Initially I sent this in to my uni newspaper as a letter but I don’t think they published it. Anyway I spent a bit of energy and heart on this and I haven’t written anything on this blog for a very long time. This will be the last post here. Won’t stop writing and ranting and things like that so don’t give up on me just yet. Enjoy!
I have met a lot of people who talk about freedom of speech, or freedom of expression being the most important thing. Feeling overwhelmed by their apparent silencing on the part of radical lefties and a disdain for safe spaces that exclude them. These people tend to identify as white, middle class, heterosexual and male. I try to empathise and give them a space to comfortably vent, however they don’t detect the irony that hits me like a slap in the face. When they talk about defending freedom of speech what they actually mean is the right to use hate speech – say the word nigger, be sexist, transphobic, homophobic – without criticism or fear of being ostracised. Causing offence and being offended is often dismissed as being sensitive in their minds. I have engaged in healthy debates with these men, trying to emphasise the power of language especially when you are powerless, often to the detriment of my own mental health.
I have had to compromise myself to be the nice black girl who doesn’t get offended when offensive speech is thrown down my ear canals. I understand that we are in a heated time when white men’s privileges are being challenged at an unprecedented scale but what exactly are they losing? It certainly isn’t their freedom of speech. I’ll define what I mean by white men as there is a difference between identifying as white (being of European ethnic origin) and whiteness as a supremacist power structure that still dominates and oppresses individuals and communities on a global level. The fact is that white men dominate seminar class discussions, the media and distribution of information, politics, and pretty much any and every institution within the UK and Western world. With the advent of the internet, now there are platforms in which underprivileged groups can vocally challenge them. This is a new experience for white men as the hegemonic culture is being visibly and loudly criticised and questioned. Yes there are flaws with safe spaces, exclusionary liberal politics and shutting down debates but the argument that freedom of expression is the most important thing when you come from a place in which you have never or only recently had to curb your language is ridiculous and hurtful.
I have grown up having to learn how to speak with a middle class accent in order to be taken seriously. In a culture where speaking slang or “black” is seen as unintelligent, where having an emotional response is seen as irrational and inferior as if our emotions are not important. Trauma is a lived experience and to deny its importance is to deny our humanity. I have learned to speak like a white man in order to engage with white men because if you don’t speak like them they don’t listen. I hold no grudges though, I care more about enabling empathy than political correctness. Yet to be “sensitive” means that your opinion is dismissed. It’s as if we’d rather listen to psychopaths, who lack empathy and fear, than those whose opinions have been shaped by lived experience and compassion.
Giving platform to right-wing views on the basis of equality and freedom of speech disregards the fact that we do not live in an equal society regardless of the lip-service politicians have offered recently. Our society is still operating within a framework of neo-colonialism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. To possess freedom of speech you must also possess freedom to act, which those belonging to oppressed groups still struggle for. Therefore, arguing that your right to express yourself is under attack because a bunch of millennials are crying that what you’ve said is homophobic or racist is reductive of the continuing struggle of these same lefties. Moreover if you only believe that speech can be considered harmful if it incites acts of violence is to ignore the fact that speech itself is violence. Our language is unequal and continues to oppress underprivileged groups.
The Spiked survey on censorship bases its accusation of Sussex being intolerant on the SU’s no platform policy and these freedom-of-speechers argue that this is discriminatory and exclusionary. Well as someone who experiences pain from bigoted speech, listen to me for once. If we do give hate a platform then we open the doors to a form of cruelty that dehumanises and disenfranchises those who struggle to have a voice already.