There are numerous basic tenets of modern society, not the least of which being our perceived rights to freedom. Freedom is a dangerously tricky word to define because it means different things to different people at different times in different contexts. It's complicated; and it should be. Freedom is a question that deals with virtually everything we do every day.
I'm writing this post because today I read an article in the National Post which attacks one of my friends, Arun Seamus Surinder Smith. He's an outspoken activist and a student of international human rights at Carleton University in Ottawa. Rex Murphy, one of Canada's most controversial political and social commentators, recently wrote a piece attacking Arun's ideology. The basic idea of the article is that Arun is an archetype of university students, removed from the real world. His ideas are fomented by other students and professors who obviously have nothing better to do than to deconstruct society and come up with a bunch of random "-isms". What scares me about this article is that it glosses over activism with a wide brush, dealing only with the abstraction that opposition to power in our society is misguided. In fact, Murphy didn't even bother to mention what specifically Arun was reacting to or why it was offensive or inappropriate: he simply characterised someone reacting to free speech as crazy or entitled.
This is particularly interesting because it paints the activist and university student, let alone the person challenging privilege, as entitled. Entitlement, however, comes from privilege. Those in society who have power (for whatever reason), generally feel that they have earned it and as a result they are entitled to act upon it. In our society, privilege comes in innumerable forms, though its worth noting for the purpose of this post that there are privileges that are social and ones that are economic. They are most certainly usually tied to one another, but they are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, both are inherently political.
Virtually everyone, myself included, gets defensive when their privilege is challenged. Most things in my life I've accomplished because of my location, whether social or economic. I've had many opportunities that eighty or ninety per cent of others didn't. I'm lucky. I'm not better than everyone else, I was merely dealt a better hand to play with that others were. That opens up to me certain avenues, and also limits me simultaneously. In other words, I'm privileged in some ways, and oppressed in others. We all are. That's reality. Sorting out particulars is important, and the particulars of this case are likely highly interesting, but since I don't know about them, I'd rather talk about the broader ramifications.
Firstly, understanding speech is not simple, and I won't pretend to know the best way to manage it. Instead, let me present you with some basic definitions. The notion that people are free to express themselves, in an historical or modern perspective, is core to the American identity. Free speech is considered to be the pinnacle of evolution on thought. The idea comes from the Enlightenment and was part of a changing tide in Europe: that maybe absolutism/autocracy wasn't in the best interests of humankind. This was also part of classical liberalism, the notion that humans should be more free to act as economic agents without the interference of cumbersome and often out-of-touch governments. When you think about it, it goes together fantastically:
For centuries American foreign policy has been rooted in the promotion of its core identities: democracy and capitalism. From its conception, the United States has been described as a beacon for letting individuals make choices, all under the name of liberty. It's part of the lexicon of American culture: the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, car culture, and reality television. The discourse is that anyone can make anything out of themselves. Freedom is the right to participate in a democratic socio-political system, and the right to participate in a capitalist socio-economic system.
While these notions certainly sound great, they are pretty far removed from reality. Oppression, in a society that tries to minimise redistribution and regulation, comes from numerous loci and allows only a select few to benefit from the free society. Freedom is often merely the freedom to be exploited. Americans, like many others in developed countries, are scared of governments for either social or economic reasons. Governments will often limit what people can do, but what that means depends on who is limiting whom.
Often when we think of limits to free speech its a question of it being simply "censorship". This is a vastly challenging thing to deal with, and it's key matter of political economy in that it deals with who has the power to make the decision. From the Western perspective, we often think of censorship and tie it to despicable regimes that were about as far away from democracy as imaginable: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, or Iran. But it's obviously more complicated than that. These societies certainly placed harsh limits on members of society, but it wasn't in the interests of protecting the oppressed, like ethnic minorities, women, the poor, or political dissidents.
It should be the imperative of the state or government to protect those who are marginalised or who cannot protect themselves. The danger of "free" markets and "free" speech is that it gives the impression that everything is the best it could be and that it's fair. Moreover, it's as though if you can't compete, you don't deserve dignity or respect. This is predicated on the notion that free markets and free speech are both efficient and moral, the pinnacle of human development and certainly not in need of tinkering.
To take a critical stance on this position is to advocate for equity - that we are all not equal: whether before the law, or before the economy, or before one another. Building up regulation in justice, in finance, and in social interaction makes sense. People need to be protected, and that's what hate speech legislation is about. We have it, legally, in Canada, but application and enforcement are far from perfect. When you see hate speech, think about what's being said and challenge it.