May 02, 2014

Dear Liberals: On Free Speech and Abuse

Unedited, obviously.

Dear Liberals:

I’m no particular fan of open letters, and this isn’t one except to the extent that using the form of an open letter —or any letter— is a waste of less of my time than the structuring a coherent article would be. And this letter —I might as well call it that— is obviously not addressed to all liberals, or ‘liberals’, or all the members of any particular group. It’s intended to be addressed to those who claim to be liberal and who use their version of liberal theory or liberalism or whatever the hell they choose to call it to be abusive or to support abuse. Simply because there is an (arguably legitimate) expectation that liberals would demonstrate some minimal degree of social progressiveness. It’s intended for those, especially, who invoke free speech to support various forms of abuse.

In my book, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that’s worse than invoking free speech to support abuse simply because I see abuse —pretty much all forms of abuse— as being a manner of violating the free speech rights of those being abused. I’ve said this before in considerable detail. And, so, to use free speech arguments to support abuse seems to me to be the worst form of the perversion of free speech rights it is humanly possible to come up with. There are, in particular, three issues which bother me (which I’m putting into next three paragraphs).

The first are claims that ‘mere’ verbal abuse targeted at an individual (including, for example, verbal street harassment) is an exercise of the free speech rights of the abuser which exercise should be acceptable. I don’t intend to get into refuting that argument here primarily because I’m not even certain it deserves to be refuted with anything beyond ‘LOLWUT’ — yes, I’m quite thrilled with the slang I’ve picked up, in case you’re wondering.

The second is the intolerance I’ve come across far too often which involves (usually) men getting (usually) women to shut up when they talk about violence. And, no, this isn’t men who are, at first glance, rabidly sexist or patriarchal. It’s often men who are liberal, free speech enthusiasts who, sadly, seem to define free speech as ‘Your right to say what I want to hear’. That quite simply isn’t the definition of free speech — there may be a world in which it is ok to tell someone complaining about abuse to shut up (as, incidentally, I have been told by a free speech enthusiast) but it is not the world I live in and it is not a world I want to live in. And the idea that it is ok to tell someone who has been abused to shut up should just DIAF.

And the third thing which gets to me are the arguments I’ve had —so many that I’ve now stopped keeping count— about how porn should not be banned and that it is a free speech issue. I don’t think porn should be banned myself but here’s the problem with the free speech argument I’ve been hearing in India: its interaction with VAW is bloody half-baked. It says, each time I’ve heard it, that porn does not cause its consumers to rape and that consumers’ access to porn is a free speech right. The argument doing the rounds simply does not differentiate between ‘porn causing rape’ and ‘porn being rape’. Hell, it doesn’t acknowledge the latter, and in the process of telling only half the story, it effectively, to my mind, winds up invoking free speech to sanction the possible filming of rape for entertainment. Porn may not cause its consumers to rape —the jury’s still out on that one— but there’s very little doubt that rape itself has the potential to become porn. It isn’t even minimally clear to me how any honest argument about porn can refuse to recognise the possibility of ‘rape as porn’ (as opposed to ‘rape in porn’ which I don’t see as being especially problematic), stick to that part of the story convenient to the facilitation of porn promulgation (i.e. that porn apparently doesn’t cause rape), and completely ignore the manner in which porn is produced to the possible detriment to those appearing in porn. Porn isn’t only about free speech. It’s also about labour rights amongst other things. And the faster that’s recognised, the more credible arguments relating to porn would become.

Free speech and violence though aren’t the only concerns which arise in relation to vast swathes of liberal discourse in India — they’re just the ones which are most pertinent to me. And here’s my problem with airing any concerns about liberal discourse: left to myself, I am, as far as I can tell, irredeemably liberal. Even when I see supposedly liberal arguments being used to support abuse. Even when I want to be anything but liberal. God knows, there are times when the factions of the conservative right most strongly and violently opposed to women’s rights seem quite appealing. After all, if I had to choose between a bunch of people who said, “Let’s invoke free speech to justify being abusive,” and a bunch who simply said, “Let’s be abusive,” it isn’t the first bunch I would want to pick. Both would achieve the same result. And I could do without the moral and theoretical gymnastics, not to mention the accompanying smugness, the first bunch would provide.

So, here’s the deal: if you are liberal and a pain, and don’t want to be quite as off putting, just stop being quite as much of an ass. Or try to stop. Start listening to other people’s experiences before dismissing them. Recognise that if you’re talking about a subject and all your knowledge is supplied by either texts or your imagination, your opinions do not supersede those of people who have actually experienced what you’re talking about. Just maybe, given your cluelessness, when you are clueless, consider listening to those who aren’t instead of shooting your mouth off based on what you imagine is liberal theory.

And have the good sense to realise that opinions born of lived experience of abuse will not always be entirely coherent. It can be bloody difficult to find words to talk about trauma at all. Don’t expect explanations and elucidation from people who have been abused for your benefit; doing so is often likely to simply be inhuman. Just STFU, listen, and attempt to learn. Also, for God’s sake, develop the good sense to realise that opinions born of experience will often be strong and may not sound measured. They’re often born of pain and humiliation and rage, and are not formed to make sense to you. Deal with it.

And recognise that theories —liberal, yours, whatever— about people are entirely worthless if they bear no relationship whatsoever to, well, people and their experiences. So listen to people who do have some experience of what you’re talking about. You’re not being objective and neutral when you stick to what you think is academic knowledge and theory alone, and dismiss people’s experiences (often by mocking them). You’re simply being an ass.

Addendum 1 on rape jokes:

While it doesn't often directly involve the abuse of a specific individual, it's worth mentioning in this context that challenging the making of rape 'jokes' is not the same as challenging free speech itself.

Yes, freedom of expression may give you the right to make rape 'jokes' (depending on their content) but the fact that you are able to make such 'jokes' simply does not mean that no one can question your making them. Your having a free speech right does not mean that you must exercise that right especially given that rape 'jokes' can both trigger those who have been raped and validate rapists. The free speech right has certainly never meant the unfettered right to be an ass without challenge.

And this applies not just to rape 'jokes' but to every piece of speech, particularly speech which has the potential to trigger others. Freedom of expression may support you when you wound others but it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, give you the right to speak unkindly without being questioned. This isn't about the people questioning the making of rape 'jokes' being 'the joke police' or being 'against free speech'; it's about their questioning the choice to be unkind and insensitive especially where that choice is knowingly and avoidably made.

Addendum 2:

Free speech is about both the social and the legal. It's complex, and having slogans bandied about to the exclusion of all else is unhelpful. Also see: India's Free Speech Discourse: The Case for Nuance