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Blog November 18, 2020

It’s Complicated: Six Things Worth Discussing About Free Speech

Well, hello again. Having ended last month's column with a candid appeal for readers to "talk back" about free speech, I was grateful to those who took me at my word. They made me think new thoughts, which is, of course, the whole idea.

Here are six of them.

1. A Green Light, Not a Stop Light.

My October essay understated the complex necessity for free speech to coexist with other rights. 

Any kind of freedom in the real world is subject to "reasonable limits", in the words of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms . The Charter singles out expressive freedoms as "fundamental," but recognizes that even these must be weighed against society's other requirements. 

And just as the letter of law constrains freedom through reason, the greyer world of ethics teaches us to reconcile conflicting values. Whether we're promoting social justice or grocery-shopping during a pandemic, we're expected to weigh our own rights and needs against those of others. 

Real life, in short, involves balancing acts that are innately complicated.  

As complicated today as they were for Buddhists or ancient Greeks seeking a golden middle ground. Complicated, because you don't have to be Kant to think humans have an ultimate duty to foster others' human dignity. Complicated for those who care about solving the human family's problems, or about fairness, or what Africans call ubuntu. Even John Stuart Mill, the alleged parent of free expression, subjected competing values to the test of minimizing harm and promoting well-being. 

Complicated, because our brains' scales are calibrated not to a common centre of gravity but to our own individual needs, both real and perceived, and our personal and cultural biases. Many anti-racist advocates accept the value of free speech in abstract but view racist speech as innately harmful; many free-speech advocates agree strongly on both counts but view restrictions on speech as doing more harm than good. 

That difference of perspective is honest, understandable, and worth arguing about. Neither side can reasonably hope to shine a stop light at the other's traffic. Collisions, even explosions, are inevitable. That's life.

2. Listening Is What Makes Speech Work.

The relatively new word, "marginalization," isn't an empty slogan: it pointedly describes how people close to centres of power push others to society's edges. Those thus deprived have an obvious right to demand a fairer political and economic share—and a right to be heard. But centre-hoggers (often, white male professionals like me) may prefer to interrupt, to change the subject: "Sorry, you may want to talk about suffering, but I'd rather discuss philosophy." 

Of course, many campaigners of all kinds are more comfortable talking than listening, preferring as they do to set rather than follow agendas. But it's fair to expect advocates for speech to show interest in the impediments to equal discussion, which requires being silent sometimes. 

It’s also fair to expect serious people to display a tolerance for nuance. Such as…. 

3. "Shut Up" Need Not Mean "Shut Down."

Whatever you or I might think about movements "canceling" their opponents, the practice seldom challenges the constitutionally protected right to speak without state sanction. Most progressives get that democratic governments should protect, not punish, dissenters.

But when it's marginalized people and groups who call for "silence," they might be speaking a language better heard by the heart than the head: they're angry. 

Sometimes, rage for justice spills into demands for censorship—for news-media and libraries to deny space to perceived haters, or for Karens to get fired for private-time misanthropy. But mostly, I think, long-silenced people just want equal time at the mic. When they say, "Will you shut up, man", they may mean no more than US President-Elect Joe Biden did when he asked his bullying opponent to give someone else a turn to speak, for a change. 

And sometimes, I think, cancellation calls are veiled (and justified) cries for support. When a university is urged to ban a speaker who trumpets obnoxious opinions, the call can be batted away as attempted censorship or received as a conversation-starter—an attention-getting demand for those in charge to emerge from the curtain and express themselves on causes that are more down-to-earth than, for example, academic freedom. 

Like, hashtag: Black Lives Matter. There, was it really so hard to pronounce? 

4. Free Speech Fights Prejudice and Injustice.

Many countries made strides toward social justice in the second half of the 20th Century in part because people became better informed about, and more attuned to, one another’s experiences and perspectives. Women advanced toward a still-imperfect equality; gay people found strength, pride, and marriage. Black people, meanwhile, continued inching toward liberty, the poor toward sustenance, refugees toward shelter; those previously invisible (trans people, and those with disabilities) began to be seen. 

And where progress was made, free speech deserved credit. Can you even imagine a fight for social change that doesn't owe its nonviolent victories to the free dissemination of unpopular ideas? Greta Thunberg knows the power of speech to change political agendas as surely as did Tommy Douglas, and Betty Friedan, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and (speaking of Nobel Peace laureatesDesmond Tutu, and Wangari Maathai, and Elie Wiesel, and Martti Ahtisaari and, well, insert your own list here; I know you have one. 

Just this year, the worldwide resistance against racism has relied utterly on guaranteed freedom of assembly, a free press, and unfettered social media to confront elites with the uncomfortable truth of systemic racism. Similarly, it was thanks to persuasive speech that US Trumpism lost an election—it certainly won't be silenced anytime soon. 

5. Talk Doesn't Come Cheap.

Not all righteous struggles end in triumphs for persuasion. 

