‘Free Speech’? I do not think it means what you think it means


TRIGGER WARNINGS: explicit discussions of threats of rape and other forms of violence

[ETA: Just got home from work and inserted a little bit into one of the later paragraphs, and fixed a typo. Also – Roy Baker is rocking my socks and his lectures and discussions of free speech are all through this post]

This has probably been done to death – I have seen it covered off many times over. But I am in SERIOUS need of a rant about it right now. On Facebook there are groups called things like ‘Kick the bitch. Why? Cos she’s a slut’ and ‘Slap a slut day’ etc. In response to this someone has created a ‘Belittle a Misogynist Day’ group. Now on the one hand I paused because ‘belittle’ has a pretty nasty sound to it. I googled some definitions and I still wasn’t 100% happy as they seemed to be ‘trivialise, make to sound less important or smaller than it is’ etc. So on the literal interpretation I’m unhappy because advocacy of violence and shitty attitudes to sex and women are important so I don’t want to minimise them. And on the other side of things I’m uncomfortable with advocating ‘belittling’ in a sense of disrespect – I’m not sure it’s the answer. However I do have a bit of a threshold. I try to treat everyone with respect, and then, if you have exceeded my capacity to tolerate your bullshit bigotry I do indeed advocate a loud (and sometimes humourous/mocking) denouncing of your views/logic/attitudes etc.

So in the end I joined. Well. You’d think that on this group there’d be some interesting discussions – perhaps some challenges to the ‘belittling’ etc, but also solidarity. We can all get behind the idea that it’s wrong to slap/kick/punch a woman because you disapprove of her sexuality right? Apparently not. Apparently this is a freedom of speech issue. Now I’m not Geoffrey Fucking Robertson right I’m just a law student, but I’ve studied Constitutional Law and I’m currently studying Media Law and covering off ‘free speech’ and defamation/vilification etc. Now: HEAR YE FUCKING HEAR YE: THERE *IS* NO SUCH THING AS AN INDIVIDUALS (UNLIMITED) RIGHT TO “FREE” SPEECH. Not here, and not ANYWHERE in the world, not even good old U.S of A where the First Amendment has shielded redneck bigots from consequences for years.

Nope, over there, freedom of speech has been limited by legislation (the Sedition Act, a mere seven years after the First Amendment), the Subersive Activities Control Act, and the interpretation of free speech as limited by the principle of ‘fighting words’ or words that evoke a ‘clear and present danger’. So. Not ANYWHERE is there some unlimited ‘God given’ right to shoot your mouth off whenever and wherever you want to without a resultant kick in the ring or a stint in the pokie. Apart from legal restraints we all accept some restraint on free speech – if you go to church would you advocate the right of someone walking in to church and describing their favourite hard core porn scene? If you don’t, what about someone’s right to come to your grannie’s funeral and talk about what a bitch she was? Or how they’re glad she’s dead? Or standing up at a two year old’s birthday party and reading some erotic literature? No? But FREE SPEECH MAN!!!

So we’ve all got some ability to recognise that there are situations, contexts, times and places in which it is appropriate to require another person to shut their pie hole and keep their opinions (and speech) to themselves. But the minute that someone says ‘What you have just said is dickish and bigoted and here is why’ there’s some howling yobbo to castigate you for your ignorance of the right to ‘Free Speech’. How does that even work? A/ If we *had* a right to free speech in the sense of saying whatever we want, whenever we want (and we don’t) then so what? They said what they said and I’m not saying they can’t think it or say it (though I do point out sometimes that speech is regulated by laws on vilification etc) I’m saying they’re a dickish bigot for thinking and saying it and that it promotes hatred of and violence towards women on the basis of their gender and their (percieved) sexual choices B/ If there is a right to free speech in the sense of saying whatever we want, whenever we want (and there’s not) then surely your conception of Free Speech covers my right to respond vehemently? So what prey tell is the giant bug up your arse that causes you to morph into The Misogynist Hulk when I express my opinion?

