Free speech is a greatly misunderstood and, as we learned this week, quite a frangible concept.
It doesn’t mean what we think it does, and it doesn’t mean what it used to.
We Canadians think we have free speech laws. We don’t. That’s the Americans. We have hate speech laws. And they were upheld Wednesday by the Supreme Court, who told Saskatchewan religious fuckface Bill Whatcott that he could not write, as he did in a flyer 10 years ago, “Our children will pay the price in disease, death, abuse and ultimately eternal judgment if we do not say no to the sodomite desire to socialize your children into accepting something that is clearly wrong.”
Freedom of speech assumes that we are free to speak, and to write, whatever we please, and that there’s a fundamental difference between speech and action. Were Canada a free-speaking nation, I would be able to say that Jews are greedy and we should kill them, that blacks are stupid and we should enslave them, and that fags are disgusting and we should imprison them. The laws would only kick in were I to act on those words.
But that is not the country we live in.
Nor is it the time we live in.
We don’t talk about political correctness anymore, at least in part because the term was sucked dry in the 80s and 90s. But the idea behind the phrase, that poorly hegemonic notions of right and wrong born of feelings of personal slight and historical vengeance can leach their way into our culture, our behaviour and our laws should be of more current concern than it is.
I say this as someone who thinks almost all of what people traditionally labelled politically correct think is more or less actually correct: that gay is good, black is beautiful, abortion should be a matter of choice and that religion is twaddle.
But I think Bill Whatcott should be able to call men who have sex with men sodomites, and let people know he thinks our kids are in danger of everlasting damnation if we don’t stop the gays from making what they do seem as acceptable as what their opposite-sexed parents do.
But then, I also think The Onion should be able to call a nine-year-old black girl a cunt. At least in the way they did it.
And the fact that they were not, that that little ovule of Twitter-speech actually disappeared within an hour due to repeated, vociferous, heavy-handed, self-righteous opposition, should be of great concern.
The issue of free speech used to be an us-vs-them proposition, with the us being us, and the them being the government. This is the position still taken by various retrograde defenders of speech, like PEN Canada, who is — or at least was last time I checked — fully in favour of our hate speech laws.
But that’s not what free speech is in these parts anymore. As more of our public and private lives become privatized — that is, as more of it takes places in spaces owned by someone else, like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey — free speech becomes something quite different, and a great deal more fragile. You could say that the kerfuffle over The Onion‘s cunt was just a competition of free speech that was won by the anti-cunt brigade.
Except that the very concept of free speech is lost when one freely speaking person not only demands someone else’s silence, but gets it. And yes, The Onion gave a very heartfelt-sounding apology, and said it would be disciplining the offending tweeter. And who knows, maybe they actually thought it was wrong and that it had slipped by however many Onion eyes were monitoring the Oscar feed. It’s more likely, The Onion being a business, and a pretty good one (its recent attempted foray into Toronto notwithstanding), that they saw the tide had turned against them and decided they should just take down the dirty, dirty word because otherwise, who would think of the children, if not The Onion? And also: readers and advertisers and money.
When speech is privatized to such an extent, money plays a role it never used to, and faced with possible monetary repercussions, the purveyors of speech can be bullied into tamping down unpopular speech out of fear of the kind of nonsense that instantly burped over the edge of the Trainspotting toilet bowl of righteous indignation on Sunday night, smearing itself all over Facebook and the blogosphere.
Don’t like kids being called cunts? That’s perfectly fine. Don’t agree (or don’t get) that The Onion was doing the opposite of what everyone was getting excited about with its tweet? That’s fine, too (but read this). Just don’t stop someone else from saying something. Don’t even try. It’s bullying. And we don’t like bullying.
Does free speech have no limits then? What about yelling fire in a crowded etc.? Yes, it does have a limit: Free speech cannot ask for speech to be silenced, because then free speech becomes censorship, and that’s a Mobius strip no one wants to step onto.