By Sarah Waters
As a member of multiple marginalized groups, I have been told absolutely appalling things. These sentiments, among many colorful insults and racial slurs, include, “Your kind is only good dead,” “I know to never trust one of you people,” and “Go back to where you came from!” It hurts. It’s heartbreaking. Those people are cruel. And I wholeheartedly support their right to say those things.
We live in a society in which people have such freedom, such privilege, that they do not understand how lucky they are to have the First Amendment. I lived in a country in which we had no freedom of speech, a country ranked in the bottom 40 by the 2013 Press Freedom Index, a country where even the Internet is censored, a country in which political opponents are regularly assassinated, a country in which I had to hide parts of myself for fear of prison, a country in which we spoke in hushed whispers behind closed doors about things the government had already decided for us. It is a country in which the right to speak our minds freely was a pipe dream.
Living in America, I can say what I want, dress how I want, practice my religion how I want, and write what I want. I can criticize the government without fear of arrest, I can attend political rallies, I can engage in activism, I can vote and it can mean something — I am free here. That is why it pains me so much to see my fellow students calling to limit “offensive” speech.
Here’s a recent example. Binghamton Review has been subject to demands that our budget be frozen and our organization be dechartered, even as recently as last year. Why? Because one person wrote an article that was deemed homophobic by a radical and vocal minority of students. Let’s take a step back, shall we? In my country, LGBT people are murdered and thrown in prison. As a bisexual woman, I am thankful that anti-gay views are in the minority here. However, I still support the rights of individuals to say homophobic things. And don’t come at me with “b-but homophobic speech leads to anti-gay violence!” I know what violence is. Speech is not violence. Bashing in the heads of gay men is violence. “Corrective” rapes of lesbians is violence. Being beaten by police for holding a rainbow flag is violence. Some dude reviewing a 2003 documentary about HIV is not violence. Being insulted is not violence. Your existence is not being “infringed upon” when somebody says something offensive. You don’t have to go into hiding or seek asylum across the world because somebody called gays promiscuous. What’s that saying again? “Check your privilege.”
Offensive speech is not illegal. Be grateful. Celebrate that fact. You may not realize it, but if you go after someone’s right to free speech because you deem it “violent” or “dehumanizing,” people can turn around and go after you. For example, while some may see pro-life speech as reducing a woman to a vessel for babymaking and therefore dehumanizing, others who believe life begins at conception may consider pro-choice speech to be dehumanizing to unborn children. Beliefs are subjective. Laws and policies cannot be subject to feelings.
You cannot shut down speech you disagree with and expect your own speech to be safe. You cannot dictate what views are allowed to be expressed. That sort of thinking will immediately be used against marginalized groups. The lines about “they came for the X, but I did not speak up, for I was not one… and then they came for me and nobody was left to speak up for me” immediately comes to mind. The right to free speech is essential to our progress in society. Do you believe those in power will really protect your rights? If you advocate for the repression of disagreeable views, don’t you think those on the opposing side would do the same to you if they could?
Do not treat speech as a privilege. Speech is not a toy you can take away from a misbehaving child until he earns it back. Speech is a human right. Now, that doesn’t mean speech is immune to consequences, nor does it mean you have to agree with it. You can be angry, you can feel hurt, but you cannot silence someone’s speech.
Instead, utilize your own freedom of speech. Write an article, invite a speaker, organize a march, host a debate. Fight hateful speech with better speech. We are college students. We can do better than to screech and cry and demand the powers that be make other people shut up, to threaten and harass and intimidate people into submission. We are adults, and adults use their words. We must uphold the free exchange of thought as an academic necessity upon which all else is built. People will not change their minds if we take away their right to speak their minds publicly. They will still hold the same views, perhaps more drastically so. They will find ways to spread their ideas. To silence a person is to make him a martyr and immortalize his speech. The forbidden fruit becomes the most alluring. These sentiments are detailed in former ACLU President Nadine Strossen’s new book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship.
Free speech is a right that so many across the world crave. Living in a country that upholds this essential human right is an immense privilege. Do not throw this precious freedom away in the name of comfort. In the end, the loss of liberty for one becomes the loss of liberty for all.