When free speech costs

Amid signs of an emboldened far right on both sides of the Atlantic, Sam Hope explores how a distorted version of “free speech” has become toxic


When we were kids, we used to say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I think most of us knew this was the biggest lie ever told. Of course words hurt. We are social animals, pack animals, and our sense of acceptance and inclusion as part of the pack is fundamental to our wellbeing. Corny, maybe, but people need people.

And yet it seems that lately, the idea of “free speech” has erased any sense of responsibility for the impact and consequences of people’s words. At least when those words are spoken by folks with social capital. Censuring even the vile incitement to murder and genocide of the Charlottesville Nazis is suddenly being questioned, by a strangely robotic and increasingly meaningless bleating about “free speech”.

People are, of course, confusing censuring with censoringand without any awareness of the irony, they are shutting down the voices of those freely speaking their fear, their upset, and their outrage at the things people feel increasingly able to say out loud without consequences.

We are social animals, pack animals, and our sense of acceptance, safety and inclusion as part of the pack is fundamental to our wellbeing

As Nazism rears its hideous face in the US and fails to be condemned by the president, we are seeing frightening things happen to LGBTQ+ rights, the latest of which is trans people being banned from serving in the military. This process of verbally dehumanising minorities to the point where they can easily be refused participation in public life such as becoming soldiers, or using public facilities, is a kind of violence that leaves LGBTQ+ people outside of pack protection; vulnerable to physical violence, and beyond people’s care or concern. LGBTQ+ people of colour, living at the intersection of racism and LGBTQ+ hate, often end up being the most marginalised of all, hence their disproportionate representation at the receiving end of violence.

But physical violence is just one consequence of the systemic verbal attack on minorities that currently thrives in our media and politics, as well as in public and online spaces. Back in 2003, an academic called Meyer proposed a phenomenon called “Minority Stress” for LGB people. It’s equally applicable to trans people. Meyer’s theory, in a nutshell; the increased mental health issues for LGB people is directly attributable to the trauma of being mistreated by the general population – stigma, abuse, isolation, erasure, lack of support, all add up to take their toll.

A few studies seem to bear this out for trans people. A Canadian study demonstrated that trans mental health improved given certain factors – family support, access to gender recognition and treatment, social acceptance. A landmark Lancet study provides robust evidence that mental health issues do not directly correlate to gender dysphoria itself, but to the treatment trans people experience. And yet, politicians and the media still get away with calling transness in itself a mental illness, and unlike homosexuality, being trans has yet to be fully declassified from mental health manuals.

A large study of 2 million LGB people gives us further clues about this phenomenon – the Cambridge study demonstrated that bisexual mental health is in a worse state than gay and lesbian mental health, and this would seem to correlate with the greater stigmatisation, lack of acceptance, lack of community support and erasure of bisexual identities. In addition, LGB women’s mental health is worse than men’s, which correlates with the intersecting oppressions of being both a sexual minority and a woman. It’s sad the study did not also analyse other intersecting oppressions, such as race and disability.

As a therapist, I have been pleased to see the growing understanding from diverse fields of research that all point to a single, important truth: as relational animals, humans thrive or falter largely as a result not of their own individualistic endeavours but the relationships they have with other humans. Whether we like it or not, we are interconnected and interdependent. Importantly, this means that people don’t “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” but are lifted up in life by a network of support from other humans.

How we talk to and about each other is a significant part of how we relate to each other. There is no justification for the idea that speech cannot do genuine harm. It can incite, inspire neglect, influence social rejection, marginalise, stigmatise, stress and abuse.

If a parent tells their child repeatedly that they are horrible, or worthless, or weak, or inadequate, we recognise this as emotional abuse. Likewise if a partner does this to their spouse. And yet, we somehow fantasise that words in the media, or shouted online cannot have the same impact, even though the collective weight of many voices, or the power of a platform, can grant words extra credence.

People don’t “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” but are lifted up in life by a network of support from other humans

Is it that we think there is no relationship to harm when our targets are strangers? This is nonsense, of course – we are all of us in each other’s hands, and every interaction, via media, or type or in the street, is a relationship of sorts, a reiteration of our place in the human pack. And some people’s places remain persistently marginal.

What society supports or rejects is not fixed or “natural” but constantly in flux. This wonderful article about finger spinners beautifully illustrates how a human behaviour (in this case stimming) can go from unacceptable to acceptable overnight. The article talks about the deep unconscious (and often arbitrary) biases that drive these prejudices.

Two hundred years ago, it was entirely socially unacceptable to be left-handed, and left-handers were profoundly marginalised in society. Now, we treat left-handedness as simple human variation. Consequently, left-handed people have a much easier time in today’s society, and no doubt mentally fare better as a result.

We are all of us in each others hands, and every interaction, via print, or type or in the street, is a relationship of sorts, a reiteration of our place in the pack

The words people use about LGBTQ+ people, the stories they tell, create the environment that determines acceptance and inclusion or rejection and marginalisation. There is nothing inevitable about this; it is purely a social habit to talk about and view LGBTQ+ people with suspicion or disdain, whereas in many cultures, what we may call queer people are celebrated.

We know, of course, that the Nazis’ policy was one of divide and conquer, and we cannot surely now ignore the way history is threatening to repeat itself. Racism, LGBTQ+ hate, contempt for “non-productive” disabled people, misogyny, are once more on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic.  Bigots appear to be increasingly able to speak freely.

The only answer is to unite against this menace, and yet we seem to not know how to oppose it. Karl Popper gives us an apt warning from history, suggesting we should “claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”. Thus we need to understand how “free speech” and “entitlement to an opinion” have been weaponised by the right to ironically silence their critics.

We are social creatures, and our power is relational. I have no comment to make on the efficacy of punching Nazis, but I do know this – words have power, and we are free to use them. Free to speak out, free to condemn, free to offer love and support, free to applaud resistance and protest, free to tell bigots we don’t like their words, don’t want them, and are disgusted by them. Somehow, we need to find ways of holding people to account for the impact of their speech.

Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)

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