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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.



( 89 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 28th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
Your bullet points are bloody hell right on.
One of the most frustrating aspects of many of these discussions/debates is when people say "but I'm not allowed to" whatever, when it's just not the case. Also, I can hear the whine: "I'm not a-LOUD to." Up and down, like a bell curve.
Jul. 28th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
Censorship: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I do understand, on some level, that if you're used to saying and doing whatever you please without ever really getting challenged on it, then it does have a much stronger impact when all of the sudden someone tells you, "That's not okay." But censorship? Not allowed? Yeah, not so much.

Also, WHY am I unable to type this word? I've had to fix "censhorship" at least a dozen times so far this morning. Grumble...
(no subject) - samhenderson - Jul. 28th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 28th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
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?

It depends. If I say to a friend of mine, "Nigga, please.", a third party to this conversation has absolutely no right to tell me I'm racist. They don't know me, or the situation enough to lecture me on racism. And yet we hear of cases on almost a daily basis of these "PC Police" intruding on things they have no business to comment on. That's when the line is crossed. If a woman tells me to call her a womin instead, fine, I'll also tell her she's a moron for wanting me to (in a more polite way of course) but no problem. If she tells me I have to address *all* women this way, nuh-uh. Crossed the line. Calling me a sexist because I don't agree to that? Way across the line. And yes, this incident happened.

Now, if I addressed the same "Nigga, please." to someone and *they* tell me not to, I'll apologize, clarify no offense was meant and never use that term with them again. An individual has the right to define how they are addressed. No individual, or even a sub-group, has the right to define for a group of people how every individual of that group is to be addressed.
Jul. 28th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
"If I say to a friend of mine, "Nigga, please.", a third party to this conversation has absolutely no right to tell me I'm racist."

How do you figure? Do you really mean no right or do you mean no justification?
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Jul. 28th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
I first heard the term 'politically correct' back in the seventies. At that time, the context (as I remember it, anyway) was a resistance to the notion that someone has designated a new term, one the designator deems acceptable, in opposition to an unfortunate term used in earlier times.

So far, so good. But the second half of the equation was using moral force to get everyone to use that term, or earn social opprobrium. So it was an attempt--however well meaning--to control speech. I distinctly remember a peer lecturing me, "You can not say Mexican, if they were born in L.A. You have to say Chicano, or Chicana." This was from another white person, who had taken the morally superior stance. The only person who could be considered part of the group in question actually did say Mexican, because both her parents were descended from Mexicans, but later she would say Latina.

Anyway, the point is, maybe that was a necessary step toward the present day, when anyone can identify with any group, and insist on the term they prefer. But back then, there were self-appointed authorities earnestly redesigning speech for the rest of us, in order to get rid of the old nasty labels. And others resisted this managing, often by denigrating political correctness.

I hasten to add I am not saying anyone is right or wrong, this is just a historical data point.
Jul. 28th, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC)
It's a valuable data point, and much appreciated. I came into the discussion later, so this is a part of the history I wasn't aware of.

The second part you mention reminds me of a blind friend of mine who's been known to say, "I'm not visually impaired. I'm blind, dammit."
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(Deleted comment)
Jul. 28th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
That, I believe, has been true for almost the entire history of human existence.
Jul. 28th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
Political Correctness is the tool of the Thought Police
I'm not making this up. In college, when professors announced they would flunk me for using any un-PC terms at all in any paper, they would cheerfully and explicitly tell me that they were doing so because if I used PC language, I wouldn't engage in thought crime. All right, they didn't call it thought crime. But they (they claimed) had precluded -- without debate or even argument -- my thinking in ways they didn't approve of.

Naturally one looks warily on the appearance of behavior that one has seen associated with such views.
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Political Correctness is the tool of the Thought Police
"Political Correctness is the tool of the Thought Police"

You support this by providing an example of someone threatening to flunk you if you did not use PC terminology. I agree that there's a problem with this.

However, going from that to your conclusion above is like saying some drug dealers use guns to kill people, and therefore "Guns are the tool of the Murderous Drug Lords"
Re: Political Correctness is the tool of the Thought Police - (Anonymous) - Jul. 28th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Jul. 28th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 28th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
"Freedom of speech means you can say anything you want. It doesn't mean anyone has to like it, or listen."

My grandfather told me that when, as a teen, I was complaining about not being able to say what I wanted (I think in school... maybe?). I've never forgotten it.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)
Even the old 20/20 Culture of Victims shows looked for someone to blame for the lack of responsibility out there. Amused me to no end.

The problem is pretty saturated throughout our culture. At work, a lot of people spend their time trying to avoid blame (if possible); it's almost an art form the way some people do it. (Think Archie in The Chocolate War.) At home, if there's a mess I get an "I didn't do it!" from three different voices; it takes Sherlock Holmes to deconstruct those crimes. Then you turn on the news....

Responsibility is a lot like civility; more than anything else, people have to do it themselves and provide an example to others.
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)
Jim, thanks for writing this. I agree with every word.
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:25 pm (UTC)
Another classy and intelligent post, Jim. And you're absolutely right about the censorship - most of the stuff that gets labelled censorship isn't remotely near being censorship.

However, as an foreign observer (which might make me more objective, or it might simply disqualify me from having an opinion - I'll let others judge), my opinion is that the whole PC thing is completely out of hand, and it HAS become a joke (doberperson...) to everyone except for the people who promote it.

