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?