Feminist Aspie

Free Speech: You keep using that phrase…

on February 2, 2015

free speech inigo montoya

[Image description: A picture of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, captioned with the following: “Free speech”. You keep using that phrase, but I do not think it means what you think it means]

Seeing as everybody else is doing it – let’s talk about freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech means that you have the right to express yourself without being killed, imprisoned, arrested, or generally having your other rights and freedoms removed – and even in the strictly legal sense, this has qualifiers. For example, the European Convention of Human Rights (enshrined in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998) notes that freedom of expression may be subject to “such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society” including “for the protection of the reputation or rights of others”.  In other words, branding universities as anti-free-speech for things like harassment policies or rules against racist, sexist and/or homophobic language is seriously misguided.

Again, freedom of speech means that you have the right to hold and express opinions. It does not mean that other people have to listen to you, agree with you, or accept your bigotry without dissent. And it definitely does not mean you have the right to a platform. I mean, I haven’t spoken at a prestigious university institution or written for a nationwide publication either. Believe it or not, neither have most people. Incidentally, marginalised groups who are regularly put down by The Freeze Peach Debate are even less likely than more privileged people to have these, well, privileges. Those platforms are far from a right.

We have got to the point where people are are complaining about how ~completely silenced~ they are via the medium of their national newspaper columns, or in articles and blog posts that go viral. Alternatively, these people sometimes have their oppressive views quoted uncritically in such articles as part of The Freeze Peach Debate. They’re not being silenced at all.

Yet, some of them are even comparing their lack of (an additional) platform to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Comparing being no-platformed or being disagreed with to literally being murdered . Invoking an unrelated tragedy to manipulate the reader’s emotions and make no-platforming seem horrific by association. I’ve seen this from people on all sides and it’s really not on. It’s trivialising, it’s upsetting… Just bloody don’t.**

Moving swiftly on, why is it that the poor, silenced Freeze Peach Advocates are never as vocal when the police kettle peaceful protests, or create violent conflicts that are later blamed on protesters? Why are they never as vocal when such protests and vigils are targeted by individuals from the often more powerful institutions being called out, whether by online trolls beforehand or (actual or threatened) disruption of the event itself, with the intention of making people feel too unsafe to show up? Freedom of expression means freedom of expression for everyone. It’s almost as if the anti-no-platformers are more concerned about protecting bigotry than actually advocating for free speech… By the way, the concepts of “safe” and “unsafe” are not just buzzwords for you to dismiss as a fad. I can’t believe this needs to be said, but anti-sex-work rhetoric actually does harm sex workers; TERF rhetoric actually does harm trans people; racist rhetoric actually does harm people of colour. As highlighted brilliantly by Stillicides’ Misogyny Triangle, oppressive attitudes aren’t just an opinion. They’re actually dangerous. Remember, the protection of the rights of others.

In these contexts, the Freeze Peach Debate is usually little more than a derailing tactic. When someone is perpetuating an oppression and the relevant oppressed group stands up for themselves, the big conversation ends up always being the Freeze Peach Debate, and never being about the awfulness that created the situation in the first place. Rather than raising awareness of the underlying issues, marginalised groups are put straight on the defensive- again. And it is always marginalised groups; the anti-no-platformers will only ever refer to them as “students” to try and avoid looking like they’re perpetuating oppression, but the students in question are invariably from liberation campaigns. It’s like when people criticise “Tumblr” when they themselves are Tumblr users; they usually mean either social justice advocates more generally, or particularly people in marginalised groups never represented in mainstream media.

Importantly, though, that’s not to say you can’t criticise people who experience oppression – I mean, freedom of speech, right? Feminists: Remember that women can be oppressive too. No-platforming a woman for views harmful to sex workers is not misogynistic, any more than no-platforming a gay man for misogynistic views would be homophobic. Intersectionality isn’t just a word that looks good in your Twitter bio, it’s a very real concept. Women can be oppressive too. As a student who has spent the past few months debating on student feminist Facebook groups about no-platforming men, I’ve found it really bizarre that, in light the Kate Smurthwaite debacle, there’s suddenly this idea that only women are no-platformed, when some quick research proves otherwise. Or even short-term memory – a pro-life Oxford society inviting two cis men to “debate” abortion, anyone? It was only three months ago… Basically, no-platforming is far from being a tool of misogyny; in fact, as Stavvers pointed out earlier today, the heavy criticism of no-platforming by feminist societies is strongly linked to the patriarchal idea that women are not permitted to have boundaries.

Finally: For people who are so passionate about freedom of expression, the anti-no-platformers sure are angry about people disagreeing with them…

**Relax, I don’t have the power to stop you saying things I don’t like, nor would I want that. But I do have the power to tell you you’re being a dick.

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6 responses to “Free Speech: You keep using that phrase…

  1. Lol Freeze Peach! Love it. Who came up with that? Is it alright if I add it to my vocabulary?

    • I’ve seen the phrase used *a lot* in social-justice-type circles over the past few months. I did Google it to try and find an origin, but nothing came up – it was mostly about actual frozen peaches…

  2. alexforshaw says:

    I tend to think of free speech as only one aspect of freedom in general: just one of several intentional actions. I have long believed that rights, such as freedom of speech, are inseparable from responsibility. The prime responsibility being to avoid causing harm to others.

  3. […] taking away my freedom of speech!” The Freeze Peach trope has been done to death already, and I discussed it only a couple of weeks ago. But take a look at this. Here is an interview with Dapper Laughs – yep, apparently […]

  4. spratt19 says:

    Free speech is saying what you want when you want even if it’s racist or sexist… you don’t have the right “not to be offended”.. sorry.. you cannot police my vocabulary because YOU feel offended.. Feminism is offensive to most people look up the polls… only 20 percent of women identify as feminist.. so, stop trying to police my language and people will stop calling feminism and anti-free speech movement.

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