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Guest columnist || Nicholas Carverhill
Photo from the Sultan Knish blog
My moral sensibilities are profoundly influenced by the recognition that I live a deeply privileged life. As a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male, I have never had the core of my sense of self questioned or challenged as abnormal, deviant, or, at worse, abominable. The appropriate response to the column published in last week’s issue (“Why ‘safe,’ ‘inclusive,’ and ‘community’ should not be seen in the same sentence”) ought to be intense self-reflection. Many of us benefit from the same inconspicuous, yet profoundly real, privileges that I do, and we should be cognizant of that truth. That realization would likely reverse much of the crass rhetoric that was published in defence of “intolerant” speech. To say that people are “too easily offended” flippantly misses the most important point – that often those who are guilty of producing offensive speech have no capacity to empathize with those whom their speech denigrates.
The column confuses the right to speak with the right to be immune to intense condemnation. It is unacceptable for posters to be removed; it is equally unacceptable to say that one is being censored if their speech is broadly condemned for being bigoted and intolerant. That person may choose to reply and defend their opinions; however, if they make the choice to then self-censor in the future, so be it. I am often told that this reeks of moral absolutism and liberal condescension, because the way that intolerant speech is condemned is in a tone that implies superiority. There is a subtle, but meaningful, difference between making arguments that appeal to morality, and arguing from a moral high ground. The former is a rational and important process that questions the very essence of whatever is at stake; the latter is a perspective that a listener may adopt.
As I noted on a Facebook thread on the topic, “the assumption that my opinions are impervious to change is merely that, an assumption. My opinions change all the time, and are refined by conversations and encounters every day. […] Simply because I seem resolute about my defense of pluralism and the protection of marginalized groups from derisive speech is merely the product of me being given reasons why that is something worth defending. If someone were to make a compelling moral argument about why people and communities are better off without backlash against bigoted speech, I would likely pivot my worldview on the subject.”
There is a deeper balance that must be struck here though. Those who are often in a position to speak and spew regressive rhetoric are often also the ones that are in my position – absent any serious barriers to their self-actualization. It is thus far too easy for a person in this privileged position to claim that they have an inalienable, but hopelessly nebulous, right to freedom of speech. It comes at the expense of the dignity of others; its opportunity cost is the sense of safety of other human beings; and its benefit is often never articulated. If you claim an absolute right to free speech, but choose to broadcast an opinion that is materially and morally damaging to a community, expect to be called out for what it often is: bigoted, discriminatory, and worthy of moral condemnation. If the consequence of this response to intolerant speech is silence, I am happy to defend that trade-off so long as I never actually prevent you from speaking or replying.
A much more nuanced analysis of freedom of speech reveals that while those who are not marginalized are indeed free to express themselves to a great extent, those who are marginalized are often unable to express themselves to same extent as a consequence of their alienation. In this respect, it is not enough to say that everyone deserves absolute freedom of speech because one group is structurally freer than the other, and actively contributes to that asymmetry through their speech.
My responses to what I view as intolerant speech, as well as what I know is intolerant speech (based on the consequences it has on others), will always be couched in morally stern language. My linguistic choices serve merely as an analogue to the damage that is done to our peers’ dignity and as a representation of the moral severity of the speech to which I am responding. The arguments that my words construct, though, are exactly that, arguments; they appeal to moral or practical considerations, and are not dismissive of the crux of the issue.
We should constantly strive to create communities that are as safe and inclusive as possible because a consideration for the wellbeing of others is a responsibility that we bear; especially for those of us who won the lottery of birth and thus have never felt unsafe or excluded. Discriminatory speech detracts from that objective, and no one has the unilateral right to determine whether their speech should stand uncontested when it marginalizes others and robs a community of its collective dignity.