Free Speech: Does It Really Make Us Free?
By Gabrielle Hart
Being able to speak freely and challenge dominant thought is important. Democratic societies depend on engaged and critical citizens, and the expression of unpopular ideas. However, they also depend on some level of social order and peace. We all have to live on the same piece of dirt and drink from the same dam water, so to speak, and therefore need a way to balance all of our interests.
Unless you’re an anarchist, you believe in some form of government and regulation of behaviour to maintain this order in our society – including what we say.
Yes, it is about controlling what people say and do. That’s what the law does. We accept limitations on our speech and behaviour every day. Defamation and intellectual property laws are very uncontroversial examples of this. Of course, we then have the more controversial sides to the free speech debate too.
People say things that are misinformed or frowned upon or just plain shitty all the time. While they may not be charged or imprisoned, they may find themselves facing the social consequences of their words as they are met with criticism in return. This is the bonus of having an open and expressive society; the right of reply.
However, there are things that when said, can cause considerable harm and practical repercussions in people’s lives and perhaps should not be allowed in the public sphere. As people living in an interactive society, we need to learn how to balance our needs with that of others. As a country, we therefore need to negotiate our desire for free expression and the need to go about our lives without unnecessary harm.
There is a difference between talking to someone and harassing them. Between heated debate and abuse. I think we can all agree that there is a line there where things go too far, we just differ on where it lies. So maybe we need to have a conversation about all this to get on the same page, but does it really surprise you that the people drawing that line first, are the ones getting hit?
To be clear, I’m not saying that no one can comment on anything ever. I think our laws are pretty good as they are at protecting our freedom of expression as well as our safety and dignity. But there’s been a real backlash about what has been dubbed “political correctness” by certain factions of politics, most of whom seem to regularly enjoy testing how far our vocal freedom extends. But it’s hard to see any trend of the sort actually occurring. In fact, I’ve noticed the opposite.
As a gay person that lived through the plebishite saga last year (some didn’t), I can tell you that there is a difference between being “mean” and the kind of prejudiced projectiles we faced an onslaught of then and continue to experience today. Being compared to a paedophile is not just “mean,” it’s defamatory and damaging. Words have power and less informed people will take them on-board and respond to the subjects of them accordingly. As a result, there are people in Australia who don’t want people like me around children. Just because we’re gay. Aside from the pure awfulness of that, can you see how that might practically affect someone’s life? How adoption by same-sex parents is apparently now an ‘issue’ that needs discussing. How children became a central focus of the marriage debate. How our parenting is continually called into questioning. Like this stuff carries on past the 2 seconds it took to make the original backhanded comment. And this leads us to the crux of the issue; is one person’s right to “have their say” on someone else’s life, worth the repercussions for the other person?
When we talk about hate speech, anti-discrimination and anti-terror laws, we’re not just trying to prevent our feelings from getting hurt – though the fact that discriminated groups in our society have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide should really make you question why that would be a bad thing. We’re just trying to live our lives without harassment, discrimination and abuse. These laws are not just about being “nice”, but about governments doing their job to protect their citizens’ safety. They’re about justice. They’re about fighting the harmful attitudes and beliefs upheld by hundreds of years of oppressive speech and behaviour. They’re about freedom from oppression.
No one is free when others are oppressed.