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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We’re Offended?

There’s a word I’ve seen thrown around a lot in recent years. That word is “offended”.

I’m sure this word used to mean something. I’m sure if we run to the dictionary we can find the original archaic definitions, and think “ah, that’s what it means!”

But those meanings hardly reflect reality as it is now. A one-line definition in a dictionary isn’t much use when a word represents a concept, and that concept is underpinned by culture, and context, and society and millions of people using it every day in countless situations.

Meaning-is-use, as Wittgenstein might say if pressed for a sound-bite – so how is it used?

If you see “offended” written down anywhere on the internet in 2015, its usage and context more likely mean:

“You there, shut up. You shouldn’t have a voice in this! Stop challenging me!”

Because rarely, if ever, does the phrase “you’re just offended” actually mean that the targeted person possesses the property of “offence”.

Let me illustrate, and boil it down to the simplest of examples.

Person A: “Fucking trannie-fags, amiright? What’s’ with them? Grown men pretending to be chicks. Eugh.”

Person B: “You know, that’s really demeaning to trans/trans* people for no other reason than they’re different to you. You really shouldn’t say that sort of thing since it makes their lives worse.”

Person A: “Oh, MY GOD! What is it with you people being OFFENDED ALL THE TIME?!”

And that’s without getting into the “it was just a joke” defence; an equally insipid defence used by idiots to justify themselves. It’s strange that the “ha-ha-bonk” attributes of someone’s speech are only ever brought up after the fact, but there you go. “Have a sense of humour!”, and “It was a joke!” usually come as a knee-jerk response (shame it rarely works both ways). The “just a joke” defence usually fits the pattern, but a more thorough treatment of that is also something for another time.

Further to the pattern, if this kind of exchange goes on long enough, you’re bound to see the following quote (mined) from Stephen Fry. You’ll see this, sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit:

It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that,” as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be repsected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?

Given that, at the time, Stephen Fry’s quote on “offence” was in the context of anti-blasphemy laws in Ireland, freedom of speech with the background context of religious persecution, and also given that Stephen Fry is openly gay, and also openly battling mental illness, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t talking about defending your right to be an utter prick to people for no other reason than because you can.

As much as I am a fan of Stephen Fry, the national treasure that he is, that quote out-of-context has done way more harm than its in-context poignancy ever did any good. At worst, I could accuse him of utter hypocrisy as he’s usually the first to throw a wobbly and leave Twitter, never to return, upon hearing any slight against him. But this is getting beside the point.

The o-word is simply trotted out to shut people up – it just dismisses someone’s views as “offence” and therefore, as Stephen Fry said, “so fucking what?”

To me, that’s just plain lazy thinking. It’s an excuse to avoid thinking about and self-reflecting on one’s own beliefs, ideas and speech – as if to say “You’re just offended, so I’m not going to bother understanding your criticism”, and it says it regardless of the validity of that criticism. Self-reflecting on whether the words you say contribute to a wider stigma, or whether your behaviour is making the world worse, is a vital part of growing up. And you don’t do that simply by dismissing your critics as merely “offended” by your position.

“You’re just offended” skips whether the only thing at stake is if someone is merely “offended”. It discards the actual opinion and goes straight towards “but you shouldn’t have any special rights for feeling that way” and “I therefore won’t pay attention to you”. And that’s really the core problem – in skeptic jargon you can call it a “straw man” argument. It boils down quite a complicated series of objections to a simple, and unrealistic, version that is easy to knock down.

(Of course, it’s very good to phrase it with skeptic jargon, as self-defined skeptics do this frequently when they refuse to engage with active social issues and instead want to simply debunk homeopathy for the millionth time. “Oh you’re just offended” comes from those with self-declared intelligence as it does from the more-broadly ignorant.)

Mostly, however, no. Stephen Fry is quite factually wrong in his quote – as are the people who bring it up as they build their dismissive straw man. It’s not all that common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that” – or anything remotely similar. Very rarely is anyone ever actually just offended by uncouth and unthinking remarks.

Do you even recognise what “offence” is?

Did you bother to check if someone was actually offended, first?

Or are you using it just for the connotations of “offence”, so that you can dismiss a view without further question?

Let’s put it another way:

  • Am I offended that rape victims get treated like shit, and told that they deserved what they got for dressing the wrong way? Fuck no – I am fucking livid that this is a thing.
  • Am I offended that Britain First gets away with treating Muslims like shit and want to boot them out of the country? Nope, I think it’s an affront to human intelligence that such people are supposed to get respect for their idiot opinions.
  • Am I offended that someone says “cockfag” and uses “gay” to mean “bad”? Christ no. I think you actively equating a demographic of people with negativity causes actual factual harm to people, and that should be enough to curb that behaviour because we all should make the world better, not worse.
  • Am I offended that you shoved your able-bodied ass into a disabled parking space? No, I think you’ve just made life worse for someone who can barely walk who will be along in ten minutes for no other reason than because you’re a self-indulgent asshole.
  • Am I merely offended by… well, anything that has been cast as “offence”?

No, I’m not. In fact, I think it’s pretty difficult to offend me. If I – and countless others – tell someone that they’re talking out of their arse, it won’t be due to mere offence.

The reality is that “offended” means nothing today. It’s simply a cheap and easy way for people to dismiss the valid opinions of others, to continue to unthinkingly treat Others like shit. When we want to finally say “enough, e-fucking-nough!” to this, it’s trotted out to dismiss the complaint. It’s an excuse to continue on with an unthinking lack of self-awareness. It’s a quick, thought-terminating cliché that absolves you from taking criticism seriously.

