Freedom, Responsibility and Privilege – the Trichotomy of Speech

Pretty much everywhere we hear the word “freedom“, we see it balanced by the concept of “responsibility“.

We have the freedom to own a car. But at the same time we have the responsibility to pass a driving test, learn to manoeuvre the vehicle, and not to knock anyone over. Across in the United States, the freedom to own a firearm is hotly defended by people who emphasise, above all else, their responsibility in owning one. Sometimes it’s a difficult balancing act; we pledge to use our freedoms, but to not cause harm to others in doing so. Your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins, etc. etc.

But we hardly ever hear this talked about with one freedom: speech.

That freedom seems absolute. You can say whatever you want, whenever you want to, and it shouldn’t be impeached. Even when people say the most despicable things, outright wrong things, or lie, cheat and bludgeon their ways through facts, someone will come along and defend them because of “freedom of speech”. Criticism is responded to with “well, it’s their freedom of speech”. Or, at worst, the irony-busting version of “it’s their freedom of speech so you should shut up”.

Why is that? After all, freedom of speech is a principle to uphold, it’s not exactly an argument for something.

It would be as if someone had knocked over a pedestrian in a car, and they were defended because it was their right to drive. As if a gun owner shot an unarmed civilian, in cold blood, knowingly, and with zero provocation, and they were defended (and then went unprosecuted)  on the basis that it was their right to own a gun.

With freedom of speech comes responsibility to use it well, to avoid undue harm, and make the world better. It’s a responsibility to take your liberty without damaging the liberty of others. Not to, as one particular National Treasure™ did, to tell child abuse victims to grow up and stop seeking pity. Not to, as one National Disgrace™ said, to call for refugees to be gunned down by helicopters. Not to, one National Attention Seeker™ said, tell victims of rape that their suffering totally didn’t really count because they weren’t raped properly.

But to understand the importance of responsibility in exercising freedom, we need to look at a third angle ; privilege.

Everyone has the freedom to drive; not everyone has the privilege to drive a Bugatti. Everyone has the freedom to buy a house; not everyone has the privilege to live in a mansion, and many have to deal with a one-bed flat, a two hour commute away from where they work. Few begrudge privilege (earned or otherwise), but many do begrudge irresponsible privilege. Privilege on its own causes no problems – denial of it, blindness to it, and the inability to recognise under-privilege in others, certainly does. Because privilege-blindness drives irresponsibility, recognising privilege is a form of responsibility. A Bugatti driver needs to understand why the family in the Skoda simply can’t “drive a bit faster and get out of my way”. Someone living in a central-London mansion needs to understand that someone commuting in from a flat in the outskirts every day can’t simply “work a bit harder to afford a better house”. A wealthy boss who claims all her travel expenses on the company account might know the price, but fail to recognise the value of a car, fuel, a travelcard, rail fares… and fail to realise that her employees are disheartened, incapable of arriving to work on time and awake, and malnourished because their money all goes to commuting. Privilege-blindness stops her seeing that “work a little harder and manage your money better” is not a solution.

And while the majority of people recognise privilege when put into terms of wealth, and an increasing number actually understand privilege in other contexts, it also must be applied to how abstract freedoms are used.

Everyone has freedom of speech, but less than a percent of a percent have the privilege of being truly heard. They have platforms, they have newspaper columns, TV shows, and the wealth to ride out the rest of their lives in relative comfort even if, may the gods forbid, their careers are “ruined” by one hateful remark. Freedom of speech is entwined with both the responsibility when heard, and the privilege to be heard. And again, privilege-blindness drives irresponsibility. Someone with a newspaper column, a popular web page, and regular invites to talk on television needs to understand that their freedoms are absolutely not under threat because someone with all of 10 Twitter followers said something critical about them. If they’re blind to their position, they don’t realise how much they stamp on the freedoms and liberties of others when they push back. Their blindness to this will fuel their oppression of others. They view themselves as equally persecuted when someone criticises them, but their position is far from equal in reality.

And this is perhaps why we don’t hear too much about responsibility of speech in popular culture or the wider media – because we only hear from the privileged few who can be heard, and they’re so used to being heard that they can no longer recognise their responsibility.

I can write this down on a backwater blog, and someone else can write the exact thing down but have it published in the Independent, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Cracked… we would both exercise the same freedom, we’d both exercise the same degree of responsibility, but only one gets the privilege of an audience. Free speech is dominated only by those who can be heard – and the meta discussion about free speech is equally dominated by the few. That means it’s almost certainly in their best interest to not talk, at least not too much, about their own responsibility or their own privilege. Such things might be a little too self-critical, and might damage their position.

It’s these three things together, make up what we should talk about: a trichotomy of speech. Because freedom of speech on its own is just an abstraction, and such abstractions rarely survive a collision with the real world with actual people. When actual people are thrown into the mix, the need for responsibility arises – just like throwing pedestrians at the abstract concept of “freedom to drive” generates the responsibility not to mow them down indiscriminately. The need to consider privilege arises – just like throwing house prices at the abstract concept of “freedom to own a house” generates the privilege of being able to afford a bigger one.

There is freedom.

There is privilege.

There is responsibility.

Perhaps we should really start to see all three in action for a change.

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