It turns out that these people don’t even believe in the conception of free speech that they spout – otherwise they would have to accept my right to retort forcefully, but they don’t. They’re spanking me for daring to have a problem with the content of what was said, they’re forcefully asserting the I am WRONG and they are RIGHT (so apparently Free Speech has the limitation of What They Say is Truth?) and they’re punishing me for having an opinion not in concurrence with theirs – and I don’t mean ‘punishing’ in the sense of disagreeing with and having a discussion or even a heated argument with, no I mean flat out punishing/intimidating in the sense of ‘All you bitches need to be raped’; ‘You’re all faggots for supporting this shit”; and then a ream of ‘jokes’ like ‘What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you’ve already told her twice’. It’s not a disagreement it’s a sustained campaign of intimidation that circles you closer and closer until they’re making creepy comments like they know who you are, where you live, where you work, what you study, that they love you, that they want to hug you. That they want to rape you repeatedly and violently and that’s where the whole thing has been going the whole time.

Why? Cos if you were a good bitch you’d shut your fucking mouth and leave the talking to the Redneck Menfolk where it belongs. These champions of the ‘democratic principle’ of ‘free speech’ want a/ for their dickwad misogynist deadbeat buddies to be able to say WHATEVER they want WHENEVER and WHEREVER they want and what they want is for this ‘right’ to be exercised without challenge: especially from a woman (read bitch/slut/whore). It’s all justified under this expansive conception of free speech but they forever and always expose their cynical deployment of such a ridiculously empty concept of free speech because THEY want to dictate who it gets extended to. If they really backed it then they would not react the way that they do to my exercise of free speech (which is always a hell of a lot more cautious and respectful than theirs or their buddy who started it). *My* conception of ‘free speech’ (that it’s a bit of an empty phrase deployed politically to shut down other people’s speech/to protect your own politics from critique; that it’s subject to all kinds of legal restrictions, including defamation and restrictions on hate speech and vilification; that it’s NOT a private right to say what you want and when you want, that we have no such private right here, and no one has it anywhere so shut the fuck up with your ‘free speech’ chants when you don’t know what it means) means that my responses are consistent with the conception of free speech I push – I say (forcefully) ‘Your arguments are disgusting and illogical – what about x, y and z?’. They say ‘I’m going to rape you you bitch’ or ‘I’m going to make a video of me beating my wife and upload it for you to watch’.

Why? Because I had an opinion about their douchebag buddy’s statements and I expressed it. But under their *entire conception of free speech by which they justified their buddy’s right to his opinion* I am fully entitled to say what I want with no criticisms of my opinions whatsoever. Under mine I don’t need to say they can’t think what they like (though I reserve my right to feel and express revulsion over it). I say that none of us have an unlimited right of freedom of speech, that it’s subject to legal restrictions such as defamation and vilification laws, and their speech comes down on the wrong side of legal restrictions which say you cannot incite violence towards/hatred or contempt of others on the basis of gender/sexuality/religion etc; and further, that I am glad that the law provides such restrictions because hate speech has no value, incites others to hatred, increases the level of hatred and potential for violence in society. So within that conception I still get to call opinions and speech out as disgusting/bigoted/incitement of violence etc – because the law doesn’t place a restriction on opinions or criticisms of arguments and logic unless they fall foul of other laws – defamation/vilification etc. What these people mean when they say ‘free speech’ is ‘Shut the fuck up bitch – my buddy has a dick so his opinion is not to be criticised’.

So you know – I come along and explain carefully that there is no legal right to free speech in this country, and explain what the ‘free speech’ stuff means here. They pause then go ‘Free Speech’ again. I really just wish that people a/ knew the fuck what they were talking about when they chest thump and scream ‘Free Speech’, or b/ engaged with what I say when I point out that they’ve justified it on the basis of a legal right to free speech when that legal right to free speech doesn’t exist anyway. I point out that what they’re saying is bullshit, then they just repeat it. Then they think up some more heinous rape threats. Yeah – freedom of speech, it’s awesome. Do I think that they have a ‘right’ to an opinion I don’t like. Sure. Do I think they should shut the fuck up? Sure. I think they should try cracking a book sometime or listening to someone other than another Chest Thumping Free Speech Espousing Bigoted Redneck Dickwad. But I can’t enforce that. All I can do is say exactly what I have a problem with. But then I get met with rape threats. Seriously. Rape threats. These guys think I should be held down and repeatedly and violently raped, specifically aimed to cause me pain and humiliation. They think THAT is the reasonable consequence of MY exercise of free speech. But they think their buddies who advocate violence/rape/misogyny should be able to do so without any criticism or consequence whatsoever.

