Nowadays its fairly standard to find that when something problematic occurs and people complain about it, there’s almost always one person who says “but what about free speech?”
I feel like this is a buzzword that people find themselves desperately clinging to whenever they get called out about something, so I thought I’d talk about this in more detail. Freedom of speech is, of course, the phrase used to describe the fact that in most countries people are free to say whatever they want. And that’s fine. Nobody is disagreeing with you on that one, pal. But sometimes, however, free speech can shift into the dangerous territory of hate speech. In day to day terms, free speech means you can say what you want but that if I find your views offensive, I am also within my rights to call you out on it. It’s when things get public that it gets a little more tricky.
So what’s the difference?
Free speech, as we’ve already covered, means you can say whatever you want. Cool. Nice. Hate speech is when people say things that are out rightly offensive or harmful, mostly to a particular group of people – e.g racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Now, a lot of people would argue that, because we all have free speech, we should be allowed to listen to people who say this kind of thing, and that we should engage in healthy debate. And in principal, yes, we should always consider different opinions and different world views, otherwise society would never progress anywhere. As they say, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
But of course, this opens your opinion up to criticism. Free speech works both ways. If your free speech becomes hate speech, then some of us can use OUR right to free speech to complain and critique. If your show gets cancelled because you did something offensive, that’s not cutting off your right to free speech. You’re not being thrown in prison, and you can still express your views elsewhere. But the network provider has a right to deny you expressing your views on their network if you’re spreading hate speech and they disagree with that.
So where do we draw the line?
The line needs to be drawn when genuinely harmful things are being said. For instance, everyone was up in arms about Germaine Greer’s visit to Cardiff university being cancelled, but this was only due to the fact that they were concerned about the welfare of transgender students. Greer has been known to promote trans-exclusionary feminism, so inviting her to speak at the university and giving her a platform would basically be like saying “hey trans people – you don’t matter”. If even one person would be made to feel that way due to someone’s publicly expressed views, then I think it’s fair enough to say no. No-platforming should only really occur when other peoples’ welfare is at stake.
Similarly, a guy at my old university was recently included in a Channel 4 documentary series about the “alt-right”, and was filmed saying that he agreed with the theories put forward in The Bell Curve – that white people were more intelligent than black people, and that he believed that as scientific fact. Now, in this day and age, we can see that that is quite clearly racism. There’s no beating around the bush here, that’s racism. In a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” we feel like we have to question everything, but this was pure racism, it was plain to see. He then went on to recommend Mein Kampf, so there you go.
Now, I’m sure many (mostly white) people would say “well fair enough, he’s entitled to free speech, he should be allowed to say what he wants”, but this is a prime example of where we need to draw the line. Channel 4 should not have given this guy a national platform to promote his “alt right”, aka fascist, views. The reason I put ‘mostly white’ in brackets is because I know there were POC who watched the video and felt genuinely concerned about being on campus. If someone from your uni has said that he (and his friends!) see you as an inferior human being, then of course you’re not exactly going to feel at ease. And this is where we draw the line: when people’s safety/welfare is at risk. If you’re spreading views that can lead to an increase in hate crimes, then you shouldn’t be given a national platform to speak on, nor should you be interviewed by certain media outlets as if your views are totally normal and fine. There’s taking different opinions into view, and there’s sympathising with and normalising fascism.
Obviously, I’m not saying we should live in some make believe land where we pretend that these people and these opinions don’t exist. But we should be discussing these views from a critical stance, not entertaining them as if racism and sexism and homophobia are totally OK and perfectly reasonable opinions to be promoting. I know people think this is an exaggeration, but this is how Nazi Germany started, people. This is how we have people like Trump as President of the USA.
Look, I know some people take it way too far. Some liberals are ruining the movement by being far too quick to want to ban every tiny thing and being really impatient about really small details, and in turn driving people further to the right – I get that. But if something is plainly hate speech, it shouldn’t be given a platform. And we shouldn’t be mockingly called “snowflakes” for trying to protect people’s welfare.
In a world where everything is becoming increasingly public, we need to take more responsibility for what we say/do. We need to be better judges on what is harmful, and gauging the difference between not banning someone’s right to free speech but also avoiding the promotion of hate speech. Everyone can say what they want, but if you want to promote something that’s harmful, then don’t be angry if you’re shut down by people who don’t want to hear it. It’s dangerous.