Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 46 seconds

Judith Butler on Free Speech vs Harassment 

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 46 seconds

So it’s a crazy coincidence that

  1. Yesterday I had a Twitter convo w some folks re freedom and some of us were arguing about how freedom (a la J.S.Mill) isn’t necessarily a universally applicable or straightforward principle 
  2. Several of my students submitted assignments re freedom of speech and I felt they took an absolutist perspective that was too narrow and not contextualized. They didn’t at all address the line between free speech and hate speech for example, despite the world that’s reminding us of the dangers of that every day…
  3. Judith Butler was just writing about this! Thanks to Audrey Watters for recommending the article. So proud of myself to have understood sthg by Butler! Yay 

So here is Butler’s piece which I may discuss in class next semester. If I judge it to be too difficult for my students, I’ll find a way to support them in reading important parts of it and discussing them. Note that to help myself read and not be intimidated by it, I started reading from the middle where I expected to find what I wanted. I did. The entire second half is perfect. This is probably entirely too much text I’m copying, but I’ll insert notes, Ok?

If we are free speech absolutists, then free speech not only takes precedence over every other constitutional principle, and some argue that every other constitutional principle will be regarded as structurally dependent on the First Amendment.  That is one view – a kind of domino theory – but surely not the only one. 

My only problem with the above is its emphasis on constitution and US-centric. Which may be difficult for Egyptian students to abstract. Sometimes such contextual details can detract from the overall point being made.

If free speech is not the only constitutional right we are obligated to defend, then we are surely in another sort of quandary, figuring out how best to defend rights that sometimes do clash with one another, and where the clash takes new forms in different moments of history when new expressive technologies force us to reconsider the meaning of expressive freedom. 

I’m wondering here about the insertion of technology as a means of self-expression and how it impacts freedom of speech or lackthereof. E.g. It’s probably safer to say something in a park than to post it on social media. In terms of government surveillance. On the other hand, one can incite violence more widely, reach more people with a tweet (if one has following) than by speaking in a public space (well it depends who you are and where you are followed more; non-traditional celebrities can be created online and have a podium on social media). Trump of course has both.

 If free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values.  We should perhaps frankly admit that we have agreed in advance to have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied, that we are, in effect, willing to be wrecked by this principle of free speech, considered more important than any other value.  

She doesn’t, I assume, actually mean this. She’s warning us against this. But I’m unsure if Egyptian students will understand it this way? I suspect the more linguistically proficient, social science juniors/seniors will get it. Others may struggle with it. 

If so, we should be honest about the bargain we have made: we are willing to be broken by that principle, and that, yes, our commitments to dignity, equality, and non-violence will be, for better or worse, secondary.  Is that how we want it to be?  Is that how we must be?

This is now much clearer. She’s telling us that we need to weigh freedom of speech vs other values such as equality, non-violence. And boy, I don’t understand how people in Western countries seem to not clearly realize this day in and day out. 

Perhaps since I don’t live in a space of freedom of expression, I wouldn’t put it up on a pedestal anyway? But I think even then…social justice is much more important a value. Even the French have their 3 main values (or pillars or?) of liberté, egalité, fratenité.. But I’m always hearing them talk about the first even if at the expense of the others.

6 thoughts on “Judith Butler on Free Speech vs Harassment 

    1. I love Bentham’s critique of the French Declaration:

      That which has no existence cannot be destroyed — that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.

  1. If people were denied free speech, there’s still no way to stop free thought in the privacy of someone’s mind so if you want access to thoughts as things of value, but don’t know what they may be, best to begin with no restrictions or conditions, let them talk, see what comes out and the unacceptable junk they can keep quietly to themselves. You are free to have any thought you want.
    At the end of Butler’s blog she mentions the possibility of wrecking community values by promoting all speech as equal when some speech is disrespectful or damaging. The American model of free speech comes from the sanctity of the individual preceding even the first amendment so prior to even opening your mouth your right to be an undisturbed-by-any-conditions kind of individual is set in place. So in a sense, as the receiver of what may be entirely unedited comment, you MUST learn to be insensitive to their speech. The primary right here is to not listen to what others say.

    Of course if we would prefer to live together and in contact as a community we might decide to temper our freedom at least enough to engage in a responsive dialog with the world.

    1. Love this, Scott ” The primary right here is to not listen to what others say.”

      However, the issue isn’t that individuals take offense (tho that’s an issue too). It’s that others who do listen to hate speech can be incited to do violence and it moves from expression to action.

  2. Thinking about not listening as solution sounds silly to me now that I’ve reread it. As you say, speech that promotes hate can lead to hateful actions and while I might be free to ignore the words, some situations may include both physical or mental harm that I would be drawn into without my choosing. In sexual assault and harassment I think there’s a presumption of power in the assailant over the victim that nullifies the victims right to themselves. We have no right in speech or action to do this to anyone.

    There’s also what sounds like a contradiction in the world of free speech where restraint makes what’s spoken of greater value. Restraint in speech brings the other into the role of participant by recognizing their right to share in the making of a dialogue? Not clear on this but do we speak as purely individuals or are we always, at least a little bit inside the thoughts of those we speak to?

    1. Hmmmm thinking
      (and i don’t at all think the right not to listen was a silly idea. I thought it was a good one…just not a complete one. E.g. Some media choose to ignore particular hateful news and don’t give it airtime. It’s a choice not to also protects from the spreading of the ideas inciting more hatred)

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