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Thinking About Freedom of Speech

So this is International Blog Against Racism Week, which seems like a perfect time to point to the Open Letter from the Carl Brandon Society on racial/gender discourse.

I’m hopeful that, as in previous years, I’ll learn some things and get to read and participate in some good discussions this week.  But reading that letter, I found myself wondering how long it would be before I came across the first “Oh noes, the PC Nazis are Censorin’ our Free Speech!” response.  (Answer: not long at all, as it turns out.)

Let’s start with the PC part.  I’m not sure when “Politically Correct” turned into such a ridiculous phrase.  The belief seems to be that, in order to be truly politically correct, I must immediately go through my goblin books, rewriting the goblins as hygienically impaired, height challenged creatures with alternative dietary habits.  (Actually, now I want to write a story about Veka demanding that the rest of the world describe her as a goblyn, but that’s a tangent.)  The point is, people have waved their wands and cast reductio ad absurdium on the whole concept.  We’ve turned it into a joke (perhaps because then it’s easier to ignore it, and we don’t have to actually do anything?)

I keep thinking about the first time someone told me what “politically correct” meant to them.  She said, “I want to be able to choose what label people use to describe me.”  Why is that such a ridiculous premise?  It is really so absurd to think that an individual should have the right to say “I prefer to be called ________”?  To choose to be addressed by a label that isn’t demeaning, insulting, or simply not what that person wants to be called?  People don’t seem to mind that I prefer to be called Jim rather than James, but if the Carl Brandon Society tells Harlan Ellison not to use the term NWA, suddenly it’s a massive inconvenience and political correctness is censoring our freedom.

It annoys me how easily we toss the word “censorship” around.  Spend 30 seconds reading the comment threads for just about any news article that touches on race (the Gates/Crowley stories should provide plenty of reading).  Trust me, there ain’t no PC Censors working in this country.

Complaining because someone censored your comment on his/her blog not only misses the meaning of the word, it’s also rather insulting to those people who have actually had to deal with censorship.

  • People disagreeing with you is not censorship.
  • People stating that they don’t like your cover art and think its racist, sexist, or whatever, is not censorship.
  • People banning you from their blogs is not censorship.
  • For the writers out there, an editor rejecting your story for his/her publication is not censorship.
  • People saying they don’t like something you said is not censorship.
  • People telling you racial slurs are unacceptable is not censorship.
  • People criticising, mocking, or insulting you for choosing to use racial slurs is not censorship.

The nice thing about my country is that you’re free to say just about anything you like.  I don’t have any obligation to provide a platform for your words, but you can certainly go out and create your own.  The very fact that people are writing 1000+ word rants on their blogs about being censored tends to undermine their point.

But freedom of speech does not equal freedom from criticism.  If you say something offensive, you’re probably going to get challenged on it.  If that’s a problem for you, you might want to examine your words more carefully.  Either that or move somewhere that censorship actually exists — that way you can start suppressing those who disagree with you.

We talk about freedom of speech, but I hear very little about responsibility for speech.  You choose your words.  You’re responsible for what you say.  If you say something offensive or insulting, that’s on you.  You might disagree over whether something is offensive, but now we’re getting back to political correctness.  Tell me, who has the right to say whether the word “nigger” is insulting?  Do I as a white man get to tell black people that they’re overreacting and shouldn’t be offended if I use that term?

To put it another way, Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



Jul. 28th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
I'm going to ask a question that is going to need some set up, so my pardon for the caveats.

Not knowing the people involved, the discussion involved in the letter you link, I'm going to ignore them and not be talking about them. I am instead going to ask in generic terms. As in, unattached to this letter or these people.

Do you think that there is never a time a person should be called on using a race/gender/sexuality/religious/etc status in a discussion to shut a discussion down? You talk here about responsibility for what one says in public and I've got to say as a person who has a long history of being part of the HIV/AIDS community (and predominantly the gay segment of the that overall community), I've seen people do exactly that. Derail and landmine a conversation so that people have no way to actually disagree without having a mob attack them for being homophobic or what have you.

