Your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

 

John B Finch

 

If you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the comments section for the past three years, here’s an example of how free speech is generally used these days:

 

Person A: *makes a racist joke about Black Lives Matter*

Person B: That’s disrespectful, you shouldn’t say that.

Person A: I thought we had freedom of speech in this country.

 

It’s not just jokes. The social law of “free speech” is called upon to defend all sorts of shadiness, from chauvinist nonsense to transphobic bullying to Muslim-bashing. It’s a common ploy people use when they don’t like being called intolerant, but don’t want to re-examine their own views either.

By calling them expressions of “free speech”, people give offensive statements a false veneer of rationality, the same way someone might by saying “I’m not racist, but …”. It’s manipulative, but it’s an effective smokescreen. After all, you can’t be accused of contributing to oppression if you label yourself oppression’s true victim.

This lazy use of “free speech” is the calling card of career trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, who has made bank out of dragging rational debate backwards ever since the hellish days of Gamergate, and comic artist Frank Cho, who just really, really wants to objectify women without being held accountable. And basically anyone else who thinks that “PC censorship” has run rampant and spoiled society for men, cis-heterosexuals and/or white people.

Let’s talk for a moment about what freedom of speech actually is, and is not.

“Freedom of speech” is not freedom to be insensitive. It doesn’t cover tasteless jokes, cultural ignorance, harassment, refusal to self-educate, or discomfort around queer or brown people. “Free speech” is not a magical face-saver that absolves you of the responsibility to apologise for hurting or discriminating against people, even unintentionally.

Without politically-defended freedom of speech, the minority cannot contribute to culture, policy or discourse. Without freedom of speech, press or information, platforms fall entirely into the hands of the powerful few. That’s when we learn what actual censorship looks like.

Freedom of speech is at risk for people whose voices struggle to be heard in the mainstream, so no, not Mark bloody Latham or anyone who shares his opinions on women and gays. It’s at risk for journalists who attempt to expose government corruption. For staff in detention camps, threatened with gag orders ever since Abbott’s hyperactive anti-refugee legislation and only recently able to fight back, speaking freely means risking jail.

As if abusing the notion of free speech as a shelter for xenophobia, homophobia or sexism isn’t bad enough, there are people out there insisting that being offended by bigotry at all is somehow the bigger obstacle to “a fair debate.” But elevating bigotry to the same intellectual level as defending equality is not “a fair debate.” It is falsely treating bigotry like a legitimate standpoint arrived at through rational means. Say it with me: bigotry is bias. It cannot be intellectually sound. Being a bigot and calling it “free speech” doesn’t make it not-bigotry. It makes it cowardly bigotry.

Much like being bigoted should be treated as simply being unpopular; being politically incorrect should not be treated as simply being edgy. The argument that “PC culture” is suppressing free speech buckles easily if you don’t live under a rock.

Gay couples cannot get married under the law. School chaplains get funding boosts whether they are trained or not, while Safe Schools got defunded despite being proven successful because hard line conservatives don’t like it, or more accurately, don’t know what it is. Lee Lin Chin and Waleed Aly get Gold Logie nominations (nominee lists have historically been all-white), and news presenters respond by joking about reverse racism. Sky News presenter, Rowan Dean feels totally comfortable telling the Race Discrimination Commissioner “go back to where you came from” on live TV. A Muslim journalist is forced to leave the country due to death threats and career derailment, and the conservative radio response is “I’d like to run her over”. The Spectator (run by the aforementioned Sky News presenter, Rowan Dean) sees no problem with publishing an article defending apartheid.

That’s not people merely expressing free speech. That’s evidence that Australia still has a long way to go before we can truly call ourselves a fair and just country.

Recognising that some people are marginalised is imperative to having a balanced discussion, but vocal anti-progressives like Yiannopoulos, Cho, Dean and etc do not want to acknowledge that inequality exists in the first place. They don’t want freedom to speak; they want freedom to dominate a conversation that isn’t about them.

There can be no rational debate with people who want you to have fewer basic rights. There can be no rational debate on feminism between a woman and a misogynist. There can be no rational debate on race between a black person and a white supremacist. One person belongs in the discussion, and the other doesn’t. One person should be sharing their experiences, and the other should be listening and learning.

The next time you feel the urge to invoke freedom of speech after being accused of disrespect, pause and think: maybe it’s not your turn to speak.