What are the limits of freedom of speech?

Speakers corner

<divers alarums, noises off etc>

The tricky bit is that if you are a socialist and/or a feminist, there are limits to freedom of speech but they aren’t limits on who can speak, or what they can say. It’s more complex than that.

I think it’s like this: freedom of speech is first and foremost something you have to allow to others.

If you’re white, you have no right to get noisily offended by people who aren’t white objecting to white supremacists, even if they sound very angry.

If you’re a man, you have no right to get noisily offended by people objecting to sexism, even if they are shouting.

If you are mature, you have no right to get noisily offended by young people who haven’t realized something yet, however inexpertly they put their case.

If you are young and have all your faculties, you have no right to get noisily offended by the rantings of people who are elderly and/or disabled, even if you are feeling insecure.

If you were born to own a house and get a decent education, if you know where next month’s rent money is coming from, if you have wrangled your way to a position where you have nothing dreadful to fear from losing your job, or angering someone who has power over your income and safety, then you have no right to get noisily offended by anything anyone says when they haven’t got a clue how they’re going to stave off hunger, homelessness or violence from one day to the next. You have no right to be offended, even if they sound scary.

If you’ve been rude to or about people on Twitter, you have to expect them to be rude right back, even if you’re sure they deserved it.

Even if they swear a lot.

Thought experiment

Imagine you’re at a gathering of people who are in a passionate mood about some issue or other, and a mic is being offered around. Imagine (I’m sure it happens to everyone some of the time) you’re on the wrong end of one of those sentences above (a black person at a largely white gathering, a teen at a largely grey-headed one, etc) – in that situation, does the fact that a mic is on offer really make you free to speak your mind? And further, imagine you’re at the right end of one of those sentences. Does the fact that you aren’t feeling particularly oppressed or singled out give you the right to disregard the feelings of those who aren’t here, or can’t speak? If you do ignore them (or ignore their absence) what does that do to our relationships, and to your perception of the world?

Who are you speaking for?

Finally, if you want to be politically effective (which if you’re any kind of activist or campaigner, I assume you do) it’s important to be clear who you are speaking for, and who you will be perceived as speaking for. If you are on a platform, literally or metaphorically, does that make you a representative of a particular event or group? If it does, and you don’t take heed of that, it’s incredible how easily you can cause a heck of a lot of grief. In difficult times, if you’re speaking purely for yourself in relation to any of the issues I listed above, it’s probably wise to say so before you start.

Intention is everything

You can say anything you like in two circumstances. The first is when you don’t care what the affect of your words will be on anyone else. The second is if you are mindful of all the above, if you are really trying to be honest, if you can look at what you say and ask yourself why you said it, and if you can pay attention to how it lands on others’ ears.

If you are really thinking while you speak, and listening to those who are speaking to you, and you’re sure you’re not trying to win something you’ve no right to, or casting a veiled accusation, then I think you can grant freedom of speech to yourself without doing harm.

…. I know it isn’t simple — am I anywhere near right? Over to you…


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