Freedom of speech and discrimination: #JustPray and other issues

A propos of the news that a major cinema advertising company has refused to show an advert of people saying the Lord’s Prayer, I thought I’d delve into some of the questions again (after my rant last week against Germaine Greer and the transphobes’ bleating of “freeze peach!”, and my earlier foray on no-platforming) and try to hammer out a bit more of my views on this.

It seems to me that this is of a parcel with people insisting they should not be “forced” to allow gay couples to use their bed & breakfast service, as well as people insisting on their right to spout hate speech, or for that matter insisting on the right to smoke in public. Finding a simple rule, or even an algorithm, that neatly gives the answer you think it should for each and every example, is hard. But people who proclaim loudly a rule that must always hold true (such as “free speech always”), must therefore accept it when the rule gives a result opposed to their desires.

I am very much of the opinion that it is useful to hear offensive and insulting opinions. Sometimes, that’s how you know who to avoid because of what their actions are likely to be. Sometimes, the fact that it causes you offence, or that you feel insulted by an observation, should be a red flag that you ought to look at your own assumptions.

But sometimes hate speech, by which I shall mean, “speech that is designed to create an atmosphere in which attacking and harming members of a specific (minority) group is seen as acceptable, or to make members of that group feel excluded from society,” is designated as mere offence or insult.

When Ken Livingstone made remarks about Kevan Jones during the week, he was very close to meeting that definition. He said, “I think he [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed … He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”

The effect of that remark is to say that people with depression or other mental health issues should not be allowed to speak their opinions on important matters. I would argue that he probably did not intend to produce that effect, and thus say that it was not quite “hate speech” as I defined the term above, but at the same time it was not an okay thing to say.

Greer, on the other hand, explicitly states that trans people (and trans women especially) are lesser, should be excluded and, by implication and the tone of her remarks, paints them as legitimate targets for misogynistic violence. There can be little doubt in my mind that her language is hate speech.

(This brings up the question of whether or not the argument that porn is hate speech against women has any validity. But my response to that is no, partly for similar reasons why Livingstone wasn’t, and also because porn is a medium or style, and far from homogeneous in content and message – one might as well ask if, based on the content of The Sun, all newspapers should be banned)

Another key difference between “no-platforming” (as in Greer’s case) and the cinema advertising question (or the B&B question), is the flow of money.

American football teams hold practices in pre-season training that are open to the public. They do not charge an entry fee, and some fans ask why not, since obviously it could be a revenue stream. The reason is that, as a free access event, the team is allowed to pick and choose whom they want in attendance. If they charged access, then opposing teams’ scouts could pay for a ticket and watch, and it would be illegal to exclude them.

Targets of no-platforming campaigns often want to be paid for their speech. The Church wanted to pay to reach an audience. In a very real sense, Greer’s speech was not “free” – she put a price on her words. In a different sense, the Church’s speech was not free either: they were willing to pay the price to be allowed to speak. The advertising company, by charging for its services, places itself in a position where everyone’s money is equal. When someone asks to be paid for speaking, then they tacitly give permission that the buyer should determine the value and desirability of hearing that speech.

(I can think of several counter examples to that principle, but the principle holds for the B&B question)

I’ll be honest: even as a Christian, I think I’d be a bit embarrassed and uncomfortable if such an advert came on when I was at the cinema to watch a Star Wars movie or whatever: it’s just not a setting in which I want to be thinking about that sort of serious matter, I want to relax for a couple of hours with a fantasy world (or version of the real world, for some movies). But at the same time, it’s no different than if it was an advert for a charity whose causes or practices I vehemently disagreed with: I might not like it, I might be annoyed, but it’s not advocating hatred of others, it’s not seeking to exclude anyone from social discourse or experience. And in a few minutes the movie starts and I can forget all that shite for 120-odd minutes. I can say boldly, “For the price of free speech, yes, I will accept some things that bother me will be said.”

So, as Jemima of Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar argues, “you should never decide what another group may or may not be offended by.” (Well worth a read, that post, by the way.)

I’m sorry, but I still can’t offer you a nice, easy, rule or algorithm to say whether or not a particular thing is free speech and must be defended, or if it’s something that should be “no-platformed” or even banned outright. These are complicated matters and I do not know enough or have sufficient depth of thought to say “Haha! I have the answer!” as so many philosophers, or comment-makers who fancy themselves as such, do. All I can say is that examining the causes for your differing feelings on matters may help you pick your way through – but beware of decisions based on disgust (because others will use that rule to find you disgusting).


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Freedom of speech and discrimination: #JustPray and other issues

  1. jemima2013 says:

    thanks for the link, I think you make some really good points. For me it is about applying whatever standards you have consistently. for example, since the NUS has a policy on hate speech, it applies to Greer, if you sell advertising, you dont refuse ads on “offence” i find plastic surgery ads offensive, no more page three finds tits offensive, offence is not a valid reason for something not to be commercially shown.

    • ValeryNorth says:

      Exactly. I think part of the problem is that people don’t stop and think about what they are consistent (or more often, not) about. Which is why I talk about rules or algorithms, and why in the end I admit I haven’t got one for sure. But for an organisation, clearly whatever rule they set down has to be applied consistently and equally.

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