Maybe someone believes that I feel offended by what they say and think. So I’ll end this with a far more accurate word, as language can have some power when it’s laconic. It’s not offence, it’s more like pity.

I’m not offended that you think that, I pity you for it.

But Ken Ham takes the cake…

I have no problem with people banning users from their Facebook pages, or their sites, or their blogs. I really don’t. People cry out “freedom of speech” when their posting rights are kicked to the kerb, but, frankly, you’re not actually suffering or having any rights challenged for having posting rights revoked on Facebook. You’re really not, you whiny little so-and-so. You still have your own profile, or an ability to create your own page, or set up your own blog for free (like this one). I’m not averse to banning someone myself because I am under absolutely no obligation to take bullshit from people when I’m calling the shots. But that is, at least, such a rare event that it hasn’t actually happened yet – my M.O. for idiots is to let them show themselves up, while my M.O. for intentional and repeated troublemakers is to simply deprive them of the attention they crave. Usually, by the time someone has triggered my threshold they’re bored and long gone.

I’m also not too bothered about, say, Ray Comfort’s zero tolerance approach to profanity with his use of the Ban Hammer. I find it a bit distasteful that his threshold is so low (anything stronger than “my golly gosh” gets your a spanking), that he has no concept of the use/mention distinction (so even quoting it hypothetically gets you the Hammer), that he bizarrely extends this into abbreviations (“OMG, your BS is appalling” gets you whacked) and, well, I haven’t yet challenged him on made up swearing like “frack” and “feldercarb” (but I imagine he doesn’t take kindly to it) – but it’s his prerogative to take such an overly simple approach and it’s not a difficult a rule to abide by. I don’t begrudge him this choice, it’s his to make. It’s a pain in the ass, but Fucking Deal With It.

But Ken Ham, however, is a bit of a different beast in this Ban Hammer regard.

Firstly, though, a caveat. Unlike Comfort, where I’m fairly certain he manages the page personally, I’m not sure if Ken Ham’s Facebook page and his respective Answers in Genesis page are ran by him or a subordinate. It’s not unusual to delegate social networking activity to a minion, especially when you have an organisation as well funded as Answers in Genesis. But it’s under Ham’s name, so I’m going to refer to him personally for this. I’m going to proceed as if he is the one physically typing out the messages and doing the day-to-day admin. So, that said…

I’ll demonstrate with my own experience. Okay, so in principle this is me being “butthurt” over being banned from posting on AiG and Ham’s personal page. But what was the crime? It was this: it was a single post (my second, I think), responding to another atheist about the now infamous creationist science quiz. I can’t remember the exact wording since it was quickly deleted and shoved down the Memory Hole. It wasn’t a profanity-ridden rant, it wasn’t a repeated trolling, it wasn’t egregious insults (and, people should be well aware that I’m capable of that). It was a single post, and of fairly neutral, matter-of-fact tone. But, because I had talked to someone else, I had basically outed myself as an “enemy”. This was enough.

Ham’s approach to the Ban Hammer is different to most others. Eric Hovind and Ray Comfort have a threshold for getting rid of troublemakers – and I take great pains to point out that this is their prerogative, and if I was on the receiving end of the shit that atheists hurl at them, I’d do the same. Seriously, most Internet Atheists are stupid, obnoxious pillocks with the reasoning abilities of sour cream that’s been left out of the fridge for a month. They get what they deserve. Yet Hovind and Comfort still have a threshold of sorts and are fairly open to discussion. I once dropped a minute-by-minute snark-filled review of a Eric Hovind video and he let me. Kudos to Hovind, he left it up there, even though my most meaningful definitions I was trolling the fuck out of him and I admit it. There is no threshold you have to go over with Ken Ham. There is no barrier to a ban. Any and all dissent is quashed immediately.

I’m not going to argue this as a freedom of speech issue. That would be to simplify the point and then miss the actual point entirely – after all, I’m writing this, my freedom of speech is not restricted or infringed, I’ve covered that already. I’m arguing it based on the deceitful nature of Ham’s approach to his flock, and why he goes about having this zero-barrier approach to the wielding good ol’ Ban Hammer.

This is what Ken Ham does. It’s why I think he’s one of the most insidious creationists out of the entire bunch. He quashes dissent, rails against any criticism as if it’s an undeserved attack on his oh-so-precious beliefs, and frames everything as a vast conspiracy of persecution against him and his followers. It’s this approach that’s concerning and objectionable. Comments are all disabled on anything Answers in Genesis puts out, his Facebook pages are cleansed and purified, and we’re lucky that the YouTube channel even allows the rating system. In short, he specifically selects all the options to create an echo chamber of agreement. He removes any sources of criticism except for the ones he allows through, which he then twists and frames as unjust persecution. This isn’t just the case with his forays into Web 2.0, this is true of his most well-known work. For instance, his “How do you know? Were you there?” which he drums into young children; this serves no purpose except to selectively immunise them from thinking critically about what they believe. All of his lectures specifically quash thinking in favour of rote repeating of his points and with zero exploration, thinking or questioning of them allowed.

Now, that would normally just be some hyperbole by people who equate “critical thinking” with “thinking exactly like me”, but in this case it’s actually true. Ken Ham chants his mantra, and makes sure the children he lectures to can repeat it back verbatim and unquestioningly before he releases them into the world. Until that immunisation is complete, they’re held in a bubble – free from dissent and protected from alternative views.

So, its not what he believes that concerns me, it’s how he goes about it. It’s not something anyone with any love of reason should tolerate, but an echo chamber like this isn’t something you can fight against easily.