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Neither Free Speech, nor Censorship, Protect Women

The culture wars surrounding the debate over ‘free speech’ are framed in such a way that women lose no matter which side wins.

To follow is an excerpt from Out of the Fog: On Politics, Feminism and Coming Alive (2022) published with kind permission from Spinifex Press.  

The excerpt is from a section titled ‘Speech’, which begins by discussing some of the ways that speech became contested after the Christchurch massacre took place in New Zealand on 15 March, 2019. The killer had written a manifesto, which became illegal to possess or distribute – and by May, the bookstore Whitcoulls also temporarily banned Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life. New Zealand’s Green Party called to have New Zealand’s hate speech laws reviewed and extended to protect religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Of course, these moves were all resisted by champions of ‘free speech’. This excerpt reflects on the whole debate from a feminist perspective.

Neither the concept of ‘free speech’, nor hate speech laws, are designed to protect women.

If we were to define the basic concepts of the free versus hate speech debate on feminist terms, it would look like this: freedom is a world without rape. Hate is the promotion of rape. In Andrea Dworkin’s words, “Rape is widespread. One characteristic of rape is that it silences women.” Silencing is the fear, intimidation and exclusion from the public sphere that women experience in a rape culture. As Susan Hawthorne writes in her book Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing (2014):

Censorship is not only the straightforward culling and banning of the words of writers and artists, and the imprisonment, torture or killing of those who utter rebellious words. It also ventures into the realm of social conditioning.

In Pornography and Silence (1982), Susan Griffin makes the connection between the violence of pornography and women’s silence. She argues that the silence is as much internal as external. This is also the case for colonised peoples in general.

What’s more, “Free speech, when resorted to by Rupert Murdoch or a pornographer, silences those who do not have media empires behind them.” Looking at the world from women’s perspective requires that we rethink the meaning of freedom, hate, speech, and silence.

Traditionally, the phrase ‘free speech’ is a reference to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which prevents the government from making laws restricting speech. Dworkin pointed out that both the Constitution and First Amendment were – like the Declaration of Independence – written by white male landowners who owned black slaves and women as chattel. The First Amendment was never intended to grant people the right to a public voice, but to protect those who already have one. There are two problems with this for feminists: one is that feminism does seek to move the voices of women out of the private sphere and into the public, so it does require that women gain the capacity to speak where it is not granted. In this effort, the First Amendment is of little use. As Dworkin said:

The First Amendment is now being used in an almost metaphoric way for freedom of speech as though … [it] protects everybody’s right to speech and it doesn’t. It’s not a grant to individuals of a right to speak. If it were, you would be able to go to the government and you would be able to say, “I need four minutes on NBC …”

What’s more, when women face backlash for supposedly speaking out of turn in private and public (as I have done), Dworkin says:

It doesn’t stop a man from punching you out for what you said … It doesn’t stop anybody from using economic recriminations against you for what you say. It doesn’t stop anybody from deciding you’re an uppity bitch because of what you say and they’re going to hurt you because you said something that they didn’t like.

In fact, ‘free speech’ can be used to defend this behaviour, which leads us to the second problem with the First Amendment: it supports men’s impunity, and encourages activists to redirect support towards some of the most vile political actors. As a result, Dworkin comments:

They have convinced many of us that the standard for speech is what I would call a Repulsion Standard. That is to say, we find the most repulsive person in the society and we defend them. I say we find the most powerless people in the society – and we defend them.

For those who promote free speech in the ‘metaphoric’ sense, not taking the limitations of the First Amendment for granted, the phrase becomes even more ambiguous. Not just the government, but even private companies and the public are expected to protect freedom of speech. Many free speech advocates are unclear about their views on the status of protest itself: sometimes they consider protests, like rallies and picket lines, a form of speech that should be protected. Other times, protest represents objection to speech that the government should intervene in. Sometimes harassment is framed as protest and then defended in the name of ‘free speech’. It seems to depend on which side they are on.

David Seymour, New Zealand’s libertarian ACT party leader, is a free speech advocate. He defends feminists who challenge transgenderism in the name of free speech, but he has also defended campaigners harassing women at an abortion clinic using the same catchcry. Because, as Hawthorne writes, “the word ‘free’ is ambiguous” and “the term ‘free speech’ sounds innocuous” it can be used to justify almost anything in politics. It becomes a vehicle for anyone’s agenda, anyone who wants to promote their own interests while building support from other political actors. 

Think of the contradiction with Seymour: if conservatives have a right to harass women at abortion clinics, don’t women have a right to tell them to fuck off and leave us alone? Would Seymour defend that response on the grounds of free speech too (if so, why defend both sides of a neverending argument)? Or would he consider it an action against free speech? Free speechers simply draw these lines as they see fit.

Many people who promote free speech sincerely – including feminists – are really making a plea for tolerance and civil discourse. These people are asking us, culturally, to develop our capability to deal with disagreement or difference through debate and conversation, rather than hostility and mudslinging. They underestimate the problem: an inability to disagree civilly is not what divides us. Rape is what divides us. Rape, the fetishisation of violence, objectification, brutality, fear, identification, denial, projection, blame. Promoting ‘tolerance’ understates the madness we live with. And when this leads people to promote ‘free speech’, and thus buy into an associated ‘Repulsion Standard’, it not only constitutes a significant departure from the project of ending rape, it can lead feminists to the bizarre position of defending both the whistleblower and the perpetrator at once. 

This happened when Canadian feminist and founder of website Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy, filed a lawsuit against Twitter after having her account removed in 2019. When Trump also had his account deleted, Murphy argued that “It’s not a good thing that Trump was banned from Twitter” because “free speech isn’t just for one side … it’s for all sides.” So is freedom itself, of course: it is for everyone. The feminist argument is that freedom for everyone requires the end of rape, and we can only arrive there by purposefully amplifying the voices of women, even if that means men get less airtime. As Hawthorne says,

‘free speech’… indeed is frequently made to sound important to a state of social freedom, but when one looks a little closer, ‘whose’ freedom counts, becomes the determining factor of whether it really represents the idea of ‘freedom’.

This is what both Paulo Freire and Andrea Dworkin taught. Environmentalist poet Will Falk makes this point beautifully too, in a poem he wrote while living at Thacker Pass in Nevada as part of an occupation to stop lithium mining there. The poem is called ‘First, There’s the World’, and echoes Dworkin’s point that freedom of speech begins with integrity of the body. It asks:

For what is poetry without the voice?

and what is the voice

if not for the world that makes the voice possible?

I’m sure Falk, whose work currently revolves around protecting the wildlife at Thacker Pass from being bulldozed for profit, would agree that to arrive at the world in which speech is truly free – that is, a world without rape or coercion – male elites will have to withstand losing more than their Twitter accounts.

Renée Gerlich is the author of Out of the Fog: On Politics, Feminism and Coming Alive (2022), published by Spinifex Press. In 2021, she founded Dragon Cloud Press to publish her Brief Complete Herstory series, available at dragoncloudpress.com.

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