Free Speech/Culture of Shut Up

On May 13, 2014, Rachel Décoste, Janice Fiamengo, Alice McLachlan, Justin Trottier engaged in a lively and thought provoking discussion on TVO’s The Agenda:

Freedom of speech is thought of as a key part of our democracy. But is one person’s version of free speech the same as another’s? What if an individual disagrees with another’s statement? The Agenda explores the boundaries of what you can say, what you can’t say, and how the notion of free speech is changing.

One particularly contentious issue @19:01 is Janice Fiamengo’s opinion, “Women’s Studies as a discipline was intellectually empty and dishonest.”

Listen, and weigh in with your opinion of free Speech and the culture of shut up:

Agenda

36 thoughts on “Free Speech/Culture of Shut Up

  1. I’m so over giving any air time to people who fundamentally misunderstand an enshrined right to freedom of speech to mean anything more than the state cannot censure you for your expression, full stop.

    It doesn’t mean private individuals need to listen to you, debate you on your terms, give you a platform, respect your opinion, or let you finish a sentence.

    Putting people who understand that in a room with people who don’t and saying ok everyone’s got a valid point here let’s hash it out gives undue buoyancy to a viewpoint that sinks on its own merits. And I mean… you shouldn’t go to jail for making a tv show that demands sensible people defend themselves against less sensible people… but it’s not going to turn out scintillating.

    Dr MacLachlan and Ms Décoste did an excellent job of patiently repeating very basic reasoning to the other two, who were mired in emotional appeals to what hurt their feelings, and calling that censorship.

    I’m tired of it.

    • What you’re missing, I think, is that Fiamengo and Trottier weren’t appealing to any legally enshrined right to freedom of speech – they were appealing to a broader principle that free speech is valuable, and that universities in particular ought to be in the business of promoting respectful and constructive discussion of even highly controversial viewpoints.

      No, private individuals aren’t legally obliged to listen to each other, respect each others opinions, and so forth. But the more we refuse to engage with our fellow citizens on those terms, the more public life degenerates into one long shouting match that will be won by the side with the most influence and resources. MacLachlan and Decoste, if they were to get their wish for a brave new world in which the heckler’s veto reigned supreme, might find that the shouting match didn’t go their way at all.

      • I think that “heckler’s veto reign[s] supreme” is a pretty uncharitably reductive and inaccurate characterization of the perspectives put forth by anyone on the show, for one thing. They were repeatedly called upon to account for the ethics of an action (the fire alarm) that neither condoned, and it falsely framed their arguments as being centred there.

        I disagree that there was no intent to appeal to a legal concept of free speech. There is no other context in which anything is free. Expression doesn’t just happen in a sandbox – it has consequences in the actual lives of actual people, and it’s not unethical to protect those people from those consequences at the expense of that expression in many cases.

        Like most things, an absolute condition of freedom or restriction would be ill-fitting. There are times where each is appropriate. It’s up to people to figure out in different circumstances. But the idea that free expression is intrinsically valuable enough to trump the possible outcome for any person every time is one that can only be rooted in immense personal privilege and invulnerability.

    • I’m so over giving any air time to people who fundamentally misunderstand an enshrined right to freedom of speech to mean anything more than the state cannot censure you for your expression, full stop.

      Wrong. It more than that also means that you are protected from violent harassment for expressing your views, from whichever private individual(s) or other kind of entity there is.

      The fact that violent harassment is not well defined, is what is the problem here. Full stop.

      For example, if I’m at a public talk, and I vehemently disagree with the speaker and express that, then there is no right to have a security guard violently toss me out the door. The only way I can think of for which that could be legal, against someone who is simply expressing their views even if it is interruptive, would be if they are in place being accused of trespassing.

      • Where are you getting this protection from violent harassment stuff from? Like, generally a person has legal protection from violent harassment, which is not without definition although I’m not always 100% pleased with the boundaries of how that definition is applied, but when is it folded into a definition of the right to freedom of speech?

        • You’re the one who said the enshrined right to freedom of speech means nothing at all more than “the state cannot censure you for your expression, full stop.”

          Not me. I just corrected you.

          • I am indeed the one who said that. I don’t think it’s well established as of right now that you “corrected” me. I asked you to cite some background for your assertion, and I’m repeating that request now.

