Free speech, or the ability to speak one’s mind in public without physical/material consequences, is one of the hallmarks of democratic society.  Now if everyone was nice, and peace ruled the world, I think the concept of free speech would be less problematic.

I’d like to talk about three ideas regarding free speech, the first being our responsibility in maintaining it, the second being the seeming incongruity when it comes to individuals who use protected speech to promote hate, and thirdly the tie in with Radical Feminism versus the gender identity set.

Free speech, like voting, or freedom of movement for most is a quality we often overlook in our daily lives.  We’ve always had it, it has always been there and there has been no reason to critically examine our responsibilities in context of the maintenance of our freedom to speak our mind in public.

Our collective casual acceptance (perhaps even apathy) in terms of the general public is problematic because it would seem that, until one starts feeling the push back when one speaks, the general collective sentiment is that there are no problems with the status quo and people can pretty much say what they want.  People in general though, are dumb and we should not be content with this lax stewardship.  Please see any social media platform that is open to the general public as evidence of such.

We hive off and create our own tribal communities and proceed to chuck rhetorical rocks over the wall at the other camps that oppose our viewpoints.  From what I’ve been able to observe, the process starts and does not end with regards to rocks being thrown.  Authentic engagement comes a distant second to outrage, manufactured or otherwise, and debate shares a similar fate versus trading insults and fellifluous comments.

Thank you, Social Media…

Social media has given us the means to exercise our right to free speech, but not the concurrent responsibilities that go along with placing one’s opinion in the public sphere, not to mention the intellectual responsibilities of offering fact based arguments and being charitable to the inevitable counter-arguments that occur.  So in a way, we are maintaining free-speech, just that the calibre of the discourse is absolute tosh.  Another unsavoury aspect of the current public chatter is that amplification of thoughts and ideas to such an extent that the nuance is lost, and the remaining message garbled as it is, is blasted out to the vox populi to take sides over and being the rock throwing process.

It is therefore unsurprising that many intellectuals and educated individuals want no part of the social media driven discourse.  It is a wrestling with pigs sort of situation.  However, the problem is that despite the raucous nature of discourse, it bleeds over into the real world and can and often does affect society, necessarily so.  It is distressing though, because although the speech is free and generally unencumbered, the signal to noise ratio makes dross the most likely outcome on many of the issues that make it into and out of the public social media sphere.

I’m not sure what we can do about that when we have a media and journalistic corps that are profoundly unable to tell the truth about what is happening in the world.  The state of the news media is a post for another though, lets leave it with the very basic idea that GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is a maxim that applies to our news media, and we as a society are suffering the consequences of a ill-informed public.

So free speech being exercised and maintained, but in a bluntly oblivious form that may not be beneficial for the advancement of society.  We can classify ‘hate speech’ squarely into this category.  This is a distinctly Canadian phenomena, so let’s define what hate speech is, via Wikipedia’s entry on Hate Speech Laws in Canada.

“The various laws which refer to “hatred” do not define it. The Supreme Court has explained the meaning of the term in various cases which have come before the Court. For example, in R v Keegstra, decided in 1990, Chief Justice Dickson for the majority explained the meaning of “hatred” in the context of the Criminal Code:

Hatred is predicated on destruction, and hatred against identifiable groups therefore thrives on insensitivity, bigotry and destruction of both the target group and of the values of our society. Hatred in this sense is a most extreme emotion that belies reason; an emotion that, if exercised against members of an identifiable group, implies that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect and made subject to ill-treatment on the basis of group affiliation.[4]

More recently, in 2013, Justice Rothstein, speaking for the unanimous court, explained the meaning of “hatred” in similar terms, in relation to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code:

In my view, “detestation” and “vilification” aptly describe the harmful effect that the Code seeks to eliminate. Representations that expose a target group to detestation tend to inspire enmity and extreme ill-will against them, which goes beyond mere disdain or dislike. Representations vilifying a person or group will seek to abuse, denigrate or delegitimize them, to render them lawless, dangerous, unworthy or unacceptable in the eyes of the audience. Expression exposing vulnerable groups to detestation and vilification goes far beyond merely discrediting, humiliating or offending the victims.[5]

Sounds good, right?  The recent rise of the false populist-nationalist right in North America (and the world) has put considerable stress on free speech and what we consider to be hate speech because so much of what these ideologies espouse can be considered hateful, corrosive, and essentially banal in nature.

Should the speech of the false-populist right be banned?  Absolutely not, it must be challenged though, at every turn and shown to people for what it is.  And that folks, is a tall order because of the problems I mentioned earlier about our new preferred methods of debate and discourse.  Social media.  The false-populist messaging is simple and stirring and benefits greatly from the amplification in social media, but suffers little distortion because of the simplicity of the message.  The message being roughly this:

    “Right-wing populism in the Western world is generally—though not exclusively—associated with ideologies such as anti-environmentalism,neo-nationalism,anti-globalization,nativism,protectionism,and opposition to immigration.”

The messaging plays directly on the general populations fears, and allows the problems of the nation to be unfairly pinned on a subcategory of people who are vulnerable and easy to scapegoat.  False populist messaging can be countered, but the medium of debate works against those who seek to argue and debate false populist points because nuance and detailed refutations are not the currency social media deals in.  So instead we get catchy slogans like “punch a nazi” and the “alt-right” which are both statements that originated on the left side of the political spectrum, but are profoundly unhelpful in combating the false-populist ideology and messaging that presently, has a strong foothold in our social media platforms.

The medium really is the message – social media is polarizing – let’s look at this latest tweet making the rounds in the left-twittersphere:

Wenn ein Nazi am Tisch sitzt, und daneben 10 andere, die dasitzen und mit ihm diskutieren, dann hast du einen Tisch mit 11 Nazis.”  – (English Translation)-  “As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis.”

   What do we do with this?  The sentiment is good, one shouldn’t tolerate Nazi ideology and by sitting idle, one tacitly condones it.  But, what about free speech?  So many contextual aspects in this situation are rubbing up against each other.  Corrosive ideology has no place in a free society, but should there be a space for it to flourish in the public sphere?  Is the German quote appropriate for North America where there has been proto-fascist movements, but never in power?  Where does the argument for tolerance come into play, because this is at face-value, is most definitely an intolerant statement.

    Taken in the German social-political context, I have no problems with it.  However, throw it into the social media public sphere where it adds fuel to the fire that generally reverberates as “anyone who I disagree with politically, is a Nazi” and the statement becomes much more problematic.  Make no mistake, there is a large nuance vacuum on both the left and right side of the political divide (to both sides detriment).

   It’s too easy to simply brand someone a Nazi and demand their speech be taken down.  Yet, how does one actively guard against the rise of actual fascism and not curtail free speech in the process is a key issue in these debates.  False-populist ideology can easily careen into straight up fascism and the genocidal bent that goes along with it, so how do we deal with it?  I do not think there is a good answer, at least not until we get more public engagement and understanding in the social sphere.

   I’m a teacher so my biases lean toward more education and knowledge being a strong tonic against the mistakes humanity has made in the past.  Yet, all the cruelty and barbarism that has occurred (20th and 21st century) and is still occurring has happened under the not so watchful guise of an ‘educated’ public.  The answer might not lay in more education, but a social system that holds each individual to a higher standard of accountability and understanding of their role and responsibility within the world.  Something better than the “fuck you, I’ve got mine” mentality that has such a sure grip on the current social zeitgeist.

   Let’s make part three a separate post, as this piece is overlong already.