Language and Freedom of Speech

10Dec10

What is freedom of expression?  Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
(Salman Rushdie)

I am an adamant free speech activist, and have spent no small amount of time defending the free expression of people whose ideas I despise.  I have also been known to speak of language, and its power, and the uses of it that I find unacceptable.  I do not think that these two are mutually exclusive.

Salman Rushdie had a huge influence on my life, both in terms of my thoughts on free speech and my thoughts on religion.  I read Haroun and the Sea of Stories in high school, and it forever changed my outlook on what I had been taught was good and right.  I’d feel safe saying that this was only because I was open to the message; I had been falling out of love with religion for a couple of years, though I always tried to rekindle my faith.  Nevertheless, Rushdie is largely responsible for my atheism, my liberalism, and, indirectly, because of these two, my feminism.  And so I am going to use another quote by him to help illustrate my opinion:

A book is a version of the world.  If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.

I believe that there are some things that should not be said, for various reasons.  I will also defend the right to say those things, even if I think they are awful and detrimental to our society.  But this does not mean refraining from speaking out against something with which I don’t agree.  This quote is about literature, but it applies to life – if you do not like something, ignore it, or offer your own version in return.

I don’t like when people say  something is “gay” or “retarded,” or when “bitch” is used in a derogatory manner, or any number of phrases calculated to harm members of the population that don’t quite fit in with the privileged.  And so I offer my own version of the way things should be in return.  I talk about why I don’t like a certain phrase, why I think it should not be said.  And sometimes, let’s be honest, I do just ignore it; there has to be balance or I would burn out.  But banning a form of speech is not my intention or desire, and there is a difference between trying to educate and trying to edit.  If someone is going to refrain from using a phrase, I want it to be because they understand what’s wrong with it, or at the very least because they respect me enough to be concerned about my opinion.  I want it to be voluntary.  Anything else goes against everything in which I believe.   As someone who knows what it is like to consistently, systematically be silenced, it is something I would never wish on anyone else, no matter how much I disagree with their words.

As with everything, I’m not perfect at balancing the two.  There are times when they come into conflict, and the only thing I can do is manage it in the best way I can.  For example, I am more likely to focus on the utter douchebaggery of those who protest outside abortion clinics than their right to protest there.  But I think when we begin to be willing to sacrifice the rights that have made it possible for us to be vehicles of social change (at least, to be so without endangering ourselves), we begin to lose the entire heart of the movement.  Perhaps it is my relationship with Rushdie that has formed this opinion.  After I first read Haroun and the Sea of Stories in high school, I did further research the author, as I tend to do.  His experiences after writing The Satanic Verses engendered a deep respect for free speech in me, and made me think of it in a way I may not have if left to my own devices.  We are all too prone to take for granted the things we were raised to see as givens.  But no matter how I came to this, or whether I would have without one particular author, I know that I am incredibly privileged to be able to speak out against oppression.  I am privileged to be openly atheist, feminist, and socialist, to be and say so many things, and not even the people who further a system I actively work against should have this right stripped from them.

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