Liberal Free Speech Values

Whenever anyone either objects to, or tries to stop, hate speech, the inevitable liberal response is something along the lines of “You can’t infringe upon someone’s right to say those things! Free speech!”.

This line of reasoning falls down the moment you ask the question “Who’s rights are really being infringed upon, and in what way?”.

Institutionalised oppression (of which individual instances of hate speech partly make up) alienates the oppressed from society, it marginalises them, silences them. It reduces their cultural currency, it pushes their views, feelings, and interpretations of the world towards the social periphery.1 A person living in the face of institutional oppression is living in a culture where violence against them is permissible, a culture where their personhood is always “lesser-than”, and ultimately, a culture in which speaking out is a dangerous act. Above all, bigoted speech harms the speech of entire swathes of people just because they share an irrelevant characteristic like gender, race, sexuality, and so on.

Bigotry is founded on objectively incorrect ideas and those defending it often betray acceptance of this fact by falling back on banal appeals to the legal institution of free speech. If bigotry was in any way defensible on its own grounds, most defenders of it would attempt to fight the battle on that front, not divert the discussion towards the question of the law with platitudes like “it’s not technically illegal to say this!”.

There are two options available on the question of speech:

  • disallow hate speech: protect the oppressed from further oppression, give them a chance to fully exercise their free speech
  • allow hate speech: let the oppressors continue to oppress, allow them to continue to infringe on the oppressed’s right to free speech

Given the choice between restricting the freedom of people who say bigoted things (and who would restrict the freedom of people targeted by said bigotry), or restricting the freedom of the people harmed by that bigotry, the choice is clear.

Allowing someone to, through exercising their rights, restrict the rights of someone else puts the entire concept of “rights” in danger. To use a rather crude example, it would be ridiculous to proclaim that everyone should have the right to bodily autonomy, and then go on to say that it’s okay for me to use my bodily autonomy to repeatedly, and for no reason, smash my fist into someone’s face. That would be a blatant violation of their bodily autonomy. Conflicts of rights are an inevitability, rights can never be universally extended to everyone in every situation.

The same principle in the above paragraph applies here, exercising your free speech and using it to infringe upon the right of free speech of others defeats the entire purpose of “free speech” in the first place, unless of course, you think that free speech should only be extended to certain members of the non-oppressed population.

  1. Stereotypes and Stereotyping, Chapter 6: Language and Stereotyping, Anne Maass & Luciano Arcuri – 1996