If life slowly improved for many people in recent decades, those already doing well did best. Income inequality grows steadily, in Canada and worldwide, with no prizes for guessing who (white or racialized, male or female, settler or Indigenous, etc.) benefits most. Perhaps you, as I, are more economically privileged than the vast majority of  Canadians; if so, it's worth periodically reminding ourselves how drivers stuck in gridlock feel about shoulder-speeders

So if you or I enjoy our own right to speak freely (I'm using mine right this moment and so can you), we might jointly excuse those at the wrong end of the developed world's well-oiled inequality machine for losing faith in speech's power. We might also agree that people too often feel entitled to say vomitous things. It's tough to defend, even if we want to, anyone's right to demean people's dignity, to deny genocides, and to question others' right to liberty, equality, and life itself. 

And yet, it's a free country. Illegal as it is to promote the hatred of an identifiable group in Canada, there's no law against expressing hate as a personal viewpoint. The distinction isn't easy to draw, and when the resulting odium blows into the airspace of the hated, it gets hard to breathe

This might seem an argument for tighter laws, until you search for evidence that censorship is an effective weapon against bigotry. More readily at hand are examples of effective speech-versus-speech fights won by the progressive side. In the Netherlands, steady discourse about the racist Zwarte Piet December tradition has brought a steady decline in a centuries-old practice long defended as harmless fun. The pro-choice movement in Ireland used discussion with pro-lifers to force and win a referendum allowing abortion. 

Other arguments get lost, of course, and hate remains at least as resilient as love. That's why arguing-back demands so much more strength—courage—than the alternative.

N. K. Jemisin is an African American writer of science fiction who chose in her most recent book to engage with, rather than ignore, the bigoted work of a pioneer in her genre who seems to have honestly believed that some racialized people do not have souls. 

"It's frightening [to] look into the mind of a true bigot and realise just how alien their thinking is," Jemisin said (in a September, 2020, New Yorker podcast, about 15 minutes in). "This man literally saw the people of New York as monsters, so that's what I decided to write against… 

"The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is first off to acknowledge that art has an impact—hurts people—and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that the art is capable of doing." So, after flagging the racist material as disturbing, Jemisin files it under human frailty. "Artists are human beings," she says, "and that means you need to examine them in all their facets. You have to recognize that they are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good … artists."

Similarly, The Correspondent’s columnist Valentijn De Hingh understands, as a trans woman, the outrage provoked by author JK Rowling's evidently transphobic statements. But instead of hitting the "cancel” button, De Hingh chose to listen to, and analyse, Rowling's concerns about cisgender women's vulnerability to sexual violence. The result: a richer appreciation of living with ambiguity on the planet Earth.

6. One Person's Right Is Another's Wrong.

Marginalized talk-back role models like Jemisin and De Hingh deserve awe for taking the rougher road, one less travelled these days. But does the alternate path actually lead anywhere?

It's easy to understand how furious Black students can get when a white professor uses a racist slur word in a visual arts class. As a Jew, I feel my chest tightening every time I hear the anti-Semitic equivalents, regardless of context. But I don't think modern literature, or history, can be taught with such words excised from needed readings. 

Beyond the humanities, I wonder if a white professor would feel comfortable referring law students to a debate between two Black colleagues on the use of epithets in the classroom. Or political science students to a dispassionate analysis of the assumption that racism is the primary cause of racial inequity.

And I wonder if I erred,  as a white journalism prof, when I launched an engaging, incisive, but painful discussion in a 2017 ethics class of a Vice reporter’s coverage of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally (see footnote).

For one good person, all these might all be examples of sound post-secondary teaching; for another, they're exactly the kind of thing to deplatform. Fire the teacher, cancel the event, boo the speaker off the stage. 

But even those surer than I about what should or shouldn't be said might confess difficulty with the central question of censorship: just who, exactly, can be trusted to decide which opinions, exactly, should be silenced? The premier? The mayor? The university's Senate? A committee of experts? I’ll return to this quandary, too, in a later column, perhaps under the headline, “First they came for the socialists."

Meanwhile, here's where I think the above abundance (or surfeit?) of nuance gets us: depending on where each of us sits or comes from, we'll likely feel various degrees of ease in tolerating various types of speech. 

You and I might both welcome any respectful debate amongst colleagues, and draw the line at showing child pornography in a media-studies class. We might both also want other lines drawn, somewhere between these extremes, but diverge on where, how, and by whom.

Even when we agree that speech is harmful, we might differ about how to limit it (from "let's not argue at the dinner table," to imposing workplace "civility" rules, to rescinding an employment offer, to passing tighter laws). Much will depend on contextual complications (e.g. what constitutes bullying, or public space). 

Probably every reader of this column has their own breaking points, more different from one another's than they know.

In my opinion, there's room for honest disagreement across the board, so I devised, well, a board game—yes, just for you, to explore (in private) your own limits and tolerances about speech. 

(Click the image—on a computer, not a phone—or share this link:

If you enjoy this exercise, the only price of admission asked is that you spend a moment pondering why others might choose different moves. 

Like life, it's complicated.

(Footnote: my December column will explore a fraught issue buried just under the surface so far: how and why journalists expose audiences to objectionable views. If you have ideas on this, or on anything else you’d like addressed in future columns, please let me know by email or on Twitter. )


Ivor Shapiro is a full professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Free Expression.