A few months ago, Godless Mom posted a video explaining what free speech actually means. In summary, she explains that free speech means the government can’t prosecute you for things that you say. It does not mean people can’t be pissed off about something you say, or that a corporation can’t refuse to do business with you because you’re prone to saying bigoted shit. It just means the government can’t censor you or punish you.
Which is why I’m really disappointed that she recently wrote a blog post blaming the “playdate generation” for the outrage over #TheTriggering. She puts herself on a pedestal as having a “free range upbringing” which gave her a thick skin, while everyone nowadays is just offended by everything, including calling FtB’s very own PZ Myers “mommy’s special little man” with “Buzz Lightyear Band-aids.” She writes:
Well, I was raised in the sticks and stones generation, and from my vantage point, these people are nothing short of absurd. #TheTiggering was not aimed at offending people. The ultimate aim of anything defending free speech, is to protect our valued right to say what we want, even if it does suck. It’s about facing the fact that assholes exist and shit is not always going to go your way and the best fucking way to deal with it, is to “point and laugh at an idea” as Aaminah Khan so eloquently put it.
Now I’ve been corresponding with Godless Mom trying to explain all the complexities of the social justice vs. free speech debate (which shouldn’t be an either/or debate at all), including sending her a link to an article I wrote for TheHumanist.com about trigger warnings (which she enjoyed) and the latest episode of The Gaytheist Manifesto (which she hasn’t responded to yet). Forgive me if I’m misreading Godless Mom, but it seems as though she is jumping on the “SJWs are trying to take away our free speech” bandwagon.
It seems as though ever since Peter Boghossian went on The Humanist Hour to declare that many universities are now “held hostage by the Regressive Left” and that the current discourse over trigger warnings and microaggressions is the “PC Police’s” latest ploy to to suppress free speech, atheists online are split into two categories: those who think the hooplah over safe spaces is overblown, and those who think Big Brother is watching us. And as someone in the former camp, it’s really exhausting trying to explain all the subtle nuances of the debate to the latter camp.
For example, when the whole Richard Dawkins/NECSS thing happened, I got into an argument with someone on Twitter who not only thought that it was wrong for NECSS to un-invite Dawkins after he posted that crappy video, but that anyone who didn’t like the video was a crybaby. Now I can understand why some people think NECSS shouldn’t have uninvited him (this was before they re-invited Dawkins), but I find it odd that so many atheists are offended by the fact that I was offended by the video. I didn’t try to shut Dawkins’ Twitter page down, neither did I petition NECSS to ban Dawkins from all future conferences. All I said was it was a shitty video. Shocking, right?
Despite all the frustrations, let’s try to set the record straight about free speech, shall we? First, here’s what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It doesn’t say privately operated conferences can’t un-invite speakers they find controversial, or that I can’t criticize something problematic, or that I can’t block anyone from commenting on my blog. It just means the government can’t limit what you say. That’s it! And yet, whenever I get into these debates, I have to whip out my pocket edition of the Constitution constantly.
I think the reason why all my friends are fighting each other about the free speech vs. social justice debate is that some people confuse having a legal right to say something with making a bigoted statement morally right. The two are not mutually inclusive. I may have a legal right to make prejudiced generalizations and stereotypes about groups of people, but having that legal right does not make my bigotry morally right. In other words, if I blog something racist, and PZ Myers decides to drop me from FtB, he’s not violating my First Amendment rights.
The same goes for blocking people from commenting on my blog. I welcome different opinions in the comment section because 1). there’s always a chance I could be wrong about something, and 2). I figure my readers are smart enough to defend their positions on their own. However, if you start dropping racist slurs, calling me names, or threatening to harm someone on my blog, I will block the fuck out of you. I’m not preventing you from commenting on other people’s blogs; I’m just throwing you out the same way a bartender would throw out a violent drunk.
Now of course the whole safe space thing can go too far. For example, the incident with Maryam Namazie and Goldsmiths University. Given her outspoken criticisms of both Islamism and the far-right anti-immigration group Pegida, Namazie was not “creating a climate of hatred,” as Goldsmiths Feminist Society claimed she was. Also, to be fair, the Pew Research Center claims 40% of Millennials support censoring offensive speech. which led Matthew Facciani to write, “Suggesting that the government should intervene when something is offensive is a clear violation of free speech.” But once again, Facciani is talking about the government intervening, not privately operated organizations or individuals.
So for all of you who think I’m coming to take away your First Amendment rights, don’t worry. It’s not as bad as you think. I might call you the fuck out on it and tell you why that thing you just said dehumanizes an entire group of people, and I might block you from spewing your bigotry on my blog, but I’m not going to prevent you from speaking elsewhere. Got that?