The fight for free speech has a long, rich history and much has been accomplished in the face of enormous odds. But however much we’d like to believe otherwise, the struggle for free speech is far from over.
So is ‘free speech’ the right to say anything you like, regardless of possible consequences? Does it extend to all realms of society or are there restrictions? Do governments or laws threaten free speech? Or do they protect them?
Article one of the US constitution speaks about the ‘freedom from government constraint,’ but also the ‘freedom to obtain information and express oneself’. Something similar is laid down in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers’.
Now does this freedom of speech really exist? How can it? The world we live in is simply too stratified and unequal for freedom of expression to have any true substance.
Information is naturally dominated by those who control the means to distribute that information. They are usually the same people who dominate the means to distribute society’s wealth, in other words, the elite or upper classes of society. Giant corporations increasingly dominate our major media outlets. This goes for newspapers, television channels, but also for the internet, where massive corporations like Google and Facebook control a disproportionate percentage of information flows. So where free speech should remain ‘free from government constraint’, nothing is ever mentioned about ‘corporate constraint’. And are corporate monopolies on information not a clear constraint of free speech or at least of the power to have your voice heard. Oil giant Shell has far more access to media exposure than the Ogoni people who inhabit the Niger Delta.
Who, I hear you ask? This is what I mean.
And what about Nike? Haven’t they been effective in separating their flashy trainers from the suffering that goes on in their factories?
But that’s what freedom is all about, I hear some people think. Nike is free to produce trainers and you are free to buy or not to buy them. Sure, but if your exposure to Nike remains one-sided, are you really in a position to make a fair decision? And how free is that nine-year old child producing those shoes?
But inequality isn’t just about economics or having access to information. It is embedded and perpetuated by the structures of our society; our education, language, gender, relationships, sexuality and academia. All these institutions reflect the stratification of our modern world. Now those power relationships are obviously not set in stone and free speech is a powerful weapon to break through the structural constraints of our societies.
For example, it is important to challenge the casual use of the word ‘poof’ to refer to homosexuals. Why? Because it restricts the freedom of others to be who they want to be and it asserts dominance of one person over another.
As society diversifies and an increasing number of minority groups emancipate themselves, alternative or competing narratives can challenge some of our traditional assumptions. If you have been part of the ‘dominant’ group, this can be quite confrontational. After all, it is much easier to ignore or legitimize our complicity in oppressive systems (like sexism; racism; homophobia) if you can cast the people who have been legitimately harmed as ‘oversensitive’.
So the white middle-aged man who angrily poses the question why the LBGTQ community has to organize a Pride March feels threatened. His comfortable world-view is being challenged. His stance can be summarized by the overly familiar: ‘I have no problem with gay people, as long as they…’
Recent critiques of so-called ‘political correctness’ are really just attempts at silencing emerging narratives that challenge the status quo. PC is not a threat to freedom of expression, but an encouraging chapter within it. Framing free speech and PC as opposing forces is a false dichotomy intended to derail uncomfortable but necessary conversations, a smokescreen erected by the ethically lazy. The fact is, PC doesn’t hinder free speech, it expands it. But for marginalized groups, rather than the status quo.
So yes, we should do all we can to encourage free speech, not by turning to the law to restrict the things we might disagree with, but by appreciating and encouraging those voices that aren’t usually heard by everyone. History has taught us that it is precisely those non-dominant narratives we should cherish, for they both challenge and resist, so we can ultimately achieve a more free and equal society.
Bram Wanrooij is on the panel for the How Free is Free Speech? debate at the Opera House on Friday 30 September as part of the Jersey Festival of Words 2016.