This is sad, because it ends up being counterproductive. Something which, as you point out, began with the intention of keeping certain people from being insulted by ignorant bigots has become a minefield in which even the most well-intentioned of people can run afoul of the fanatics.

In the end, I don't think people are laughing at the whole thing because it's easier than addressing the issues - I think what you can and can't say has become so hard to discern that people just gave up in the face of the ridiculous hoops they're expected to jump through.

And, for the record, I am completely against both racism and sexism, and am very vocal about it.
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Jul. 28th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
Wow. Okay, I think I've definitely missed some of the history/baggage associated with political correctness. In my mind, I think of being politically correct as pretty much synonymous with being respectful ... at least, that's what I think it *should* mean. But I can see where that sort of experience would ruin the idea of PC.

Personally, I do try to be aware of when I'm using "guys" as an all-inclusive term. I still use it sometimes, but not as often as I used to, and I pay attention to it.

But "dude"? Wow. I don't get that one.
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Jul. 28th, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jim (as ussual).

Being in the military, we get "sensitivity training" every year in a variety of topics, including civil rights. (Military code for "race sensitivity training")

I have to say, it is horrid. I never feel more racist (personally) than I do after these training sessions because there are so many ways identified as "racist" that I don't even think about until they are pointed out to me. We are so heavily trained on avoiding "stereotypical and racial comments/stance/thoughts/words/gestures" (yes, gestures) that suddenly you become super sensitive and have to think about how what you will do/say/think/write will be construed. The toll of thinking about if your words are fully politically correct is that you have to be familiar enough with what is politically uncorrect (so far as every training session I have ever been to seems to be set up - long lists of "Thou Shalth Not") to know when you are being politically correct.

I know that the purpose is to end racisim in the military (which, sadly does still exist, even though I wish it did not), but the way they go about it seems completely backwards. Why give me a list of unacceptable terms to refer to a person of asian descent (for example), and then a list of acceptable terms, when what we should really be reviewing is treating everyone with respect, regardless? I've learned more about being racist than I have about not being racist and in the end, an 8 hour training session isn't going to change anyone's heart when it comes down to it: it is just going to teach them how not to appear overtly racist. (or sexist. Or phobic. Or any insertable -ist you can think of)

Unrelated, I also find it amusing that the military has "appreciation months " (I bet everyone does this tho. African-American/Black History month, Hispanic Heritage month, Pacific Islander month...etc, all year long. And how do we celebrate it? By finding the most stereotypical food we can, and having a potluck/BBQ/etc. We have a Mexican Food buffet during Hispanic Heritage month, a luau during Pacific Islander month, and ect...how is this NOT stereotypical?! I mean, I like food and all, esp. free food and fun, but it is completely the OPPOSITE of the sensitivy training we recieve!
Jul. 28th, 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
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?

I've never understood why people get so upset about what others label themselves as, or what others look like or what others do. On Datalounge, tons of posters rant about how Chaz Bono "doesn't get to call herself a man" or how Obama "doesn't get to call himself black". Sometimes it's entire threads about how cute guys shouldn't be allowed to get tattoos, or how women should be prevented legally from having jobs, kids, and/or abortions when the men decide they've had "too many".

No one ever pays any attention when I (or occasionally others) ask why they think they have the right to force their own labels on others, or to criticize people for doing things with their own bodies. I've never gotten an answer but I have gotten flamed, as they think they're being reasonable and that Chaz, Obama, pregnant/working women, etc. need the situation mansplained to them.

And, to tie in with the freedom of speech thing, these same people often demand all women and people of color get off Datalounge because we're violating their "safe space". Seriously, I have seen multitudes insist that they as white men need a safe space to talk "truth" about women and minorities.

While the "safe space" stuff is something I've only seen on Datalounge, sadly, the rest of the attitudes I've seen on literally every other forum I've been to on the 'net.
Jul. 29th, 2009 12:40 am (UTC)
Wow, I went to check out dataforum, and kind wished I didn't! I get a lot of static in my professional and personal life because I am pregnant, and I continue to work even now (less than a month until I am due!), and I fully plan on going back to work full time after I have the baby. Not because I am some kind of evil kid-hater, but I love my job, and it makes money. Makes it worse when you add in that I haven't changed my maiden name to my married name, am an environmental scientist, and my husband will be the stay-at-home care for the kid (while he goes to college under the newest 9-11 bill for the military).

Actually, wait - now I see why people lable me an anti-woman, worst housewife ever, and question how much I love my (yet unborn) kid.

Nothing to do with race at all, but I was (not totally) surprised to see that those kinds of ideas (and the other topics - race, labeling, the "people don't know what is good for them") were actually far more wisespread than I originally belived.

I always have a hard time believing that, even now in the 21st century, we deal with that kind of stuff. ARen't we supposed to be in flying cars, meeting aliens and creating cold fusion and super mutants by now?
(no subject) - bookdraco - Jul. 29th, 2009 12:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 28th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
Yes. Thank you.
Jul. 28th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
I think a very good rule in general is "Don't try to discuss race on the Internet." There are a lot of things the Internet is good for, but political discussions are not one of them.

Perhaps in a heavily moderated forum with a long history and culture of polite discourse within a community which is itself composed of diverse members brought together out of common interests. Maybe. And even then it'll still go haywire half the time.
Jul. 28th, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC)
But if not here on the Internet, where? And if not now, when? I do think it is possible to have a multi-racial discussion of racism without it degenerating into a flame war.
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jul. 29th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC) - Expand
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