No, you can’t say whatever you want: why free speech should be tempered with kindness

[content notice: discusses suicide, online abuse, rape]


In a democratic society, freedom of speech is frequently in the news. Attempts to alter section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, to replace “offend, insult & humiliate” with “harass and intimidate”, were fortunately stymied in Parliament. Contrary to popular belief, the Australian Constitution does not expressly protect freedom of expression. Many people get their ideas on the subject from hearing about the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which also defends religion and the press. Most recently, HSC students have been sending insults and abuse online to poet Ellen van Neerven, because her poem Mango was included in the English exam. While some were content to post abusive comments on a Facebook page, others went further and contacted her personally. Their actions have been defended by some of their peers as simply letting off steam and exercising free speech.
Discussions of free speech usually focus on exploring its limits. What can people get away with saying in public, and how far can they go? Champions and defenders of free speech want to be able to say whatever they want, including insulting people, and will often claim that their insults are a weapon for good, for instance, deflating the pomposity of people in power. There are many ways to deflate pomposity and satire can be a powerful tool, but intelligent satire is a far cry from insults.
Libertarians also like complaining about political correctness, particularly when they think it ‘ruins their fun’. There are many problems with this. Firstly, why does your fun deserve the most consideration? Secondly, the concepts that you call ‘political correctness’ often stem from the work of activists who are defending vulnerable groups in society. You cannot make racist jokes, because people are more aware of the harm that racist attitudes cause and the lies that those attitudes are based on. You cannot make snide sexist remarks about women because people are more aware of the violence against women that occurs at epidemic proportions. Women and people of colour have suffered in silence for centuries, and the recognition that abusing and harassing them is no longer acceptable is a very good thing. Nobody has the “right” to make a joke.
The same people will often deride ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’. These are not mere political correctness – they are designed to protect the survivors of abuse and the sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder from the recurring trauma caused by seeing words or images that remind them of their past experiences. They are acts of kindness that allow people to make informed decisions.
Social media has given many people a platform, and they are abusing the power that comes from having that platform. Websites like Twitter are not very well regulated, nor do they require users to identify themselves. This results in a lack of accountability – people think they can say whatever they like and get away with it.
Online abuse has a well-known tendency to be gendered in nature. Women who speak out about social and political issues are targeted with particularly vile abuse including rape threats. I do not believe that Ellen van Neerven would have received quite so much abuse if she had been a white man. Her main offense against these Year 12 students was to have performed well enough in her field to have been included on the syllabus, but the fact that she was an Indigenous woman attracted additional racist and sexist slurs. It seems that tall poppy syndrome starts young. Online abuse has also resulted in real-life self-harm and suicides – there is a word for people who are directly responsible for someone else’s death.
Many Year 12 students spoke out against the abuse and should be commended. The literary community in Australia has also rallied around their fellow writer who is highly respected – and only 27 years old!
When it comes to artistic criticism, people often make the mistake of conflating an artistic work with the author of that work. Personally I can’t stand cubist art, brutalist architecture or the musical works of Messiaen, but have no quarrel with the creators of those things. I had a great deal of trouble understanding the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, when I was required to study it for the HSC, and was not the only student that found it frustrating. However it never occurred to me to wish I could track down Tom Stoppard and send him personal insults. (I couldn’t at the time, pre-social media). The fact that I didn’t do particularly well in the English exam and still consider it irrelevant to everyday life is entirely my own fault.
Few people have the ability to debate well. It is much easier to insult people than to present a counter-argument, backed up by evidence. The people who throw insults around are probably not the sort of people who will take the trouble to critically evaluate the sources of information that they are reading and believing. Proper research takes work; ad hominem arguments do not.
One of the main purposes of freedom of speech is the ability to speak out against injustice, including injustices perpetrated by the government. It can be a great force for good, and should be seen as the power to change society for the better. People who have a voice and a platform have the responsibility to use them for the good of society. They also need to recognise and take responsibility for the effect that their words and actions have on others. If you have the ability to send someone a direct tweet or message, why are you using that power to insult them? If you would not call someone names to their face, why do you think it is acceptable to do so online? The words people use can have a powerful effect, and they need to realise how far-reaching that effect can be.
The real issue is not where the boundaries of free speech lie. The issue is a lack of humanity, and the old-fashioned quality of loving-kindness. I should not insist on my right to say whatever I want, I should be trying to use my words for good – to build people up and make the world a kinder place.

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