That is a very specific set of personal experiences, outside of this arena. I trust Jim to understand this about me but I'll be clear for those who don't... I am genuinely curious - as in no agenda, no preset answer I expect to hear, don't HAVE an answer for this question and just want to know... do you, Jim, think that it is always out of bounds to question a person on their use of a status in a discourse?

How rigorous are people supposed to be about that? If.

I think this is why I tend to stay away from so many discussions, and have avoided them in the work that I do. I've never seen a person on the defensive ever come out looking well.

I do wonder if I should even post this comment. I don't intend to start anything, but I'm betting this will be a button for some one, or it'll derail into how I'm agreeing with so and so. Meh. Still a valid question I'm curious about. You're better thought out on this stuff, Jim, than I. And the people you've got here tend to think clearer on certain things than I, having faced different issues than I have.
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
I appreciate you posting it. I'm going to need some time to think about the points you've raised, though.
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
You know, otherwise I'm right there with you in YOUR post, right?

"If you can complain about not being heard, then you're not being censored you idiot."
Jul. 29th, 2009 12:37 am (UTC)
perhaps I can help, Jim!

mt_yvr, I know exactly the kind of thing you're talking about. It sometimes happens in discussion of racism I've participated in when someone says something like, "Well, i can't be X-ist because I'm Y" in which Y stands for a marginalized group that is not X. Or something. One xample I can think of off the top of my head is someone claiming they weren't using a sexist term because they're bisexual. the mind boggles.

There are definitely times when people use their marginalized state to shut down or derail discussion. But instead of "calling them on using their oppression", like people saying "you're just playing the race card!" you should focus instead on pointing out the results of their actions. Like completely derailing a discussion, making it about them when it's not, and trying to make disagreement based on their marginalization the point.

Now, to be honest, sometimes it actually IS, but people who don't share that marginalization can't see it and then cry foul. But by not making your objection about the marginalized state and instead about keeping the discussion on track you avoid even having to worry about being called anti-gay or whatever. It's not about that, it's about effective discourse.

Anyway, that's my take.
Jul. 29th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much where my thinking had gone. I tend to focus similarly, having learned the hard way, when it comes up with "oh but you're a homophobe if you don't agree" comments. I just haven't had many instances where it's fallen outside that particularly well stomped ground - well stomped in my life. I'm not sure if it translates well to other areas or not.

To be clearer I should've drawn out a more detailed example. I've had a gay man say something akin to "and if you don't agree, it is because you're obviously a homophobe" when in fact had nothing to do with the issue. The person's argument was ridiculous and they were using their sexuality to "win" the discussion.

I've learned from those instances to remove the objective of discussions - it's not about winning or losing, it's about communicating. And whatever comes from that. And I tend to avoid responding to whether or not the "phobe/ism" is there and respond to the argument.

And yes, I don't often say boo about which groups I belong to, anymore, that aren't part of the privilege structure. It rarely seems to help the conversation and even less is heard for the intent behind it - which I'm learning to rephrase and WHEN to phrase. As sometimes it's not about identifying as much as it is about listening and valuing the personal experience of the individual. Aka : it aint always about you.

Anyway. Thank you for reading the comment and responding. Much appreciated.

Edited at 2009-07-29 05:44 pm (UTC)
Jul. 29th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
The short, relatively useless answer would be that I don't believe in absolutes ... for the most part, anyway.

The more honest answer is that I don't know, and I think it depends. In a conversation where one party is deliberately trying to shut down the exchange of ideas, is anything productive going to come of challenging them on that? Maybe, depending on how it's done.

I'm struggling with this as an abstract. (I tend to do better with concrete examples.) But I keep coming back to your comment about the person on the defensive coming out poorly, and I wonder if that defensiveness is the key. Is there a way to dodge that defensiveness and simply trying to reframe or refocus what you're saying. Maybe even asking for help in doing so -- if there are bystanders standing by, ready to mob, could those same bystanders be brought into the conversation?

So the long answer still comes back to I don't know, and I suspect it depends. I'd agree with Tempest below on the value of pointing to specific actions and observable effects.

Not a terribly satisfying answer to me, but it's what I've got so far.


Jim C. Hines

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