Over the past couple of months, as tempers rise and depression deepens in the midst of this global pandemic and political unrest, I’ve seen an increase of calls citing “Freedom of Speech.” The infamous Harper’s Letter called for open debate, speaking specifically about cancel culture, but there’s also a cry for “Freedom of Speech” regarding political opinions throughout social media and even published articles.
I’d like to address this too-oft call for “Freedom of Speech” to justify and even excuse bad behavior, privilege, and hate speech. People love to throw around these sound bites like “Freedom of Speech” or “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” whenever someone criticizes something said or, in the case of the latter, accuses a person of wrongdoing. I usually see this in cases of sexual misconduct, but I’ve already written about that here.
Let’s examine: “Freedom of Speech” refers to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Here is what it says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievancesUS Constitution, First Amendment
For those who feel they can spout racial slurs and other hate speech, be cruel and/or threaten harm, or just be an asshole in its many manifestations, this is the part to remember:
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.
News flash: Congress hasn’t made a law abridging freedom of speech. You can say anything you like, and you will not be imprisoned for it. That doesn’t mean there won’t be social or even professional consequences for bad behavior and bigoted speech. People get to decide for themselves who they want in their social circles and who they want to support—meaning whose books to buy and movies to watch. Employers get to choose who they want to hire and fire, as long as they’re not discriminating against them for race, gender identity, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, etc., but they can fire someone for being an asshole and contributing to a toxic work environment. In fact, I’d go as far to say as it’s their duty to their other employees to do so.
There are consequences to being an asshole, regardless of where you are on the asshole spectrum. If you use racial slurs, you should lose your job and be ostracized by any decent community. That’s not socially acceptable behavior in 2020. Sadly, it’s been socially acceptable for far too long, but it was never right or kind. No one is arresting people for spouting racial slurs. Congress is not making a law against it, but there are social and even professional consequences to it.
If you use other bigoted speech, like toward LGBTQ people or women or any other marginalized group, it’s not against the law. No one is arresting you, but it’s a shitty thing to do.
I no longer tolerate that kind of talk in my life or the kind of people who say/believe such things. If someone chooses to support a rapist, repeat victim-blaming or rape-apologist rhetoric, or prove (by my judgement) to be a misogynist—that’s their choice. They are free to do that and I am free to cut them out of my life without question or mercy. That’s my choice. That’s my prerogative. I get to choose who I want in my life, and I don’t suffer assholes anymore.
Not even a little bit.
When I read the Harper’s Letter, I first agreed with it because in a vacuum it was supporting open debate, but when I read between the lines, I saw that many of the signatories were outright transphobic and had been criticized and even “canceled” for this behavior. In these cases “canceled” literally means criticized openly, because it’s quite clear that while J.K. Rowling has been openly criticized and condemned for her transphobic tweets, she’s still extremely successful and rich—and she still has millions of fans who believe what she does about gender identity. She hasn’t been canceled—she’s been called out. No one is arresting her. Congress (or Parliament) isn’t making a law stating she can’t say those things, but she’s enduring criticism, often very violent verbal attacks and threats, for voicing her opinion. I don’t condone her words/opinions and I don’t condone those threatening her with rape or murder. In fact, I despise both actions, and I wouldn’t want any of them in my life.
It’s not infringing on Rowling’s freedom of speech in the slightest! This, for example, is comical:
Basically elite, privileged, rich and/or scholarly individuals are getting called out on the internet for their bigotry, and they think they’re being oppressed. When in fact the reality is that they’re facing consequences for their problematic opinions and words, perhaps for the first time in their white, educated, privileged careers.
No one is arresting them. No law is being made. They just aren’t used to being challenged or criticized en masse, as can now happen with the “Twitter Mob.” I don’t blame them for being upset, as it must be really horrible to see so much hate directed at you, especially when you’re used to being revered and adored, but it’s not oppression and it’s not infringing on their right to free speech.
I have my own personal intelligence and morality test, and I have the freedom to do that. If you fail my test: you’re not worth my time or energy. It’s not my job to teach you, and I don’t want to know you. Ignorance is not necessarily stupidity, but if people refuse to educate themselves or see reason in the face of undeniable evidence, it’s my prerogative to call them on it or just cut them from my life.
I get to choose that for my own life, my space, and my community. Period.
You get to choose that too. If you like to spout out racist slurs and shout “all lives matter” and wear swastikas, if you want to hang around other racists and misogynists, no one is making a law against it, but society is evolving and leaving you behind.
Stop decrying “freedom of speech” because someone calls you on your bullshit. Instead examine why they’re criticizing your words/actions. Check yourself as to why you lost your job. Be introspective. Have some self-awareness and take responsibility. Challenge yourself and your beliefs.
In short, evolve.
3 Comments Add yours
This particular XKCD comic comes to mind: https://xkcd.com/1357/ “Your free speech rights aren’t being violated. It’s just that the people listening think you’re an a-hole.”
The internet (or more specifically, social media) has brought us to an equalizing time. It used to be that rich and/or powerful folks could speak their mind and it would get broadcast out without consequence — over TV, in newspaper columns, magazines, books. The little bit of feedback received would be filtered through “letters to the Editor” or whathaveyou, instilling bias and attenuating the stronger responses. Social media makes communicating with producers a two-way street and the folks familiar with the old ways just aren’t used to it. Younger or more adaptable producers, on the other hand, embrace communicating with their fans.
Exactly this! You explained this so articulately. Thank you for commenting and sharing that comic. 🙂