As I have navigated political life, developing, rethinking and redeveloping my political philosophies, the obstacle over which I have stumbled the most has been free speech. Should it be absolute? Should it be limited? Who gets to decide the limits? Who keeps the decision-makers in check, keeping them from trampling unpopular opinion and dissent? Does accepting free speech mean that we have to let the purveyors of misogyny and other hatred to put their ideas out there? What happens if we try to limit them? Even now, after years of thought on the issue, I am still as confused as ever.
When I was younger, I often adopted the hardline. I agreed with those who favored bans on hate speech. Misogyny and racism have no place in civil society, anyway, right? Why does the marketplace of ideas need to include the abhorrent, the ideas that seek to make others less than human? My young mind felt that it didn’t. I believed we would never have a truly just society if we didn’t ban certain kinds of speech or expression: rape apologia, the racist justifications and rationalizations of the U.S. South, pornography, and other hatred aimed at women. Laws like the European laws against “inciting racial hatred” made sense to me. I just felt they should be used to protect more groups, especially women.
As I aged, I began to question that position. As I became more acquainted with historical moves to suppress speech, I did an about face. My belief that misogyny, racism, and other hate-based expressions didn’t change, but my opinions about how to confront those expressions did. I learned how so many regimes have killed, oppressed and ostracized those who expressed unpopular opinions. The problem? Many of those unpopular opinions were ones I actually supported. It was the U.S. government suppressing Socialists, Communists and anarchists via deportation, incarceration, or ostracism. It was the U.S. government using anti-obscenity laws to suppress information about birth control and abortion, to keep women from making pamphlets and giving speeches explaining basic female anatomy and reproduction to the uneducated. People had even been executed based on their political beliefs, although the charges were usually framed as something else. So, history told me that the shoe had been and could be on the other foot.
History and the experiences of others weren’t my only teachers. I also learned first hand the dangers of suppressing certain types of speech based upon content. Many of the opinions I currently hold are very unpopular–even among those on the Left. I have been accused more than once of “hate speech” for the statement that I don’t believe anything called “transgender” exists. I’ve never claimed that people should be ostracized for believing they are transgendered. In fact, I think radical feminists are overly obsessed with this issue, which I believe to be tangential. I just don’t believe the phenomenon is anything like its proponents claim. I don’t believe in essential femininity or essential masculinity. I don’t believe there is a “female” way to experience the world that is essentially different from a “male” way of experiencing the world. While those who support the transgender concept claim they are against the gender binary, the very core of the concept is in opposition to this claim. The concept of transgender says that some people are born with the gender that is “wrong”, which actually reinforces the idea that there are two separate and distinct genders. It doesn’t smash the concept of gender binary; it simply states that people may be born with a gender different from their biological sex. To truly smash the concept of binary gender, the very concept of gender must be destroyed. Human experience must be recognized as a continuum. Just because a woman doesn’t fit with the stereotype of “feminine” doesn’t make her a man; it makes her a woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of “feminine”. The same with men who don’t fit stereotypes of “masculine”. They are simply men who don’t fit the cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a man. That does not make them women. I applaud and support men and women who refuse to conform to stereotypes of gender; I just don’t think it changes their sex.
The Left Side of Feminism’s Facebook page has been reported for “hate speech” when I express this belief. Nothing has ever become of it, because it is a patently stupid claim to make. However, there are those who come out of the woodwork to label this view an expression of “hate”. My comments on some liberal feminist sites are moderated because I have expressed this opinion. That the statements above could be twisted into the concept of “hate speech” is ludicrous, but it happens all the time.
On a similar note, I have been accused more than once of “Islamophobia” for daring to critique Islam in the same way I critique Christianity, Judaism or any other patriarchal religion. While the Left will applaud when one criticizes fundamentalist Christians for their misogynistic beliefs and practices, Leftists will come out in droves to condemn those who apply the same standard to fundamentalist Muslims. In my view, holding Muslims to a different standard is condescending. It assumes that they are not smart or moral enough to treat women as full human beings. Again, that so many twist this opinion, calling it “hate speech”, is absolutely ludicrous. It’s simply a way to shut down the opposition without careful consideration of what is being said.
Eventually, I arrived at a position of a free speech absolutist. My stance was that no speech, no matter how offensive or hateful, should be banned. To do so is to risk that the ban someday be turned on me or those with whom I agree. If it can be used against speech I disagree with, it can certainly be used against speech I agree with. There is nothing that keeps the opponents of justice and equality from using such bans to meet their own ends. History tells us this is true. My own experience does, as well.
In addition, banning speech doesn’t ban the ideas behind the speech. One may make the speech unheard and the expression invisible, but that doesn’t mean the hate isn’t still there. If the ideas persist and grow out of sight, how do we know what we must fight? How do we keep the hateful from exploding in violence that we didn’t even know was coming? How do we educate?
This position of absolutism was a comfortable place for me for a very long time. Recently, it has become less and less comfortable. The argument that we will never have justice when marginalized groups can be publicly degraded and targeted makes sense. The argument that we must fight for good of the whole, not just the rights of the individual, also make sense. After all, isn’t that at the heart of Communism? Doesn’t it seek to destroy a system that benefits a few in order to better the lives of the majority? Shouldn’t that be at the heart of feminism? The betterment of the lives of women, as a group, rather than slavish devotion to the individual (i.e. the misguided “choice” doctrine of liberal feminism)? I can’t argue with those positions, so I arrive at a place of discomfort, of uncertainty.
I haven’t resolved this conflict within my heart and my mind. I stay along the course of absolutism, because I can’t resolve the questions of what happens to the unpopular opinion. Communism, feminism, anarchism are all unpopular opinions to many. Do we risk those social justice movements being targeted by limiting free speech? I just can’t support anything that leads to that possibility. So, I uneasily sit in the chair of free speech absolutism…and wonder if there’s a better way.