the first amendment means, according to Munroe, is the american "government can't arrest you for what you say." He's american, so I am inclined to take his word for it. It is also my understanding that a big concern of the white men who wrote the american constitution was to constrain the government from interfering with their ability to make money. I suspect we can broadly agree at least about the "constrain the government" part of that sentence, and in that case the definition provided of the first amendment is consistent with that goal.
This actually reveals quite a lot about the notion of "free speech" and speech itself. If speech was meaningless noise the majority of the time, such an amendment would be pointless. At the time some white men were writing the american constitution, among their concerns was preventing a government from abusing its ability to martial force to prevent discussion and implementation of other forms of government than republicanism. When canadian lawmakers set to work on the charter of rights and freedoms, the ongoing effects of sectarian and racist violence inflamed and supported by what is now called hate speech was very much on their minds. So speech is a social act, and actions have consequences not least because we live within a social context, and that context never stays still. It is such an important mode of expression that people will go through incredible effort to speak at others. I say "at" deliberately. For better or worse, just because I speak doesn't mean the other person listens. Structures and relations of power affect what can be said, who can say it, and who, if anyone, a person will be permitted to speak to. This is why Indigenous people get so frustrated when some white person beaks off about Indigenous issues, because right now the power structures affecting white versus Indigenous speech preferentially amplifies white speech and silences Indigenous speech. About anything.
My understanding of this owes a great deal to M. Nourbese Philip and Catherine MacKinnon, among many excellent Feminist theorists. Another useful perspective is provided by Stanley Fish, in his book with a click bait title avant la lettre, There's No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It's A Good Thing Too. All of these theorists and thinkers agree that "free speech" isn't some sort of free random noise, but a form of action guided by beliefs and politics. And this is good, especially if we bear in mind the proper meaning of the word "politics," which is "activities to do with governance" (paraphrasing my trusty OED). "Politics" has been rendered a dirty word over the past twenty years or so, which is convenient for the folks who are up to no good and would prefer everyone else to leave them to their nefarious devices. If they are left to deal with politics while the rest of us never "dirty our hands" we can hardly resist detrimental policies and actions, or effectively support the positive ones.
All of which is to say, speech is a political thing, it expresses how we govern ourselves and even whether we will govern ourselves. That's not inherently bad. What the social management of speech is though, is hard. There isn't a single rule we can apply once and for all, because life is never that simple. So periodically we are going to be faced with somebody managing to say something terrible, and we'll have to figure out what to do about it. We already know, even if not all of us want to admit it all the time, that we can't brush "something terrible" off merely as something that offends you that doesn't offend me at all or as much, and so can be left to stand. I suspect what troubles many people when it comes to dealing with a given troubling speech, is that if their reaction is to fall back on the cry of "free speech" rather than discuss why they don't want to curtail that instance, is that they are nervous about interrogating their own beliefs as they relate to that specific speech act. They don't want to admit that they have specific beliefs and ideas guiding what they find acceptable, because they might change based on newer evidence and experience. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable to admit since it refuses simplicity and absolutes. However, this is a feature, not a bug. We change our minds based on new information not because we are merely fickle, but because this is how we learn and survive in a changing social world. And sometimes, we'll get it wrong, just as sometimes we will mishandle a given instance of problematic speech. But this doesn't free from our responsibility to try, or somehow make the bad slippery slope argument true.