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The Carletonian

A radical redefinition of freedom of speech

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-4c0a21ad-e8e2-8c56-f9ca-066c7de9f3e7">It’s sad, as a journalist, to see the principle your work is based on so often appropriated as an excuse for hate and ignorance. I’ve heard the freedom of speech argument stretched to justify almost every type of backlash to social progress – from blatant far-right hatred to liberals concerned that things like microaggressions or trigger warnings “have just gone too far.” In all of these instances, however, the freedom of speech argument is reactionary, a fearful push against proposed progress, a concerned “but what about me?”

The first problem with the freedom of speech argument, as I recently learned from a surprisingly insightful MTV-produced YouTube video (“Is PC Culture Anti-Free Speech?” from Decoded with Franchesca Ramsey), is one of definition. “Freedom of speech” is a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, which means that it’s guaranteed by the government, not by private citizens. So when I tell you that that comment was really homophobic or that the butt of that joke was a historically oppressed minority, we both still have freedom of speech. I’m not saying you can’t say anything you want, because obviously I don’t have that power – I’m saying you shouldn’t, out of a desire to be a decent human being. It’s not about you being censored by some crypto-fascist PC regime – it’s just about two people having a discussion.

But the error of “freedom of speech” runs deeper than just being factually incorrect. It’s also a term often thrown up by historically dominant groups (white, cis, hetero, male) when someone from a marginalized group raises their voice in protest to say “hey, that’s not OK anymore.” The freedom of speech functions as an excuse for people who feel threatened by a new, previously unheard voice entering the conversation to silence that voice and return to the status quo. In other words, the argument is a way for people who were and are on the top to express their fear over losing their position in the dominant power structure, and attempt to deny challenges to this position.

The same goes for other anti-PC buzzwords, like “too sensitive” or “coddling.” These phrases are all just attempts to end a potentially uncomfortable argument without addressing the very real concerns involved in it, and to me, that seems more childish than trying to point out institutional oppression.

Take the idea of a “safe space,” for example. Today, the idea has become commonly turned into a joke used to satirize “sensitive” liberals who purportedly want to create echo chambers of their own left-wing ideas, and deny others the freedom of speech to disagree.

It seems like the people who say this have never been in the “safe spaces” they aim to criticize. Every “safe space” I’ve ever been in has been a place where people whose voices are normally hemmed in by oppressive cultures can freely express their views and push back against dominant power structures. It’s a place where, finally, you can talk about problems with people who won’t question the validity of your experience or tell you to just shake it off. “Safe spaces” don’t inhibit intellectual discussions – instead, they in fact bolster these discussions by giving marginalized voices the confidence to move into the mainstream and provide new points of view. If you’ve never felt the need for a safe space, because the regular world feels like a pretty safe space already, that’s great, but before you belittle the idea of a constructed “safe space,” try and have some empathy for those who aren’t always able to feel that way.

This isn’t to say that the idea of free speech isn’t vitally important. As a journalist and a citizen, I value greatly the freedom without fear of governmental censorship. But active censorship is different than society deciding to move past harmful modes of expression.

So, please, tell me why we shouldn’t offer universal health care, or why capitalism is the best possible way of structuring an economy, or why you should be able to use a homophobic slur without having lived through homophobia yourself. But please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t throw your “freedom of speech” in my face when I disagree with you.

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