Editorial | Issue 17
There were three issues in the media this week that got me thinking about the limits of free speech, and the difference between offending and harming someone.
01 | The Auckland University Students’ Association asked their members to vote on whether to exclude the group Pro Life after they distributed anti-abortion material on campus.
02 | Daniel Tosh, the comedian from Tosh.0, was widely lambasted in the media for suggesting that it would be funny if a women heckler in his audience “got raped by, like, five guys, right now.”
03 | Well known blogger Elyse Anders accused a couple of harassment after they approached her at the end of a conference and passed her a card suggesting that she may enjoy joining them for a sexual experience.
Okay, so there is a lot, lot more context to each of these stories (and I highly recommend that you jump on the web and read up about them if you’re interested). But the basic question underlying each of these situations is the same: What are you allowed to say to people? Are you allowed to offend random strangers? Or is that harassment, or worse, truly harmful to the other person?
The short answer is that you should be allowed to say whatever the hell you want. And conversely, you should be allowed to choose to ignore what people are saying with impunity.
Let’s look at the AUSA example. People were offended by their anti-abortion message. They tried to argue that the message that Pro Life was spreading was harmful, if not downright dangerous, in that it contained incorrect medical information (which is pretty dubious). I guess my response to that would be, “Who the fuck is relying on anti-abortion pamphlets for their medial advice?” In fact, the pamphlet actually called for those thinking about abortion to speak to their doctors, and stated that doctors must provide accurate information. I cannot help but conclude that the underlying reason for the opposition to Pro Life’s pamphlet is that people were opposed to what they had to say. They were opposed to an anti-abortion message being propagated on campus.
And this brings us to the point. If you think, for one second, that it is okay to judge what someone else is saying, and declare that since you think it is wrong, they should not be allowed to say it, YOU’RE A FUCKING IDIOT! (I’ve always wanted to say that in an editorial, though I’m guessing I’m not winning a Pulitzer for this one…)
There is a distinct, and important, difference between being offended by someone and having him or her cause you harm. If I stop you in the street, and suggest to you that abortion is murder, I have not harmed you in any way. You can choose to deal with this information, or misinformation, however you want. And if you are offended, well, tough luck sunshine.
Free speech is pointless if you are not allowed to offend people while exercising it. People used to be (hell, they still are) offended by the ideas of homosexuality, Black civil rights, and universal suffrage. Basically every advance that has been made, ever, was won, in part, due to free speech. And if you turn around and say, “Well, we’ve won this right, and now you’re not allowed to speak against it,” then you really don’t get it.
Voltaire may never have said it, but Hall definitely got it right when she paraphrased him: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
- Joe Stockman