Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

The right to speak versus the right to survive


Some of my readers are insistent that the right to free speech is absolute – that there must be no limits imposed by governments on what we, the public are allowed to say. But do those readers believe that absolutely? They might say any limit to free speech, even if it’s hate speech, is a start of a slippery slope to oppression and the curtailing of most or all freedoms. Yet if I point out that absolute freedom of speech would give me the freedom to yell “Fire!” in the confined space of a theatre or nightclub, or to encourage others to exclude or eliminate a minority from society, some will acknowledge that absolute freedom of speech would indeed be harmful.

Speech itself can be oppressive, perhaps not to alpha males who happen to be of the same ethnic/cultural background as the dominant ethnicity/culture in their society, but to almost everyone else, language is used, either consciously or unconsciously, to oppress minorities and those without power. If male, less so than female. If abled, less so than disabled. If a dominant ethnicity, less so than a less influential ethnicity. The same applies to skin colour, religion, neurodiversity – in fact just about any aspect of being human can, through the use of language, be used to oppress others who express that aspect differently.

Evelyn Hall paraphrases Voltaire’s ideology as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But what happens when what is said is rooted in the oppression and denial of the humanity and right to exist of another human being? At what point does the right to survive trump the right to speak?

In Canary in a Coal Mine: How Tech Provides Platforms for Hate, an article on A list Apart, Tatiana Mac discusses the responsibility of technology providers to perhaps practice “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist”. She is critical of the hypocrisy of some social media platforms for banning support for ISIS ideologies while permitting other ideologies, such as a belief in a necessity to fight back against a (non-existent) white genocide conspiracy.

While Tatiana’s article is specifically related to how the tech industry should respond to the conflict of the right to speak versus the right to survive, should that be where final authority should rest? What role should the state take in this very issue? In fact should legislation and the courts be the final arbiter on this dilemma, or is it better left in the hands of competing private enterprise tech platforms?

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

9 thoughts on “The right to speak versus the right to survive

  1. Ya gotta love the ideology that takes a fundamental and cornerstone individual right necessary to all other rights and freedoms and paints it as a ‘threat’, the Marxist ideology that recasts this base as “a slippery slope to oppression and the curtailing of most or all freedoms.”

    Any time you encounter this reversal of a term’s meaning (in this case the individual right to free speech and replaces it with a spectrum of group-based privileges), you know you’ve encountered Post Modernism in its political form, a core Marxist re-framing of all individuals into group representatives that form a hierarchy of group-based power, a fundamental and cornerstone group-based identity that attempts to replace the constitutional legal protection for individuals as the base unit and replaces it with this GroupThink hierarchical ideology, with group-based Identity Politics brought to the forefront and imposed on everyone to justify the totalitarian group-based policies that follow as inevitably as night follows day. We remove your individual rights and freedoms in law in order to protect your individual rights and freedoms. It’s laughably absurd.

    • I have absolutely no idea what it is you’re attempting to convey, and I don’t have the inclination to spend time deciphering your comment, when there are more fruitful endeavours I can participate in.

  2. Or, when speech excludes me from the community it makes the community smaller and weaker. Those here on suffrance as long as they do not show their nonconformity have no freedon at all. So government should preserve the freedom of the whole community not just the privileged parts of it.

  3. The article is creating a false dichotomy: either free speech or the right to survive… as if the two were mutually exclusive. They’re not. Never mind that: the reasoning used depends on a majority of us going along with an inversion of meaning to obtain the only correct answer, the Just So story that vulnerable minorities can only be protected (right to survive) by both government AND tech if we force the later to censor free speech and forced by the former to do so.

    The underlying ideologically driven inverted rationalization is that we can only protect each person’s rights and freedoms like free speech by acting on this false dichotomy as if it were true, that because safety of victims ought to be primary to government and tech companies rather than upholding shared principles that allows victims to be created, any rights or freedoms some ‘hater’ has should be waived in favour of the victim’s right to be protected from it. Hence, the only way to protect free speech is by giving away our right to exercise it.

    • A persistent migraine hasn’t helped me in comprehending your comment in its entirety, but it appears you support the principle of absolute freedom of speech. Is that right? How would you then respond to legislation that punishes harassment and non-physical bullying? I’m thinking of examples such as sexual harassment in the workplace or bullying via texting or social media, but there are many other forms. How about manipulation of social media by foreign powers that influence voter preferences? Is that also not an example of free speech in operation? In this country we have very strict limits on political spending (directly or indirectly) in the months leading up to elections. This applies not only to candidates and their political parties, but to third party supporters and opponents as well. Is this also not placing limits on freedom of speech indirectly?

  4. Speech is always a tricky issue. One issue with making it illegal is that the ability can punish unintended persons who get too close to the line. At that point, it becomes a little ironic to use oppression as a justification to restrict speech. That is, regulating speech ends up oppressing someone else. Who has the better right to be free from oppression?

    I only mention this to illustrate that restrictions on speech can be made with the noblest of intentions, but in practice become a nightmare. People need to ask themselves if there is a less restrictive means of protecting the public.

    That less restrictive means exists in the form of private tech usage policies. They helped create the problem, and it is only fitting that they should be the ones to remedy it.

    • The problem with allowing private tech companies to be the sole arbiter is that they are answerable to no-one but themselves. A likely scenario in the not too distant future is that tech based information will be controlled by a very few mega corporations, at which time, would we be able to claim that free speech exists at all? Imagine 1984 where ALL the power, including determining what information can be disseminated, lies in the hands of a small sector of the 1%. That is indeed a frightening future.

      • Admittedly, I try to separate the issues of speech regulation from issues regarding business organizations and ethics. I would tend to agree that tech information is getting abused to some alarming extremes, and right now that’s not regulated well enough, either.

        Right now, my thoughts are jumbled on all of this. I agree that social media speech needs to be regulated. People are abusing private company algorithms to generate attention that hurts people. It’s like yelling, “Fire,” and broadcasting it into a theater.

        That said, I think governments need to be careful in finding solutions to this problem. Legal systems are not perfect. There’s a high risk of unintended consequences if the solution isn’t carefully considered.

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