A storm is whipping up these days about Freedom of Speech. When you take a look at this phrase, you would hope the meaning is clear: Anybody has the right to say anything that they would like. To anyone. Anywhere. I can already see people rearing up to denounce certain words or statements as hate speech, which should not be protected. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, maybe on paper.
You need to approach such a catch-all term from various angles. Freedom for whom? From what? Who even gets to decide?
Let’s start with the ‘easy’ one. Everybody deserves this freedom. Wait, even that person yelling offensive slurs? Yes, even them, they do not deserve a “decking” or however you might refer to violence. One person’s rights end where another person’s begin. Sure, you don’t have the rights to silence a prat on the street. But they don’t have the rights to stop you ignoring said prat or delivering a comeback even Aloe Vera couldn’t soothe. You could even get police involved if genuine threats are being made (wherein your rights would be infringed upon). In the latter cases, the situation is progressed in a manner where both people keep their rights. It’s simple.
Some of you may wonder, how there could be a debate around the second question? Racism! Sexism! Other forms of derogatory language! I would agree, but everybody is different and has different tolerances to these things. Firstly, see above. There are ways of dealing with both inconveniences as well as actual threats; no need to go in Rambo-style. Secondly, if you’re acting on behalf of another, you’re not considering their rights either. Say you’re at school or in a lecture and have a friend who is ginger. Somebody makes a rude remark about it, so you feel the need to either attack the offender or have them removed from the vicinity (e.g. through suspension). *insert Family Fortunes buzzer here* This is entirely the wrong way to go about it (N.B: If someone who works for a business is offensive, do not ‘dox’ them. It can ruin lives and not just those of the guilty person. Don’t even do it if they’re at work. Take the appropriate action of complaint up with the company, privately.).
Aside from stripping away that person’s rights, you’re also harming the person you seek to defend. What if your friend took it jokingly and you flew off the handle without confirming the effect it’s had? You’re making yourself out to be just as foolish. The individual decides what is acceptable to them and hence deals with the consequences of their own actions and actions towards them. You have the right to make your own choices and live with them (Special cases only made for people in specific scenarios where they could not understand the consequences or where they were unable to make their own decision, of course).
It is on this last conundrum where we get into another major and probably less understood part of Freedom of Speech. Many decent people know that certain things are offensive. However in a world where speech is limited, it is those in power who determine what is acceptable. You could end up with a well-meaning yet misinformed leader banning swear words to protect children (and we all know how useful swear words can be sometimes let’s face it), or at worst someone who calls any dissent or criticism of the government hate speech carrying severe punishments à la a dictatorship. Calling for limitation of speech gives governments a dangerous power. What if your passion and belief became hate speech? Victim blaming would go through the roof or may even be acceptable! Which means good news for those who resort to violence – directly helping to justify it – and bad news for everyone else. This cannot be allowed to happen.
With that in mind, I hope you can all agree with me when I say that I may disagree with your views but I will fight tooth and nail for your right to hold them. Because who knows what would end up on the chopping block next?