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Freedom from speech

Posted on 10 January 2015

I’ve only ever received one death threat. It was from someone I didn’t know, but who clearly lived in the same city as me. They took to Twitter early one morning while I was on air, saying they were going to kill me and others, insinuating they knew where we lived and what we drove.

The police officer called in said they would go check this person out, but in the meantime was there any way we could “not look at it?”

My experience on the internet has largely been a positive one. But I recall this incident as a reminder that it can turn ugly, fast, the world is not always welcoming, and words can be used to make you feel unsafe, even when outside observers suggest the solution is to just ignore them.

Odds are, if I were a woman I would be reminded of this more often. Here’s a nice little video summarizing the sorts of comments women get for being online (short version: harassment and solicitations). And in case you think this is just what it’s like to be on the internet, here’s a piece on what happens when a black woman changes her Twitter avatar to a white man (spoiler: she gets harassed less).

So women and minorities are harassed more online. What to do about it? In Twitter’s case, they are working with an organization called Women, Action, and the Media to create a tool to report harassment. This, in the eyes of some, is an attack on freedom of speech.

I’m a pretty big fan of freedom of speech. But I’ve been wrestling with what exactly that means.

If every time a woman speaks she is told by anonymous dudes to “make me a sandwich” and “nice tits”, does she really have freedom of speech? Or more to the point, is she being given the same opportunity to exercise that freedom that a man is? Sure, nobody is STOPPING her from saying anything. “Make me a sandwich” and “nice tits” are not illegal or necessarily threatening. But it’s pretty easy to see how dealing with that would make someone more hesitant to speak up. And that’s before we get into the rape comments and death threats.

So yeah, I’m for freedom of speech. But perhaps in a platform like Twitter there’s an argument to be made in favour of cracking down on or discouraging one type of speech in order to encourage other, more inclusive ones. Maybe it’s worth temporarily banning someone from the service for saying “make me a sandwich, bitch” if it means more women feel safe speaking about, well, whatever.

I bring this up because in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo killings, a number of cultural commentators have resumed railing against what they see as a problematic form of self-censorship taking hold in North America.

Let’s take, for example, the debate about whether to republish those cartoons or not (to be clear, I’m speaking for myself here and I have no decision-making over whether or not these cartoons are show in any media outlet). One argument in favour of publishing them is that one must do so in order to show their commitment to freedom of speech. In not doing so, we are either bowing to the extremists out of fear or self-censoring because we put Islam on a pedestal (or both).

But let’s take this to it’s logical extreme (and I’m well aware that I’m creating a strawman argument here). Let’s say a group of neonazis were killed because some activists objected to their publication of documents arguing for racial purity and the supremacy of whites. If one believes in freedom of speech, are media outlets around the world then obligated to publish those documents in solidarity? If they had racist cartoons, should newspapers around the world start publishing them?

I’m not saying the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were necessarily racist (I’ve seen arguments from both sides and my conclusion is I lack enough understanding of French language and culture to fully evaluate this). What I am saying is there’s clearly people who do find the cartoons insensitive and wouldn’t have published them before the killings on those grounds. I don’t see why disagreeing with the killings means you have to publish something else you disagree with. You can think something should be allowed to exist while simultaneously not wanting to hang it on your wall.

Let’s circle back to women on the internet and self-censorship now. As a general rule, I’m in favour of freedom of speech– to the point I believe things I find absolutely reprehensible should be allowed to be written and said. But I also don’t think freedom of speech = freedom to say whatever you want, anywhere. I think people should be allowed to spew racist, sexist nonsense, but I don’t think they should be given free space in the newspaper to do so, or handed the mic between the second and third periods at hockey games.

It gets more complicated in places like Facebook and Twitter. Are these publishers or utilities? If they are utilities, anything goes. But if they are publishers, well, then they can exercise some editorial control about what is and isn’t acceptable. That’s what traditional media does. It’s also what universities, folk festivals, book stores, and any number of semi-public spaces and organizations do.

As time goes on, more people are recognizing the way language can be used to reinforce stereotypes, to silence minorities. Language can be used to belittle women, to make Aboriginal people feel small, and to drive a wedge between Muslims and the rest of society. Freedom of speech is important, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean that the use of language is always a net good. It can be hateful, hurtful, and deeply damaging. It’s not always obvious when you are part of the majority. But when you aren’t – when you’re already an outsider – “freedom of speech” can easily translate to “freedom to reinforce the status quo,” or straight-up bullying. It’s not a matter of rolling with the punches or just not looking at it – it’s there, and it hurts.

This isn’t a post where I’m leading to some grand conclusion. I don’t have an answer. I believe in freedom of speech but I also believe in a world where people can go wherever they choose without being subjected to harassing, hateful language. I’m not always sure how to reconcile the two. The only thing I feel certain about in this whole thing is that no one deserves to die for what they say or draw or write, no matter what. But everything else? It’s complicated.

Filed under: media, misc

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