Freedom of speech is no longer about ‘rights’, it’s about power

Jonathan Boniface makes his latest ‘attack’ on freedom of speech, or put another way: he explores the power structures that underpin why people exercise their rights with no attention to their responsibilities.


A couple of weeks ago, I had the misfortune to attend an event where I saw privilege writ large in all its ugliness. I should perhaps refrain from using the word ‘privilege’ because it tends to make educated white liberals roll their eyes. I should refrain, but I won’t.

There are few things more uncomfortable than people oblivious of their privilege, acting in a manner conducive to displaying their obliviousness in its entirety. In fairness, the organisers of the event I attended had their hearts in the right place, having created a system where it was possible to object to actions or words that were tantamount to bullying or which made use of slurs or other oppressive rhetoric. Now, before anyone rolls their eyes into another dimension and talks about the ‘right to be offended’ (white cis people are a big fan of protecting that right) this means that I, for example, would be able to object to someone in the meeting calling me a ‘faggot’ and that would be upheld as unacceptable, and I’m down with that.

That said, I don’t think this system went down particularly well with some other people. Looking across the room, I could see teeth being ground and I could hear more sighing and huffing than Thomas the Tank Engine after smoking a pack of 20 Marlboro Reds. What I’m referring to, of course, are the white cis heterosexuals. There’s nothing that warms the cockles of your heart more than hearing a grey haired, educated white man yelling ‘freedom of speech’ in response to someone objecting to oppressive rhetoric. Even more depressing was the fact that this was in an ostensibly ‘liberal’ setting.

Freedom of speech is the big thing right now. Go on social media and you can read tweet after tweet of people wringing their hands over the perceived ‘threat’ to free speech, simply because a handful of universities may have told a handful of idiots that their attention-grabbing, divisive and oppressive rhetoric isn’t welcome in their halls. I mean, it’s like the whole foundation of civilisation is just unravelling before cis white eyes. You’ll see more tweets by powerful white cis people objecting to being prevented from offending others than posts lamenting the systematic and institutional discrimination of trans people, or BME people. Unsurprisingly, you could come to the conclusion that it’s more important to those with power and privilege to protect those who already enjoy power and privilege, than it is to fight against oppression. And you’d be right.

There’s nothing that warms the cockles of your heart more than hearing a grey haired, educated white man yelling ‘freedom of speech’ in response to someone objecting to oppressive rhetoric.

In my former life as a teacher of many subjects, including citizenship, one of the big topics of discussion was ‘rights and responsibilities’. If you went through the secondary education system in the UK in the last decade or so, this is probably ringing a few bells. No, we’re not moving into a situation where people’s right to freedom of speech is under threat; rather we are moving towards an even more dangerous situation where people champion the ‘right’ of freedom of speech above the responsibilities associated with it. I’m sorry, but no-platforming people like Germaine Greer or Julie Bindel is not more dangerous to our society than absolving people like them of their responsibility for what comes out of their mouths, or from their laptop keyboards. Or, to quote Edina Monsoon, ‘are we in The Others?’

That’s because the argument over freedom of speech is no longer about ‘rights’. It’s actually the marker of a quite smug and naïve society to believe that. We can pat ourselves on the back and talk about ‘equality’ in our society because we have enlightened laws that supposedly uphold it (I use the term supposedly advisedly as there are many ways in which the law still fails many groups in our society) but having such legislation does not actually mean that you have created an equal society. Equality is a myth, even in the self-satisfied western world where we think we’ve got it cracked. Yes, those of us in less privileged groups have the right not to be discriminated against in the workplace, or abused in the streets, or passed over for promotion, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen. That is because – power.

No, we’re not moving into a situation where people’s right to freedom of speech is under threat; rather we are moving towards an even more dangerous situation where people champion the ‘right’ of freedom of speech above the responsibilities associated with it.

Equality legislation does not equal redistribution of power. If you’re serious about equality, or about ending oppression, then you have to recognise that, and you need to move power from those who have traditionally enjoyed it to those who find it lacking. It’s easy for legislators to change the law to nominally ‘achieve’ equality because it does not involve them having to give power away. Equality for all before the law = bingo, equality achieved. And it’s the same for freedom of speech, or is it?

The premise is that if you have freedom of speech for everyone, that means that you can hear hateful views that seek to oppress others because it gives you the opportunity to take them down in public and expose them for what they are, etcetera, etcetera. Yes, we’ve heard it all before – it’s a very well worn argument. It’s also, if you’ll forgive the vernacular, an absolute load of guff. To hear the views of powerful oppressors and to be able to neutralise them suggests that everyone has a level playing field to proceed from in order to achieve that. I’m going to show my age but, to quote John Cage from Ally McBeal, ‘say it with me – please…’

Freedom of speech is no longer about rights; it’s about power. Just as with equality, we have legal equality but not real equality due to the maintenance of traditional structures of power, so too with freedom of speech we have an unequal distribution of power, and it’s certainly not in the favour of those who seek to no-platform. If you need proof of this, just take a look at those who generally end up being no-platformed. The process does not restrict their freedom of speech in any way whatsoever, because they have any number of other ways in which they can express their views. That’s because their exercise of the right to freedom of speech comes from a position of power. Put simply, being able to shut down the attempts of oppressed groups to fight your rhetoric is the new marker of power, and feeling ‘oppressed’ because people are telling you they don’t want to give you a forum for your views is the new white cis disease.

What people really mean when they refer to their freedom of speech is their position of power. By saying that we don’t want to hear people, we’re threatening their power, not their civil rights. This is what alarms the white cis lobby that sees the rest of us as the enemy to freedom of expression. This is unsurprising when you consider what they have to lose. But what this also exposes is some of the fractures within the LGBTQ+ community itself. In terms of serious commentary, I see white cis gay men getting quite angry about freedom of speech, more so than about the struggles of other sections of the community to which we all allegedly belong.

Being able to shut down the attempts of oppressed groups to fight your rhetoric is the new marker of power, and feeling ‘oppressed’ because people are telling you they don’t want to give you a forum for your views in the new white cis disease.

The problem is that, just like their cis heterosexual counterparts, many of these men simply don’t understand serious oppression. It’ll occasionally rear its ugly head, but generally they don’t need to think about oppression as regularly as many of their counterparts because they lead privileged lives. White cis gays knows where the power lies, hence their support of the power structure that lies behind freedom of speech. There’s more in it for them to support the position of white cis heterosexual liberals in maintaining a system that upholds the ‘rights’ of freedom of expression over the responsibility to not use it to treat people like dirt; as with anything wrong in our society, it’s easier to put yourself on the side of the status quo than it is to fight for change.

By saying that we don’t want to hear people, we’re threatening their power, not their civil rights.

If all these people put as much energy into ending oppression as they did into protecting their right to talk trash about people with impunity then they probably could have saved the world ten times over. Instead, it’s more important to make sure that we hear the voices of oppressed white cis people.

Say it with me – please

Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@gaes_elskhugi)

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