By Donherra Walmsley,
I call bullshit on freedom.
More specifically, I call bullshit on people constantly using freedom of speech as a justification for perpetuating homophobia, sexism, racism, and other unpleasant things ending in –ism.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m on board with Voltaire and his infamous statement “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, but what the freedom of speech arguments inevitably fail to acknowledge is that not everyone is equally “free” to speak.
Unfortunately, we still live in a society in which privilege operates. That means that while everyone theoretically has the same right to have an opinion, and the same right to express that opinion, in practice, certain opinions are valued and listened to above others by virtue of who is expressing them.
I’ve most frequently seen the freedom of speech argument used when someone says or does something sexist/racist/homophobic. The person calling out the offender, be it on Facebook saying that their status is offensive, or saying as the president of a student union “no you cannot have a jelly wrestling party because it objectifies women”, is frequently accused of “hating freedom”/engaging in censorship/trying to bring down free speech and by extension democracy (and did I mention freedom).
The big problem with this kind of statement is that it completely dismisses the opinion of someone legitimately concerned by behaviour they consider offensive. Making statements or undertaking actions that are sexist/racist/homophobic in the first place is contributing to structural oppression, which is not great. Dismissing someone’s criticism, especially when that someone identifies as belonging to the group that the comment in question is offending, further sidelines those who are already oppressed because through these dismissals their voices are being silenced, allegedly in defence of ‘freedom’.
I’m not saying that we don’t have the right to disagree with people, whether or not they’re from a structurally oppressed group – though as someone who believes in autonomous organising I personally wouldn’t be comfortable say telling an Indigenous person what to think about the NT Intervention as I’m not Indigenous, but hey that’s just my perspective – I’m saying that by brushing aside their concerns about how your speech or your actions are offensive, you’re eliding their entire experience of oppression. Which is, well, pretty damn oppressive.
Furthermore, because of the way in which privilege operates, some people are more likely to exercise their right to free speech, regardless of how their comment will be received. In other words, a straight, white, middle class man is much more likely to air his opinion because of the fact that society has conditioned him to speak his mind, and assert his right to have his opinions. On the other hand, women are conditioned to second guess their opinions, think before they speak, and defer to the opinions of others. It’s bullshit, but it’s true – in fact a recent study found that women who spoke less in business situations were thought to be more competent than women who spoke a lot, where the inverse was true of men. Yes, women were rewarded for not speaking, while men were rewarded for giving their opinion.
The “because freedom!” argument so often fails to acknowledge that any kind of privilege is operating, and almost always gets used to justify oppressive behaviour, and I’m sick of it. Yes, you’re free to have your opinion, but I’m sure as hell free to critique it and call it out on being offensive. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism, and I’m really over it being used as a free pass for being a dickhead.
Donherra is the president of the National Union of Students. You can follow her @nus_president account of twitter.