Should we really be allowed to say whatever we want without the fear of repercussion? The concept of freedom of speech has never been more debated than today, an era of no-platforming, a time of strange quasi-fascist commentators being invited to speak at universities, a social media age of Twitter trolling and harassment. In this turbulent political terrain, more than ever we’re divided into warring factions, most notably right and left. Some (let’s be honest, more often than not the white right) claim that “freedom of speech” is essential to the development of ideas, others (more often than not the left) remain adamant that the spreading of hateful speech only serves to halt the progress of minorities and for many, can be the difference between life and death. We set two writers the question “should we be allowed to say whatever we want?”. Here are their conflicting responses.
Alex Kazemi is a writer and pop artist. On his 22nd birthday he went on the Milo Show in drag, something he describes as a ‘social experiment’.
People should be allowed to say what they want, provided they are prepared to accept any consequences for their choice of words. You can’t ask to be protected from how people react to your point of view. The reactions of others cannot be controlled. You can’t be a cult-leader of the alt-right running around the streets (and the Internet) preaching Nazism or white supremacy and believe you are entitled to avoid being punched in the face and then demonise those who react intensely or even violently to a view that antagonises so many minorities.
If you are a right-wing ‘provocateur’ who tours college campuses across America to provoke students by speaking “dangerously”, you’d better be able to handle the repercussions that come with doing that – you can’t hide within a conservative victim complex and think everyone is going to smile and laugh it off in the name of protecting your first amendment rights. None of us can be protected from the wrath of nature’s opposing forces.
“I will never be for protecting people from hate speech and having people rely on trigger warnings or safe spaces. If you can’t handle the reality of violent words, how can you handle the reality of life’s violent interruptions?” – Alex Kazemi
Everyone deserves the right to speak their mind, reject, protest and refuse. Freedom of speech is a fundamental part of art criticism, cultural criticism, and protects the right to protest and fight against what we don’t want, and to argue for what we do. We need to have opposing views co-existing with one another to free our minds and challenge us. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to let ‘political correctness’ make us afraid of sharing views that can contribute to critiquing our culture.
Freedom of speech is the gateway to being able to question consensus, and to challenge what is being presented as truth. I think it’s everyone’s right to share their own investigations and critiques, to challenge the cultural consensus. I will never be for protecting people from hate speech and having people rely on trigger warnings or safe spaces. If you can’t handle the reality of violent words, how can you handle the reality of life’s violent interruptions?
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a freelance journalist and the opinions editor at gal-dem. She's followed Milo's career progression with incredulity for five years.
The line between allowing people freedom of speech and preventing hate speech has always been blurry, but it has to be drawn somewhere, because the consequences of allowing people to say whatever they want, whenever they want, are too severe. We have to make reasoned judgement calls, not to stop people from expressing themselves – but to protect the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. That said, “trigger culture”, if we can call it that, is frustrating when it’s used in a reductive way.
Unsurprisingly, the only time I’ve met Milo Yiannopoulos, an internet troll and free speech advocate who caused riots at Berkeley University due to a scheduled appearance that was ultimately cancelled after thousands protested, was on a now-defunct BBC Three panel show actually called Free Speech. This was a few years back, but Milo was always a fame-hungry controversialist and an excellent debater.
His views, well-spoken monologues from under a puffy brown fringe, were designed to shock the audience and bring in the same type of guilty viewers who read the sidebar of shame in private – you knew you shouldn’t be watching him, but you were anyway.
I left filming with a nasty taste in my mouth, but also a type of pity. The only honest thing that Yiannopoulos had revealed, while talking about gay marriage, seemed to be a deep self-hatred. I expected him, and his views, to fade into obscurity. Surely, I thought, they were a relic and people would see through the façade of his empty beliefs.
Sadly that hasn’t happened, and now Yiannopoulos, who was subsequently taken on by alt-right platform Breitbart (whose white nationalist founding member Steve Bannon is now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff), has become actively dangerous. Although he has now been banned from Twitter, in the past few years he made his mark as an effective and devilish internet troll. There are too many examples to choose from that illustrate his nauseating attitudes towards minorities and women, but his treatment of black actor Leslie Jones was particularly disturbing, and was also the incident that got him finally pushed off the platform.
“A lot of the time the free speech that Yiannopoulos and his ilk are so desperate to protect is dialogue that is as valuable as fake news” – Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
In a review of Ghostbusters, he criticised Jones’s “flat-as-a-pancake black stylings” and called her “a black character worthy of a minstrel show”, which led to an outpouring of racist abuse by his followers. And as New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny revealed, having spent time with Yiannopoulos on the 2016 US campaign trail, he “shows no remorse for the avalanche of misconduct he helped direct towards Leslie Jones, who is just the latest victim of the recreational ritual abuse he likes to launch at women and minorities for the fame and fun of it”.
I suppose what's interesting about the type of people who defend freedom of speech as if their actual lives depend upon it, is that their lives rarely do depend on it. Yiannopoulos is a strange exception in this case, being gay, but, like the rest, he does come from the same type of background that means that his safety is unlikely to ever be bound up in the opinions of others on his race, religion, gender or class.
Men like Yiannopoulos have grown up unfettered by the chains of consequence, and they have never had to acknowledge their privileges. But sometimes people have to take a backseat and listen to the oppressed. To just believe that we’re not lying when we bang on how difficult it can be growing up brown and different in western society. To learn to apologise for being hurtful, and to recognise that unfounded opinions on people from diverse backgrounds, when spread in the right way, can contribute to the systemic marginalisation of the oppressed, huge rises in hate crimes, and worse.
This is another key point: a lot of the time the free speech that Yiannopoulos and his ilk are so desperate to protect is dialogue that is as valuable as fake news. As proved by support for Trump’s Muslim ban, which has been tearing families apart and leaving refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen bereft, many people have fallen for the misinformation spread by the far-right about Muslims.
For instance, as found by immigration policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh, nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015. This is despite a member of Trump’s team making up a fake Iraqi terrorist attack called the Bowling Green Massacre, and Trump’s repeated claims that the ban will help protect the US public from terrorism.
It’s unsurprising that free speechers hypocrisy becomes extreme when the tables are turned on them, because it's not nice when you begin to be affected in a negative way by something you feel that is out of your control. And in general I think it’s better to err on the side of caution and attempt to protect the people that the facts and figures show to be in need of it, as well as those who didn’t realise they needed it until it was too late. Violence is rarely the answer, but neither is total free speech.
Follow Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff on Twitter here @CharlieBCuff