On Free Speech

How does one protect freedom of speech without condoning the actions of those who’s speech you’re protecting? I like to think it’s possible. The very notion of “free speech” says that people are allowed to say things that others agree or disagree with without fear of being legally or physically attacked. But there’s a line where freedom of speech and “hate speech” intersect. Where the hateful, racist, sexist or homophobic words of people cause harm and pain to others. Free speech is necessary because it allows people to speak out against their governments and their superiors without being silenced. But because of this, it also allows people to speak out against those who are vulnerable, and cause tremendous hurt while being protected from any legal repercussions. Because of this, I think of free speech as a sort of necessary evil.

When free speech is threatened by outside forces it is, obviously deplorable. Attacking or threatening to attack people who say things you disagree with is evil and unacceptable.  But I find it interesting the way the internet responds differently to similar situations. When terrorists threatened to bomb screenings of “The Interview”, many people responded with an outcry that this was an attack on free speech. However, many more people responded to this with derision, saying that the threat was in no way an attack on free speech, and that the movie The Interview was deeply racist and hurtful anyway. But now, with the similar (and incredibly tragic) attack on the French satire publisher Charlie Hebdo, people are again responding to this by rallying to protect the paper’s right to free speech, despite the fact that the paper has been known to publish plenty of racist content.

And I’ll be honest, seeing all these protests and the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag has me really, really uncomfortable. And not because I don’t think free speech is important. But because, honestly, I’m much more worried about how the French Muslim community are going to be affected by this, than I am about the French people being unable to safely express their opinions.

Islamophobia runs rampant in America and Canada, but also in European countries. When a white Christian person is responsible for a mass murder or a bombing, he is considered an outlier, or a lone gunman. But when it’s a person of middle-eastern descent, the entire Muslim religion is considered responsible. Following these kinds of attacks, many Muslim people are afraid to leave their homes. They endure horrific abuse at the hands of racists who feel completely justified in their behavior because a very small group of religious extremists’ behavior is applied to the entire religion. Earlier today, the hashtag “KillAllMuslims” was trending.

And I’m honestly more worried about this than I am about the free speech of people in western countries. I imagine being a Muslim person seeing those crowds gathered in France and wondering how many of those people are there not because of the tragic deaths that occurred, but because of the vitriol of their hatred towards Islam. Vitriol that right now they feel completely supported and justified in. I wonder what it’s like to be a person of colour seeing Charlie Hebdo praised and revered as the paragon of free speech, and knowing the the fact that they published cartoons like this doesn’t factor into anyone’s opinion of them. Because for so many people, “free speech” doesn’t mean being able to stand up to an oppressive government, or live their lives free of persecution. It just means being able to say whatever hateful, racist things they want, and get away with it.

My heart goes out to the people and families of people who died today. I condemn the actions of the shooters whole-heartedly. I think it’s important that people and papers be allowed to say and print what they want without legal repercussions. But I’m extremely critical of the fact that this is what the media and the public have chosen to latch on to and focus on.

The whole thing just makes me very uncomfortable.

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