          • It’s simple.

            Somebody can say, “Hey, we picked him up and tossed him out of our house, head first onto the street, because we didn’t like what he was saying about our grandmother.” To which the reply would be, “Did you ask him to leave before you did that?” “Uh, no…we just picked him up and tossed him through our door.” To which the reply is, “Sorry, that’s not a good enough reason to toss him into the street without asking him to leave first because free speech is protected. You are ARRESTED.”

            Or, “We closed his life’s savings at our bank, for a period lasting a weekend, because we heard that he was talking badly about the War on Terror, and were sure that the Feds would ask us to do that anyway.” To which the reply would be,
            “Did he say he was going to use his money to do something violent?” “Well no, he was being more unpatriotic I guess.” “Well sorry, the case is resolved in favour of the defendent and you are ordered to pay damages in addition for violating his right to free speech.”

          • So to be clear, this is just something you’re pulling out of your own imagination and not derived from any actual law that has ever been implemented?

            Like, both of those scenarios describe actions that could meet with criminal charges, but the charges are assault and breach of contract (broadly, I’m not a lawyer). Absolutely no chance that either constituted an abridgement of constitutional free speech.

          • Whether or not these are thought experiments is immaterial.

            The reason why the charge would be assault, is because certain types of free speech are protected.

            If the visitor in the said private home had verbally threatened the grandmother with physical violence, the the family members would not have to formally ask the person to leave before having the right to pick him up by the collar and pant’s legs and toss him head first out of the the front door onto the street.

            I think you should be careful and understand just how free speech underpins a huge amount of what we consider legal vs. illegal in day to day life.

            Maybe you’ve forgotten that a little bit.

          • And as far as “the state cannot censure you for your expression, full stop,” well your shit out of luck on that one, because the state censures people left and right all day every day non-stop for expressing their views.

  2. I’m so over people who think their shit doesn’t stink.

    From the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

    “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

    You are free to ignore what I say, you are free to dispute what I say, but when you interfere with my expression, that is oppression.

    • it uh actually doesn’t say anything about a right to express ideas without interference. It says to hold opinions without interference.

      All expression meets interference. Interference is a mode of expression. Jeez dude.

      • LOL

        Wow. Ok, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and assume you are ignorant, as opposed to willfully misrepresenting the declaration.

        ‘Holding’ an opinion is not about sitting in a room by yourself thinking about it. At least in terms of the UN declaration.

        How do I know this? Because if you had read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…

        http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

        If you had read it, you would know I referenced section 19 which deals specifically with ‘opinion’ and ‘expression’… in contrast to the previous section… 18… which deals with ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’

        Holding an opinion is not just about having an idea, its included in the section on expression because holding an opinion implies expression.

        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/opinion
        3.the formal expression of a professional judgment: to ask for a second medical opinion.

        You can certainly cherry pick the word out of context and abuse it anyway you like, but the straightforward interpretation given the context is pretty brain-dead obvious.

        Jeez dude.

        • I did indeed fail to consider that possible intent of the verb. I don’t read it that way, but it’s possible.

          I think you’re twisting the use of “expression” in that definition of “opinion,” given that it is a noun and not a verb in context, but maybe I’m misunderstanding that fine detail, too.

          It’s not that important to nail down the precise intended meaning of these words, given that the UDHR is not a legal document on any level. It isn’t legislation, so even if I’m way off in my interpretation of what section 19 intends, that isn’t pertinent to what I was saying about legally enshrined rights.

          If it were, it would have to be more precise about its extent and limitations.

          • Hahah.

            So… you might be wrong… but even if you’re wrong it doesn’t matter because no one can hold you to it…. legally. A very principled response.

            We are… all of us… free to ignore the rights of others, but we of course do so at our own peril.

            I do find it amusing and sad how hypocritical people on the left are about who is allowed to be bullied into silence. Not that the right-wingers are much better, but you would think people who live and breathe human rights language would know better.

          • I find these types of comments strange.

            When you ask these kinds of questions, do you ask yourself, what kind of people the people who live and breath human rights language are going up against?

            Do you think to yourself, well they are just going up against slightly ignorant people who are just funnily unaware of modern progress?

          • I’m going to assume you are not being rhetorical here.

