The idea of freedom of speech in an equal world makes perfect sense. But it’s not equal. We live in a diverse society where people of marginalized backgrounds are born disadvantaged because of their race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, etc. The problem with the freedom of speech debate is that it’s not actually about freedom of speech.
When we look at many of the arguments for free speech today, especially around social media and posting online, many of those in defense of this amendment are in positions of privilege who have experienced little to no harassment in their lives.
There’s a reason why online harassment disproportionately targets people of marginalized backgrounds. This trend is pointing to something more than just a freedom of speech issue.
Leslie Jones was attacked and threatened on Twitter with racist and misogynist comments after filming Ghostbusters with an all-female cast. These trolls argued that they were practicing their right to free speech. However, freedom of speech and hate speech are two different things.
Hate speech is a form of oppression, and we should recognize when people use the free speech argument to defend it.
Oppressive language against marginalized groups does the exact opposite of encouraging free speech. It’s a silencing tactic. It actually limits the speech of people of marginalized groups. After the online harassment, Leslie Jones temporarily left Twitter. When her supporters criticized the tweets as abuse, trolls defended their right to free speech and encouraged them to “get off the internet if you can’t handle it.
” Who’s free speech is really being threatened here?
Look at what happens when marginalized groups do exercise free speech today. They get shut down with “all lives matter” or fired from the NFL for kneeling during the anthem or criticized for being too “politically correct”.
Political correctness isn’t about “over-sensitive” people with “hurt feelings,” and oppressive language has bigger consequences than just “offending” someone. We should look at the bigger picture. The freedom of speech debate is actually about inclusivity.
Society has normalized the views of people in positions of privilege. Let’s not forget that the people who wrote the constitution and the English language were white men. So what’s considered “standard” today doesn’t actually include the views of marginalized people. When we start including their opinions and de-standardizing what has largely been the white male perspective, it’s often met with resistance and then cloaked behind the freedom of speech argument.
When James Damore wrote a memo about women being biologically unfit to work in tech, Google fired him. He then sued Google, stating that it’s diversity policies discriminate against conservatives and that his firing was retaliatory. The workplace certainly complicates the “free speech” issue because while we’re encouraged to speak up, we don’t necessarily have the choice to just remove ourselves from a harassment situation. On top of that, we likely have to see and interact with the same people everyday. Google and other companies make it an obligation to protect its employers from hostile work environments, so what we say at work has more serious consequences.
But let’s make it clear that Damore wasn’t fired for his ideological views or for being a conservative. He was fired because his memo created a un-welcoming work environment for women, especially those he directly worked with. His statements about women were plain false, even denounced by scientists, and perpetuated gender stereotypes. Damore and supporters framed his firing as a limitation of free speech.
In principle, freedom of speech is very well-intentioned. Diverse opinions and free expression no doubt have benefits to society. But let’s look at each issue with a lens that’s cognizant that we live in an unequal society and that the defense for free speech is being used to silence others. Changing our speech to be more inclusive, such as eliminating oppressive language, is not an attack on the 1st amendment. It’s a step towards inclusion and equality.