Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Are white men our biggest threat to free speech?

Free speech, free speech, isn't it great? Free speech, free speech, it's really first rate. Free speech, free speech, something else that rhymes with great.

I am somehow found myself, over the course of the past week or two, caught up in one of those endless tedious arguments about a lot of different things, that started as one thing and turned into something else entirely.

At first, it was a feminist outcry over my university producing a statement about why they were celebrating International Men's Day which claimed men experienced sexism in recruitment because there are more female admin staff employed there. They wrote a letter which was published after the university had cancelled their plans to mark the day. Then when the university cancelled it, it became a debate about men's mental health. Then a vile toe-rag known as Milo Yiannapoulos wrote an article linking a suicide to the university's cancelling of the event and called one of our women's officers a murderer on his MRA-jizzstream of a Twitter account, so it became about harassment and safety. And then after Milo was invited to speak at the university, we got embroiled in the issue of no-platforming. Finally - well, yesterday at least - it was announced that Milo's speech had been cancelled, and free speech has now become the overriding discussion.

(I'm not going to go in to all the reasons that this week has been a complete shitstorm, from the university's bizarrely-worded initial statement to their retraction, which implied the letter took issue with issues of men's mental health rather than the other parts of their post. I'm not going to talk about tactics of running to the media with an incorrect version of the story. And I'm not going to talk about the issue of homophobic, misogynistic or transphobic gay men, who seem to think that being homosexual makes them immune from criticism of their views on gender or sexual minorities)

So what I learned this week is that feminists are responsible for ruining free speech. It's now illegal for cisgender white men to voice their opinions without being shouted at. People of colour are threatening our indelible right to say whatever the fuck we want. Trans people are going to get you lynched for saying ~perfectly reasonable~ things, like that they aren't people.

Obviously, I disagree with my political opponents, but they also prove my hypothesis: the biggest threat to free speech is white men.

When oppressed, minority groups threaten free speech, they do it by saying things that the prevailing discourse don't want to hear. We threaten free speech when we talk about the harassment we face. We threaten free speech when we call people out for being racist, or sexist, or transphobic, or giant piles of toxic diarrhoea. We're destroying indelible human rights when we tell someone they're wrong for thinking we don't exist.

The truth is, we are disenfranchised. We have no power, except the power to shout.

No cisgender person has ever been killed for saying hateful things about transgender people, and yet those same thoughts are responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of women and non-binary people every year.

A feminist society at university complaining about a misogynistic man is not a threat to his free speech, but if the same man incites such harassment and abuse against them, then he is most definitely a threat to theirs.

In Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter protests don't mean that white lives are therefore insignificant, but they sure as hell can be shot for believing that.

People who think abortion is murder literally murder actual people for carrying them out.

Obviously, when I say "white men are our biggest threat to free speech," I am being polemical. I am exaggerating*. Not all men, not all white people, etc. and so forth. Except for the fact that yes all men, and yes all white people. The power structures in place give the ruling majority the dominant voice, and to deny that is to prove you are incapable of being self-aware of your privilege.

Free speech is about literally everyone being able to say what they want, so long as they aren't inciting hatred or politically charged attacks. That means you have to respect your opponents. And if you think your opponents aren't people, of course you're not going to give them the time of day. You might even dox them in public and think that's perfectly fine behaviour - because if unsavoury people just happen to see them, that's not your problem. It's not your fault if they are sent rape and death threats. From your perspective, their very existence threatens your freedom of speech, so I guess you don't care if your actions threaten their existence.

What one of my Facebook friends wrote seems to ring true now: "I believe in free speech. It gives me a voice. As a woman of colour who identifies as LGBTQ and Disabled I have been silenced numerous times from men in my family, waiters at restaurants I've been at and men at this university."

It is a favourite tactic of people on the right (and on the left, too, whenever people further to the left of them) to cry "you're threatening my free speech!" whenever their views are challenged. Bullying, threatening and coercion in response to holding specific views is terrible on both sides of the table, but only those on the right make a point of holding views which actively want to damage and limit the freedom of speech. If what you say makes other people feel too scared to speak freely, then you are the biggest threat there is to free speech.

*This week, I was accused of having no sense of humour, and of being unable to see exaggerations, hyperbole or irony. This was levied at me after Milo Yiannapoulos was invited to talk about men's mental health and the problem of male suicide at my university, and I screen-capped and posted a tweet in which he suggested people not following his Instagram should kill themselves. Apparently I did not understand it was a joke. Funnily enough, I knew it was a 'joke'. I just thought it was tasteless and ridiculous for anyone who claims to care about the epidemic of young male suicide to make suicide jokes on his Twitter. Is that such a controversial position?