Where Do You Draw the Line: Free Speech and Hate Speech

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.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

  The title of this piece is taken from an old Dead Kennedy’s song of the same title.

  It includes the following lyrics:

“Seems like the more I think I know
The more I find I don’t.Every answer opens up so many questions.
Anarchy sounds good to me,
Then someone asks, “Who’d fix the sewers?”
“Would the rednecks just play king
Of the neighborhood?”
How many liberators
Really want to be dictators?
Every theory has its holes
When real life steps in…”

This is probably the biggest reason I refuse to give myself a hard label–whether that concerns my feminism or my Socialism.  The questions about liberators vs. dictators also hangs heavy on my mind.  The question becomes for me how to judge movements that have attempted to make things “better”, revolutionary movements that have taken power with the best of intentions, only to quickly devolve into the Next Big Dictator.  Specifically, what of those movements that have sought to radically change the way society is constituted, only to fall back on the oppression and exploitation of women.  What causes this to happen?  Is it that these society’s are not far enough removed from the most barbaric practices of patriarchal misogyny, so they quickly fall back on what they know best?  Or is it that they were flawed from their very conception?  The most important of these movements to me are the Communist revolutions of the 20th century.

  The first country to discuss when one discusses Communism always has to be Russia.  It was an integral belief of Russian Communism that men and women must have the same freedoms and rights for Communism to work.*  Women and men from all over the world returned to this concept over and over.  In her book Six Months in Russia, Louise Bryant wrote about how the leaders of the Revolution spoke, wrote and took action to actively engage women in the political life and future of Russia.  Of Maria Spirodonova, she wrote:

No other woman in Russia has quite the worship from the masses of the people that Spirodonova has. Soldiers and sailors address her as “dear comrade” instead of just ordinary “tavarish.” She was elected president of the first two Ah-Russian Peasant Congresses held in Petrograd and she swayed those congresses largely to her will. Later she was chairman of the executive committee of the Peasants’ Soviets and she is an extremely influential leader in the Left Socialist Revolutionist party.

  Bryant praised Alexandra Kollontai for “being a feminist” and “exalt[ing] women”:

As champion of her sex, she cries to the women of Russia: “Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties, the state is your home, the world is your country!”

  Lenin also wrote about the importance of women to the future of Russia.  And they were not to be important as mother’s and wives; they were to be important as leaders and active participants in the future of the world.

“[T]he building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women and undertake the new work together with women who have been emancipated from that petty, stultifying, unproductive work…
“We say that the emancipation of workers must be effected by the workers themselves, and in exactly the same way the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves.”

Women were not supposed to be “beneficiaries” of male ideas for their emancipation.  Under the model Lenin proposed, women were to decide their own futures within the Communist society.  Even in today’s so-called “liberal” feminist view, women often look to male leaders to “free” them.  For all of Lenin’s faults (and they were considerable), he argued that women must be the goddesses of their own fates.  That is far closer to modern radical feminist concepts than it is to modern liberal feminist concepts.

  It’s all well and good to talk about the great Russians and their commitment to women’s active participation in public life.  If that’s all we look at, we could praise most of the leaders of the Revolution and the U.S.S.R.  But there’s the rub:  how do we turn a blind eye to so many of the things that did not go right in Russia?  Can we take a morally supportable stand that it’s acceptable to do that?  To ignore the banning of dissent?  To ignore the “temporary” ban on journalistic freedom that eventually became a permanent ban?

  Many people–women and men–who had supported the Revolution eventually said, “No, I cannot turn a blind eye to this.”  Emma Goldman was one of them.  Her disillusionment was tied to the Kronstadt rebellion and the subsequent arrests of Anarchists, but many of her underlying criticisms of the U.S.S.R. were absolutely valid without any of those of-the-times political conflicts.  But, although valid, are they complete?  I would argue that they are not.

  Some people have compared Kollontai’s actions in Russia and Goldman’s actions in Russia to Kollontai’s detriment.  Do we reject Kollontai,who fought for women and took the pragmatic approach by joining with the Bolsheviks when they finally gained the upper hand?  Or for accepting a diplomatic post under Stalin–a post some believe was Stalin’s way of excluding her from the day-to-day governance of the U.S.S.R.?  (While exclusionary it may have been, it also helped her live longer than most of her contemporaries.)  Some have said that Kollontai never formally allied with either the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks, but simply moved back and forth as it suited her.  Others have said that she had formal alliances with both, but broke them at various times. In fact, some of her early demands for a focus on women in the new Russia appeared in Menshevik publications.

