Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 46 seconds
So it’s a crazy coincidence that
- 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
- 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…
- 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.