There’s a lot of things I don’t like. I feel like that should go without saying, but just in case: I, like most people, sometimes don’t like things. For example: I don’t like nattou. I feel like I should like nattou, because it’s great for you and in general I like things with that kind of salty-savory flavor, but the texture is just way beyond anything I can handle. So, yeah. I don’t like nattou. I also don’t like wearing shorts (they make my knees feel surprised), scary movies, or roller coasters that go upside down. I in general try to focus on the things that I do like, when saying things publicly on the Internet where people can read them, but that decision mostly has to do with why I am on the Internet: usually I write dirty stories and sometimes I write about writing; do you really care that shorts make my knees feel surprised? That decision doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not there are things I don’t like. There are in fact a bunch of things out there that I don’t like! There are even people out there that I don’t like! But again: do you care that I don’t like Sally Orangutantina
What this essay is about is freedom of speech.
Here are some statements that don’t mean the same thing: “Speech should be free,” and “Speech should be free of consequence.”
Or maybe: “You have a legal right to say whatever you want,” and “You have a social right to say whatever you want.”
Or, better yet: “We should, as a society, treat all opinions as equally valid and valuable,” and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
What “freedom of speech” actually means (in an American context) is that you have the right to say things and not be put in jail for them. Not be put in jail, or muzzled by the government, or subjected to organized, state-sponsored persecution that deprives you of your freedom or your livelihood (as you can see, we don’t always get it right). It doesn’t mean that you get to say whatever you want and have everyone like you, support you, and pay for your creative work.
And yeah. I’m talking about Superman. Specifically, I’m talking about this wonderful radio essay by Glen Weldon, and the kind of irritating number of responses where phrases like “free speech” and “censorship” and “witch hunt” get tossed out there without any regard for what those ideas actually mean. (For the record, the exact same thing happened with Chick-fil-A over the summer, and it was annoying then, too.)
The tricky thing about throwing “free speech” around the way it tends to get thrown around on the Internet is that it doesn’t actually usually apply to the things that people try to apply it to. Orson Scott Card does, in fact, have a legal right to say whatever he wants about gays and gay marriage. But he doesn’t have a social right to say whatever he wants about gays and gay marriage. In some parts of the Internet, everyone will be patting him on the back, I’m sure, for his (hateful, bigoted) behavior towards the queer community, but no one actually owes him that. That’s just, like, a free bonus he gets for there happening to be other hateful, bigoted people on the Internet. The broader social contract doesn’t include “Let everyone who espouses prejudiced opinions slide; I mean, whatever, it’s all cool; let’s go share a blunt, man.” In fact, I’m pretty sure the social obligation to protect the basic human rights and dignity of the queer people toward whom Orson Scott Card and NOM are hateful and bigoted far outweighs anyone’s hurt feelings. If Sally Orangutantina had been a terrible homophobe who harassed and bullied me over my sexuality, then my calculus for whether or not I want to try to avoid ruining her day might change, because oppression is systemic and inescapable and poisonous and invisible, and as a result, oppression is always—always more painful to the people being oppressed than it is to the people who are being called out on doing the oppressing. (Again on the essay-for-another-time front: this is why if someone is saying something about you that you don’t like, it doesn’t mean you are being oppressed. Until it is systemic, inescapable, poisonous, and invisible, you’re not being oppressed. You’re just being criticized. It’s not the same thing.)
All people are equally valid and valuable. Not all opinions are equally valid and valuable. Some opinions are wrong. One of the opinions that is wrong is that not all people are equally valid and valuable.
I feel like this idea is much harder to grasp than it needs to be. We as a culture—and really, I’m talking about the English-speaking Internet, here, not so much American culture in meatspace, but the problem definitely does exist in both places—have a really hard time with understanding the difference between “You are a valid and valuable human being who has important things to contribute to the world around you” and “All of the things you think inside your head have the right to go unchallenged.” A huge percentage of the bullshit that goes down on the Internet goes down because people can’t tell the difference between someone attacking their opinions and someone attacking them as a person—and to be totally honest, part of that’s because people have a hard time phrasing their attacks to direct them at the opinion, and not the person, but again, essay for another time. What’s really going on here is that Orson Scott Card, who is, just like the rest of us, a valid and valuable person, is being criticized by his fellow valid and valuable people because he espouses a wrong opinion. And then other people are saying that that criticism is somehow abridging his freedom of speech, which it can’t, because—among other reasons—the criticism is being conducted by Orson Scott Card’s fellow valid and valuable people. Not the government. So that argument is very stupid.
I mean, there actually is a kind of interesting discussion to be had about what is owed to a, you know, valid and valuable human being with wrong, terrible, offensive, bigoted opinions, but it seems kind of bizarre to argue that economic support of their wrong, terrible, offensive, and bigoted opinions would be part of that. In part because that seems like it would imply that there’s definitely somewhere I can sign up for my intrinsic rights to economic support for my filthy gay porn. I mean, if there is and I just didn’t get the email, please, let me know, but in the meantime I’m going to assume that my understanding of how people get paid for creative output—you create something, you put it up for sale, people who anticipate that they will enjoy it give you money for it—is still in effect, and, you know. I’ll just keep working on that one.
When someone criticizes someone else’s opinion, they are not abridging anyone’s free speech. When someone calls for or participates in a boycott, they are not abridging anyone else’s free speech. Free speech protections have to do with the law. They have to do with the government. They have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I give DC Comics money for something I don’t want to read, because I expect that I will find it offensive, or pay money for, because I don’t want to financially support the person who will get that money on the other end. If you have really strong feelings about why I should give nattou, or wearing shorts, or upside-down roller coasters another shot, you have a legal right tell me all about it! That’s fine! And I have a legal right to think you’re annoying, bin the nattou, wear skirts instead, and not get on the roller coaster until you promise me in writing that when I get off I can throw up on your shoes.