They’d accuse me of the same hypocricy but it’s not true on two levels: A/ my right to state my opinion whenever/however/wherever and to whomever I want is NOT unrestricted, and nor is theirs – I am stating my opinion in the forum of a group I joined of likeminded people who disagree with the premise of the ‘Kick a Slut day’ groups – my forum, not theirs. I’m also engaging with arguments and logic and I’m doing it on that basis, I’m NOT going in with ‘You need to be beaten with a lead pipe til you die’ and, much as I loathe them and everything they stand for I DON’T EVEN THINK IT. Sure, when I’ve been threatened with rape/beating/death I’m labelling people who actively advocate violence and threaten violence as Deadbeat Redneck Yobbos and I’m mocking them for the attitudes they express that I see as bigoted/disgusting and violent – but defamation and vilification don’t really go so far as to say ‘Don’t use mean words/be rude to people who’ve told you they will rape you’ – anger and mockery seem to be on the right side of the law and on the right side of my conception of a limited right to freedom of speech – so long as I don’t defame or vilify them on the basis of race/sexuality etc then I’m okay B/ I (and the law) draw a line between vigorous arguments – even arguments which get sarcastic – and intimidation/threats of violence/incitement to violence.

So, much as the law is problematic (and it really really is when you look at whose rights get protected and whose don’t and what is protected from vilification and what is not) THEY DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT THEY THINK THEY DO. Their friends are technically ‘allowed’ to be bigoted dicks (in that unless I can get a accusation of vilification to stick I can do little to prevent it) and I’m ‘allowed’ to tell them they’re bigoted dicks after they’ve continually shown themselves to be ‘bigoted dicks’ (though much as they say they do they don’t even back *this much* free speech since they shut me down with rape threats as ‘punishment’ for expressing my opinions). Sure my declaration that they’re ‘bigoted dicks’ is a ‘matter of opinion’, and they’d probably argue they’re entitled to their opinions that women who like sex are sluts and it’s okay to slap/kick/beat sluts because in these people’s view they have no value and anyway everyone beats women, right? But I’ll back my opinions over theirs any day since theirs groups and labels people for allegedly ‘wrong’ sexual identities (identities based on *their* judgment of women and sex) and then vilifies them/incites hatred of them on that basis (and the law speaks to this); not to mention that they respond to detractors of their opinions (well, to female detractors) with threats of rape etc. My responses express my disgust with arguments, logic and beliefs – and when it chrystalises into a judgment of them AS bigoted dicks, it judges them for who THEY say they are and what THEY say they believe on the basis that these things cause harm and intimidation and advocate and condone actual violence and pain. I may label them for exactly what they defiantly say they are, and I may use my anger to make my points both forcefully and humorously (if a little mockingly) but the law doesn’t have a whole lot to say about ‘hurt feelings’, whereas it does have stuff to say about vilification and incitement to violence as well as threats of violence (though more on that some time in the future).

These people also can’t distinguish either between the sort of ‘hurt feelings’ which result from someone having their opinion criticised or critiqued, and the ‘hurt feelings’ (actually shock, anger, disgust, fear and outrage) that result from constant threats of rape and violence. They want to tell me that it’s ‘the same’, and that I want to ‘have my cake and eat it too’. On the contrary – I want them to look at the ‘cake’ they’re weilding since it’s not what they think it is. I think they should put down the cake, back away from the cake, drink a glass of cold water and approach the topic anew. They really really really want to be seen as the superior thinkers, the more rational, the more clear headed, the ones who know how the world works, the declarers of truth, the voice of reason, even after they’ve descended into full-blown rage-fuelled rape threats and promises of violence and intimidating comments.

Free speech: I do not think it means what you think it means.

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