  In the end, I don’t think Kollontai cared which male faction “won”; her focus was on women.  In many, many scenarios, that is exactly the view women should take.  In most scenarios, men are not going to look out for women’s interests; women must do the work themselves.  Men are all too willing to look out for the interests of other men, while trampling the very lives of women underfoot.  When a woman looks out for other women–while also keeping a wider view of what she believes to be a more just world for everyone–why is she the unassailable evil?  I would argue that Kollontai did care about a just world for both women and men, but she was unwilling to leave women completely at the mercy of a male-dominated government.

  Do we understand that, unlike Goldman, Kollontai was a Russian woman with concerns for a Russian future for Russian women?   Goldman was, at heart, an American ex-patriate living in Russia.  (Yes, she was Lithuanian-born, but the U.S. was her home and most of her friends were Americans.)  It’s easier to leave a country if your only ties to it are theoretical and practical, like Goldman’s were; Kollontai’s were historical and familial.  Standing and fighting for those women had more meaning to Kollontai than it did for Goldman, who had taken some rather harsh stances against women at various times in her past, anyway.  (For example, I don’t see Kollontai ever calling another woman an “economic parasite” for providing unpaid domestic services for her husband.)    Do we stand at our point in history and condemn Kollontai?  Just as I can’t condemn Goldman for some of the arguments she made, I can’t do that to Kollontai, either. She stood and fought for the women of her country.  Far too often, we are willing to allow women to suffer in the name of “the people”.  Unlike many women, Kollontai didn’t turn her back on her sisters.  Whatever one has to say about the larger political landscape of the U.S.S.R. under its male leaders, I refuse to hold Kollontai guilty for her struggle and her commitment to the lives of women.

  On the other hand, we have another Revolution to speak of, and I can’t be so generous to that one.  What to make of China?  Many American feminists and radical women have praised Mao as an inspiration.  In 1996, Carol Hanisch presented a speech entitled, “Impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Women’s Liberation Movement.”  In it, she praises the writings of Mao as instrumental to the development of consciousness-raising.  She praises Mao as more “accessible” than Marx, Engels or Lenin.  Hanisch–she of “the personal is political” feminist motto–was a founding member of New York Radical Women.  She has fought the good fight.  However, in the year 1996, would you honestly be able to say a feminist figure should or would be praising China?  The country that has aborted and murdered its daughters to the point that it now faces a “woman shortage”?  Do we hold up a country as a beacon when a fact of life is that those women who do make it to adulthood are forced to have abortions or risk running afoul of the “one child per couple” law.  Forced abortion is no better than prohibition of abortion; both deny women the autonomy over their own bodies and reproduction.  China may have called itself Communist, and it may have had women’s emancipation as part of its principles, but it has quickly engaged itself into controlling the lives and bodies of women.  Same as it ever was.

  I can appreciate the words of Hanisch, as they pertain to Women’s Liberation.  I can look back historically and see where she came by her ideas.  I can read Mao’s words, and see that he, too, argued for women’s freedom under Communism.  I can even praise the Chinese women who fought to bring about that hoped-for Communism, believing that it would better their lives.  After all, these women had grown up with grandmothers who suffered footbinding.  They knew the horrors of women’s lives under the old ways.  The problem, for Hanisch or any other woman who would today praise China, is that China did not march too far from patriarchy in its move to Revolution.  Russia may not have come close to meeting its goals, but Russian females haven’t been annihilated under the watchful eye of the Party for the explicit reason that they are females.

  China kept the attitudes of the superiority of the male firmly ingrained, despite their flavor of socialistic totalitarianism.  (This is a prime example of how capitalism and patriarchy are not one-and-the same; China was never a capitalist country, but it was patriarchal is the most oppressive, obscene ways.)  When it tried to get a hold of the overpopulation issues, the “fix” was to eradicate generations of girls and women.  Today, their “fix” for economic issues is to turn towards capitalism, and its peculiar ways of exploiting women.  Part and parcel of that is the “mail order bride” phenomenon, which is growing in China.  Why?  Because China did not remove patriarchy effectively; it merely grafted socialism atop it.  As it stands, the courage of Chinese women touches me.  The result of the Chinese Revolution disgusts me.

  When we discuss the women of yesterday, we have to determine where each of us draws her or his line.  To do so, it is important to judge them on several criteria:

  1. Did they fight for justice, safety and freedom for their sisters?
  2. Did they do this–while doing the best they could within male-defined movements and governments–with an eye towards the greater good for all of society?
  3. How much power did they have to change the more unjust elements of their society without leaving women in ever deeper suffering?
  When I answer those questions, I can comfortably feel incredible admiration and gratitude for Kollontai.  I can feel deep adoration for Goldman.  And I can cry for the women and girls of China.

*I will not discuss whether Russia was ever actually “Communist” in this piece.  I do not believe it was, but addressing that in this piece is superfluous to the issues being discussed.