Musings: When Speech is Free… Until it Isn’t

Much virtual ink has been spilled in recent months over the limits—or lack thereof—of free speech, including which speech should be heard, or deserves to be heard. Much of this discussion has centered around one loathsome Internet provocateur who rose to fame for spouting vile racist, sexist, transphobic, ethnocentric hogwash.

  • He first gained followers during the  #GamerGate controversy which sought to silence the voices of women in game development.
  • He turned his followers against a well-respected comedian who had the audacity to be Black and a woman in public and star in a new reboot of a beloved all-male 80s movie resulting in his lifetime ban from Twitter.
  • He has outed trans* individuals putting them in danger and advocated against their rights.
  • His speech at UC Berkeley was suspended under fear for public safety, but reports indicated that he’d planned to read a list of undocumented immigrants attending the University during his talk putting the students and their families in danger during a time of extreme danger for Latinx immigrants.

POC, Women, and Queer advocates have spoken out against his particularly vile hate speech and the sorts of attitudes it normalizes for quite some time. They have argued that giving him attention does direct harm to our communities. For this reason, though I know anyone reading this during its time will know who I am speaking of, I will not name him, or link to anything that might give him additional unwarranted attention, to do so, even in criticism gives him more acknowledgment than he deserves.

Despite all the public outrage he garnered from disenfranchised groups, his outrageous rhetoric drew attention, and that meant ratings, which in turn meant larger and larger audiences. He was recently given a book contract for a quarter of a million dollars. Despite massive protestation, the publisher defended their decision to go forward with his contract. His brand of hate-speech was defended as something that we must hear even if we disagree. To stop him from speaking, activists were patronizingly told, would be just as bad—if not worse—than what he was saying. There seemed to be nothing that could stop him until an audio recording surfaced where-in he advocated that sexual relationships between post-pubescent boys and adults was perfectly acceptable. This created an out roar among conservatives and his downfall now seems at hand. His book contract has been cancelled and his conservative speaking gigs have also been cut. Those who months earlier had chastised liberal activists for being too sensitive were now actively working against their darling provocateur.

One reading of this story is the rise and fall of a loathsome media personality, but I think this story teaches us a lot about the workings of power and prejudice. It speaks to our understanding of sexuality and the precarious slope of “acceptance” for queer peoples who gain a foothold in power.

I am certainly not the first person—nor will I be the last—to note that it took an awful lot for this person to finally go too far. The fact that disenfranchised people have been speaking against him for years fell on the deaf ears of those with the power to stop him. He spoke the language of privilege (i.e., white, cis, male, western, and wealthy) and preyed upon their prejudices. Those things he said that were “controversial” were merely topics for hypothetical debate to his audience. They were protected from the consequences of his speech. Giving him a book contract indicated that certain forms of speech—though odious—sell, and fostering discrimination to make a profit is more important than doing the right thing. It may seem that the decision to cancel his book represents a moral stance, but it too is a business decision. If his position was one that was tolerable to conservatives, his book would have remained in the making and he’d still be at speaking gigs.

Justice Toby Potter once said of obscenity that he could never satisfactorily define it, but “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184, 1964) This has long been a favorite quote of mine in the world of legal scholarship, but I think this case adds a very important dimension to that pithy phrase: that is, we must interrogate who is “seeing” the obscenity. Classically, this has been interpreted as community norms, but what happens when a community depends on norms that dehumanize some of its members? Racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia all seem to be outside the realm of obscenity. While these transgressions are considered acceptable, youth sexuality (particularly when it is in the context of intergenerational sexuality) is still considered taboo and obscene. It is immediately marked as pedophilia, which is a problem that can affect the families of those in power (and in particular their white male ostensibly heterosexual sons). Therefore it cannot be tolerated. This potential danger of a person with future privilege I think was the real problem here.

Paradoxically, we live in a culture that sexualizes adolescents to no end while also living in a culture that problematizes adolescent sexuality and denies agency to teens to discuss, know, or engage in sexuality. Historically, queer youth were denied information on their sexuality. They were less likely to see it modeled in their lives by their parents and peers, in the media, or in their education. Knowledge of queerness was considered obscene for youths, and this often meant young queers seeking information from older queer people in older spaces (this was a major plot point in Queer as Folk, though in the US version, the young character’s age was raised to 17 compared to 15 in the UK version). To be clear, I am not advocating for relationships between adults and teens, I am merely pointing out the nebulous cultural zone teen sexuality exists within that is also tied to modern conceptions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. (For more on “The ‘Invention’ of Adolescence” from a structural perspective check out Frank A. Fasick’s 1994 article. Michele Foucualt’s History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure contains historical formulations of intergenerational relationships amongst Greek aristocrats.)

Unfortunately for this provocateur, he ran up against the limits of privilege. While he has a fair deal of privilege, his sexuality was overlooked. He would deploy his sexuality to minimize the complaints of other disenfranchised people as simply “too sensitive.” His comments on intergenerational relationships drew up the specter of pedophilia that queer advocates have been fighting for ages. From Harvey Milk’s campaigns protecting gay teachers to North Carolina’s reprehensible transphobic bathroom bill, the suspected threat of pedophilia posed by queer persons has dogged our community. As soon as he mentioned anything related to this, he was immediately placed in the category of dangerous homosexual.  No matter how enlightened he may have thought his audience was on his sexuality he always walked a precarious line speaking to a group of people who never actually supported him. His willingness to dismiss homophobia while drawing on his other privileges in his life came back to undo him.

While his odious career is hopefully coming to an end, its rise and fall teaches us several things. First, we must listen to those who face the consequences of hate speech when they claim a person is harming them with their rhetoric. Second, we must beware of our own privileges and not rely on those privileges to prevent us from empathizing with others. Third, recognizing where we don’t have privilege we can draw parallels to help understand others experiences, though we must be careful to listen to the differences in how each privilege manifests itself. Finally, this situation sheds yet another light on how many who don’t face discrimination are unwilling to do anything about it so long as they don’t see it as something that might ever face them. It’s an uphill battle for activists when they’re fighting not only the indifference of their fellow citizens but the crass and heartless face of capitalism that profits off their discrimination.

I’ll end on a quote from the web comic xkcd: “[D]efending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.”

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