            1) If you are talking to me, then you should be talking to me, not pretending I’m some hypothetical enemy.

            2) see #1

          • The comment is threaded right under yours as a reply and it pretty explicitly addresses you.

            Where the fuck are you getting that I’m being rhetorical and NOT directly addressing you?

          • I don’t think rhetorical means what you think it means.

          • It means exactly what I think it means.

            So why don’t YOU clarify what exactly YOU think YOU mean.

          • Christ you’re thick. Yeah, I wasn’t asking you a question to make a point. I was asking you an actual question.

            Listen, as much as you’d like to think that the laws of nature
            dictate that the universe comprises a fine balance amongst all things, you’re actually behind the times, and really I suspect just falling back on previous ingrained religious (christian I suspect) and various other mystic dogma, and not even doing a very good job at that since even those superstitions have a certain pragmatic subtlety which you likely failed to grasp. Shouldn’t even be calling yourself an Atheist, really.

            There is actually an asymmetry inherent in the laws of nature manifest precisely at wave function collapse which directs the grand arc of things toward the unfolding of specific states of nature (our constants), yielding what we know as our reality.

            So take your petty little gripe about the asymmetry between those who live and breathe human rights and those they are up against. Well, that’s precisely the goddamned point. If you can freaking understand that there is, in fact, a goddamned asymmetry between what human rights advocates are able/will do, how far they will go, vs. what their antagonists are able/will do, how far they will go, including deceiving people by falsely claiming human rights intentions (e.g. wars of democracy and liberation), then you wouldn’t be so smug believing you occupy some rosy little central position high above the frey from whence you may pass judgement upon all the frantic little ants below.

            Really, as Atheists, dedicated and sincere human rights advocates should be OUR saints, and though it is a dangerous, thankless, and arduous
            road to travel, filled with murderers, false gods and petty thieves, those who at least try to sincerely endeavour it, should be considered our acolytes.

          • I’m not a physicist…. but I know a few. And that load of bullshit is straight out of Deepak Chopra.

            I love how you make disagreeing with you…. about religion though. As if the laws of nature include your opinions.

          • you two cranky debate club captains completely agree with one another, by the way.

            you both disagree with ME.

            it seems you’ve gone into a feeding frenzy because I didn’t continue to reply.

            I hope you can put this embarassing episode behind you quickly.

          • The world… strangely… does not revolve around you. I know that might be a hard pill to swallow.

            Get over it.

            But if it makes you feel better, you’re wrong too. Again.

          • To be clear, I absolutely do not agree with this statement from joe:

            I do find it amusing and sad how hypocritical people on the left are about who is allowed to be bullied into silence. Not that the right-wingers are much better, but you would think people who live and breathe human rights language would know better.

            but rather think joe doesn’t understand what they go through, hands tied in comparison to their antagonists, nor does he understand that if they snap at him, then it’s just because it’s obvious that he’s a bloody moron who doesn’t know his ass from his mouth.

            Of course there are different classes of human rights advocates, some not so versed, principled, or discerning as others, and lots of posers. But I am assuming he is lumping them all into the same class, as he usually does.

            And since it’s obvious that it’s useless talking pure physics with him, let me just assure Joe that the laws of physics do in fact, based at both the quantum through to cosmological level, entail an inherent (and “preferred”, to anthropomorphise) asymmetry, so that just in case he bases what is likely his personal (failed) philosophy of perfect balance in all things on some erroneous and sorely outdated view of the laws of nature, then he is dead wrong, and should come over to the “good” side, which nature obviously prefers and is constantly choosing, despite all the losers.
            i.e. have some self-respect and stop being a shill, consciously or not. All you are doing, straddling the fence, is pleasuring yourself with self-frottage.

          • I’m not an expert in physics, but using quantum mechanics as an analogy for human interaction, is problematic at the best of times.

            Implying that there is some direct link to human interactions…. is quantum mystical bullshit.
            Go back to your Deepak Chopra books.
            You are out of your depth.

            And please, don’t pretend you know what I think or feel, your emotional nonsense is entertaining, but your reading comprehension is so poor its no wonder you can’t intelligently respond… to what I have actually said.

          • Yes, but at least I know a good reason why not to criticize people who live and breathe human rights in the way that you do.

