Free speech… for whom?

Free speech is an illusion. Free speech is a trap. Let me start there.

***

Last night, I was involved in an Facebook catfight discussion where I got called out for supporting the violent protest breaking out at UC Berkeley, something that I have been openly vocal about in one of my previous posts. I was attacked for “advocating for division and widening the rift in social fabric” in “the very country that granted you the opportunity to a different life”. Yes, I need to repeat that: in the very country that granted you the opportunity to a different life. So I want to take this opportunity to thank the United States of America for giving me this different life, for showing me how success will come with conformity and for teaching me how little my life actually worth.

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Another concept that was deployed against me was “free speech”, as apparently a violent protest that silence Milo whatever-his-last-name-is set a pretty bad precedent for this freedom of expression. Oh well, I hate to break the news but there is no such thing as “free speech”, ever, at least not for everyone (white people I’m looking at you). This country of freedom has never been founded under such principle. Were indigenous people ever able to speak freely? Were black slaves ever able to speak freely? Were queer people ever able to speak freely? Are we disenfranchised groups of people able to speak freely?!?!?

If you say yes to the last question, I beg to differ. In the end, don’t we have slavery abolition, desegregation, gay marriage, whatever-you-think-is-progress-for-indegenous-people-because-I-can’t-think-of-one, right?!?? However, how do you not realize all these supposedly “progress” is still a tireless effort of oppressed people trying to measure themselves up to the dominant straight white (and soon gay) normativity??? It’s always gonna be the not-so-free-people trying to be freer, but never truly as free as the hegemonic groups.

Thus, there exists a dissymmetry of power, facilitated and perpetuated by the toxic and oppressive norms. “Free speech”, then, is employed as one of the countless techniques by the society to maintain this dissymmetry: every moment where this status quo is challenged by marginalized groups of people, those in power can simply exercise their privilege of “free speech” to re-occupy their space and to re-establish this dissymmetry. Yet on Wednesday, we were able to observe the momentarily, and rather rhetorically, inversion of this dissymmetry, where Milo, the one who was going to exercise his free speech (i.e. his power) to perpetuate his toxic narrative, was censored by a grassroots movement to empower the most vulnerable population in the society.

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On a theoretical level, free speech does not exist. It is undefinable, or more accurately, it is only defined by its antithesis – what is not free speech. It is naive, for instance, for certain people to define free speech as you can speak whatever you want, but you have to take responsibility for the consequences of your words. This is perhaps the widely accepted alternative to the literal approach to free speech (i.e. one can freely speaks their mind), but it still focuses on the individual, which misses the whole point of free speech as a rhetorical device.

Arguably born out of the Athen democracy in the 5th century BC, freedom of speech performs  as a strategy to debate and to regulate the government, not the individual, to keep the state from steering towards authoritarianism and totalitarianism. It is not a principle of life – i.e. “This is a free society, I can speak whatever I want” (*cough* free for you *cough*). It is a value in place to check those in power, to prevent them from censoring the general population and yet, it has been deployed from times to times to depict the abstract “liberals”, among whom I am supposed to be one, as being unfree for shutting people of opposite viewpoint up. What the so-called conservatives do not get is the dissymmetry of power involved, as my censoring the already-so-prevalent oppressive views only serves as a rhetorical act, coming from a place of vulnerability.

Call me a snob all you want, but I’m gonna fight ignorance for as long as I can write.

2 thoughts on “Free speech… for whom?

    1. My point is that free speech has never been for everyone. The country has been founded under no such principle and it is no different in the contemporary time: it is always the not-so-free people trying to be freer but never as free as those with power in the society (straight, white, cis-gender, upper-middle class, male folks).

      There is, then, a dissymmetry of power associated with different identities. Thus, free speech can only deployed by the more privileged population to keep their status quo unchallenged, because the marginalized folks have never been free.

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