Jan 11, 2017

Freedom of Speech and What it Means

There's a lot of talk right now about free speech, and whether or not there should be restrictions placed on it. This is, in part, thanks to an opinion piece published in the Irish Times, by Nicholas Pell, which he intended to serve as an introduction to what some call the "alt-right," but what I will continue to refer to by the more accurate term: Fascists.

I will not link to Pell's article, but you can find it easily enough if you go looking.

There was a follow-up to the article, on the Claire Byrne Live show on RTÉ, which had Pell on as a panelist, and invited liberal guests to join him. Several publicly refused, on the grounds that granting someone like Pell a platform legitimises the growing fascist movement in Europe, the UK, and America.

And frankly, I agree. But it's complicated.

On the one hand, I acknowledge the risk that denying people a way to express their beliefs risks driving them underground. The public rise of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia in response to Brexit and Trump's election has to have been in some part influenced by the growing progressive movement working to stamp out bigotry.

But on the other hand, if standing up to a bully makes the bully hit harder, does that mean it was wrong to stand up to them in the first place?

I do think it's dangerous to ignore a problem. Look at how easily hate rose up in response to Brexit and Trump. Those campaigns tapped into an undercurrent that was being ignored. The root of the issue was economic; not do to with race or equal rights, but facts take a back seat when manipulative figures present desperate people with easy answers and, most importantly, someone to blame for their predicament.

But we can acknowledge a problem without giving it power. We can learn about the circumstances which leave people, any people, feeling like they've been left behind and forgotten. And we can do it without feeding the lie that the root of the problem is women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community being given rights and respect. We can do it without allowing fascists like Pell to arm their supporters with hate speech, without treating them as if their movement is the equal of progressive campaigns whose aim is to make the lives of marginalised people better.

Is there an easy way to do this? I doubt it. Plenty of people will be pissed off, no matter what choices are made. But to move forward, we need to acknowledge and confront several difficult truths:

1: We do not have freedom of speech in Ireland. Our Constitution (in all its badly-constructed glory) prohibits blasphemy (though at least there is talk of a referendum to remove this prohibition), as well as anything which could undermine the authority of the state, public morality, or be considered seditious. We have a history of banning and censoring things the State and the Catholic Church find objectionable. If we want to talk about having freedom of speech, let's start with the things we're already prohibited from saying and publishing.

2: Denying someone a platform is not restricting their speech. Freedom of speech is, in every country's definition, the protection from legal consequences of your words. It is not a way to force people to listen to you, in any format or in any place.

4: Saying that particular groups of people, based solely on their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, are inferior and deserving of fewer rights than you, is not about creating a discussion. It is not about sharing ideas and coming to a mutually-beneficial agreement. It is about denying human rights to people who are different.

I will gladly hear opinions different to my own. But stating that those who are different are the enemy, or don't deserve the same rights as a straight white cisgender man, is not a differing opinion. It is a threat. And I will not stand for that. None of us should.

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