            A thought process that you obviously have yet to discover.

          • and unfortunately may never discover, even after being told it explicitly.

  3. Thanks for the audio. I listened to it all, which certainly raised my blood pressure, and my response follows.

    The essence of free speech is being able to speak what other people don’t want you to speak. That is the point of it, regardless of what any legal document may say. It IS meant to be free of (serious) consequence. If you say something, and you have to move as a result, you had no free speech. That’s simply true. It doesn’t matter who took it from you. We worry most when governments take your rights away, but with increasing corporate power in a dwindling number of hands, it may be even worse when a business does it.

    We all say we want (or have) free speech. But then it all becomes about making exceptions. I don’t claim to have the answers to these. But it illustrates that we have nothing close to “free speech”.

    What should happen if I publicly lie about someone? What should happen if my words cause a life-threatening panic? What should happen if I communicate a computer virus? What should happen if I impersonate someone else? What should happen if I communicate something “obscene” and what does that even mean? What should happen if I say something that someone else said first and whose ability to speak those words is now “owned” by still another person? What should happen if I say some characteristic should be eliminated from humans? What should happen if I make unproven claims about my professional abilities? What should happen if I make false statements after saying I wouldn’t? What should happen if I tell someone how to find in their local public library the instructions for building a dangerous device? What should happen if two people insist on speaking at the same time so neither one can be heard? What should happen if I make a claim about a future event, perhaps a harmful one? What should happen if someone wants to make me say something I don’t want to say? Does it make a difference if I say things in the privacy of my home, in the public “square”, or while being employed by someone else (at or away from work)?

    I support both freedom and equality, but these two things are in opposition on this issue. Equality says that we should all be treated the same, and the current regime censors a lot of speech. In some cases (e.g. hate speech), equality calls for even more censorship and consequences for speaking. But freedom says that we should be able to speak things even if (especially if) every other person alive doesn’t want those things spoken.

    Ultimately, equality depends on freedom. Without freedom, no equality movement would ever get off the ground. So I must come down on the side of greater freedom. It is hard not to laugh when hateful a-holes (e.g. Ann Coulter) are censored. But it’s wrong. Everyone should be able to speak. It is up to the rest of us to be prepared to evaluate what is said, without just being paralyzed by their audacity to say it.

    Our society rewards lazy consumption of ideas by gullible people. There’s hardly any expectation that anyone will actually check them out. We (Canada) should be ditching the culture of “believe” and replacing it with a culture of “find out”. That’s the answer to objectionable speech. Good speech, truthful speech, compassionate speech, doesn’t need its opposition to be silenced.

    Regarding the audio recording:

    * 0:25 Right off the bat, they lie. Regardless of what any court says, donating MONEY to enact an illegal law to harm children is NOT speech. Money is not speech. Actions are not speech. Mismanagement of a crisis is not speech. Resigning is not a consequence, but a choice.

    * 7:25 Wow. This is someone who teaches philosophy? That’s a remarkably narrow definition of free speech. In our increasingly global-corporate world, it’s Orwellian.

    * 9:15 “the statistics that we’ve been based on forever” ??? It’s reminiscent of Lauren Caitlin Upton’s infamous answer. Just… wow.

    * 13:50 “I don’t think you get to decide what counts as debate [only I will decide when you’ve said enough]” (if you listen between the words, you can hear it). The weasel is strong in this one. There’s a difference between the standards of debate, and shutting one down. And quite plainly, when a speaker comes to speak, first they SPEAK, and then there’s the Q&A (or “debate”) later. Fiamengo, in other words, did not not come to participate in the short one-on-one (e.g. Ham on Nye) style debate, but the LONG debate, presenting her response to the establishment’s status quo.

    * 18:00 Now we get the truth… shouting someone down isn’t debate… it’s civil disobedience and direct action.

    * 18:40 And now she’s apparently Fiamengo’s psychologist. I guess what Einstein should have done, instead of publishing his work, he should simply have shouted down establishment physicists who were speaking about gravity, motion at near-light speeds, and the relationship between energy and matter. That would have made all the physicists go home and re-think their ideas to see that Einstein was right. (LOL!)

    * 25:00 What’s really grating about this attitude is that Flanagan “misspoke” and Stirling had “misconceptions”. It follows that these are honest mistakes. We don’t typically try to ruin people for their mistakes. We help them. That’s clearly not the intent of the reaction to these two men. They are meant to be destroyed, in their businesses. This is a powerful thing. This speaker appears to be ignorant that it can be aimed in other directions. Twitter and Tumblr have exposed what happens when people adopt feminist theory, directly from feminists’ own accounts. PyCon tweeter Adria Richards knows about falling on your own sword.

    * 29:00 You can’t say that there isn’t a clear distinction between ideas and people, and then in the very next sentence say that people, not ideas, rushed the stage. She’s incoherent. Further, I reject the accusation that I am hurting people be denying the feminist view of rape culture. In US/Canada, the only rape culture that exists relates to the expectation of rape as part of prisoner punishment.

    Since the panel included Fiamengo, the elephant in the room here is that in her case, the free speech issue is only a symptom of the root problem, which is oppression. Significant portions of the legal system, educational system, and media has adopted the claims of radical feminism, a strong component of which is misandry. This prejudice and discrimination is so extreme that not only are men obstructed from discussing men’s issues (i.e. gender issues) on campus, but even a woman can’t discuss it in front of an audience without the constant threat of disruption, and sometimes events are shut down. This is no mere opposition to ideas. It’s an oppression against a class of people.

  4. Apparently, there is also video:

  5. @Jesse

    I think that “heckler’s veto reign[s] supreme” is a pretty uncharitably reductive and inaccurate characterization of the perspectives put forth by anyone on the show, for one thing. They were repeatedly called upon to account for the ethics of an action (the fire alarm) that neither condoned, and it falsely framed their arguments as being centred there.

    The whole tangent about the fire alarm was a bizarre red herring. Fiamengo and Trottier were clearly arguing against disruptive protests (the kind that actually prevent someone from speaking) in general, and pulling a fire alarm was just one example of the kind of disruptive behaviour they didn’t think was reasonable. MacLachlan oddly seized on fire alarm pulling as a specific action that she was eager to condemn, but never explicitly engaged with the real issue – the distinction between protests that prevent someone from speaking and protests that express dissent but still allow a dialogue or presentation to go forward. She strongly implied that she was fine with the former, as long as no fire alarms were pulled, and that amounts to endorsement of a heckler’s veto.

    I disagree that there was no intent to appeal to a legal concept of free speech. There is no other context in which anything is free.

    I’m not even sure what you mean by this. To me it seems obvious that we can all – even if we’re not governments! – behave in ways that either nurture or constrain freedom of speech. If you have a blog, you can approve comments that express controversial views or you can delete them. If someone says something shocking at your dinner table, you can discuss the issue like an adult or you can yell at the person to leave. Neither of those situations has anything to do with law or government, but they both involve a choice between permitting free speech and trying to shut it down in a venue that you control.

    Expression doesn’t just happen in a sandbox – it has consequences in the actual lives of actual people, and it’s not unethical to protect those people from those consequences at the expense of that expression in many cases.

    The only consequences of expression, beyond emotional reactions to whatever was said, are indirect. Thomas Becket didn’t need to be protected from Henry II’s frustrated cry of “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (or whatever his exact words might have been) – he needed to be protected from the knights who interpreted that possibly rhetorical question as an instruction to hack him to death with their swords.

    I’m not an absolutist on the subject of free speech, of course. I’m happy to have laws against things like libel and direct incitement to crime, and I sometimes bite my tongue for the sake of avoiding pointless conflict and encourage friends and colleagues to do the same. Nevertheless, I think we should all be making an effort to defend and indeed actively encourage free speech in a very broad sense.

    • The only consequences of expression, beyond emotional reactions to whatever was said, are indirect. Thomas Becket didn’t need to be protected from Henry II’s frustrated cry of “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (or whatever his exact words might have been) – he needed to be protected from the knights who interpreted that possibly rhetorical question as an instruction to hack him to death with their swords.

      And yet, he was hacked to death with their swords, and a simple additional intervening expression from Henry II would have prevented it.

    • it is very fortunate for you that you exist in a bubble of such wonderful privilege that you may at your leisure decide to distinguish absolutely between direct and secondary consequences of expression.

      what a treat it must be.

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