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Free Speech and Sisyphus

Since I was twenty, I’ve been an advocate for free speech. After 2001, I spoke out about concerns regarding the role world leaders played in 9/11. By 2003, I was regularly speaking out against unethical and outright illegal practices by corporations, such as child slave labourracketeering and bribery of government officials. In 2004, when Bush got re-elected, I spoke out against what I perceived at the time to be “crazy right-wingers supporting a madman.”

Over the years, I’ve spoken out about many causes, looked at the world through several ideological lenses, and perhaps a few that were nihilistic in nature. I’ve been right about things, and I’ve been wrong about things. This is not a trend I see ending anytime soon. In fact, it’s not unhealthy to be wrong at least 25% of the time. Because if you’re always right, you’ll never learn anything new.

But one thing, through all those years of adopting varying causes and ideologies I always had respect for was free speech. I firmly believe that freedom of speech is the very mechanism with which western society functions. It, like humor, allows us to speak truth to power. However, it also allows us to lie for power. And it allows power to lie to itself.

Too often we are confronted with arguably fascist viewpoints. Calls for ideological purity. People who hold their own speech in high regard, but wish to silence voices that may disagree with them. (Often, ironically, from the very same people who claim to decry fascism in all its forms.) We see this echoed all the way back to the inception of the First Amendment, and we see it almost daily on social media or college campuses all across the western world.

But for me, free speech isn’t a concept that has much wiggle room. It’s one of the few political concepts I am able to view as a “black and white” issue. Either your speech is free, or it is not.

In an ideal world, all speech would be welcome and accepted. But we do not live in an ideal world, and we never will. Thus, I see speech attacked on all sides. No matter your political, religious or cultural opinion, someone wants you to shut up. Trump supporters experience this every time they express support for their president-elect. College safe space supporters experience this every time they demand more diversity. Feminists experience this every time they express concerns about concepts such as the gender wage gap, and MRAs experience this every time they call for a more gender-neutral approach to domestic violence awareness.

No matter what your cause, someone will be there to shout you down.

But, you know what?

That is the best possible outcome.

In the western world, there are groups that unite based on little more than a shared hatred of another group. They’re known for dressing their ideology up in attractive language, making it seem more like they have shared values instead of collective hatred, and they almost always believe that they’re doing good, when their actions speak otherwise. Rightly so, most people find these groups to be distasteful, no matter which group they choose to hate.

And unfortunately for most, free speech protects these hateful, vile paradigms. I’ve heard many now speaking out against free speech for these reasons alone, often mocking and belittling it. The term is often called Freeze Peach, normally spoken with air quotes and contempt for the concept.

But here’s the thing. Without that free speech so many are quick to mock, would you be allowed to speak against the groups in question if they were in power? I daresay no. And yet, all too many gear up for a battle against that concept. A “War on Free Speech,” as some would characterize it on both sides of the battle. I’ve seen this war. I’ve seen the volleys tossed about by either side on social media.

The irony of anti-Free Speech activism seems to be utterly lost on them.

The truth is, as I understand it, that free speech is very simple to understand, but hard to grasp for those who are perpetually offended by differing opinions on closely-held beliefs. The only ethically-usable weapon against the concept of free speech is the concept itself. You see speech you don’t like? You use your own free speech to show them why it’s wrong. But too many these days are jumping to extremes, using the most unethical weapon of them all against the concept– a bootheel. It is my experience that silencing someone else’s free speech devalues your own. It makes it easier for others to silence you.

And when speech is sufficiently silenced, even hate speech, the inevitable conclusion almost always turns to action. If racist groups are forced into silence, that doesn’t stop the group. Rather, it emboldens them. Forced into basements and dark corners of our towns and cities, what was once hate speech which could have been effectively argued against and deflated utilizing free speech, will almost always turn into hate actions.

As such, I am happy to speak against ideas I disagree with, even if I am ultimately wrong about it. And certainly, having to do so will slow progress in moving past archaic ideas like racism and collective hate. But talking to them, attempting to show them they’re wrong is a far preferable outcome than forcing them into action. Would you prefer someone doesn’t like you to your face, or pretends to like you while plotting against you?

I see free speech as something of a Sisyphean allegory. Sisyphus, an ancient Greek king, was punished for his deceit against his brother and the gods themselves. After tricking the God of Death, Thanatos, and trapping him in the very chains meant to hold him down, he was made to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. When he’d gotten it to the top, it would always roll back down the hill, forcing Sisyphus to continue to push it back up without respite. As such, it came to represent the futility of some labours.

And some may see free speech as an act of futility. Why defend free speech if we keep having to deal with things like hate speech? I can empathize with that point. When I see hate speech, it makes me sad for the future.

With that said, however, I still cannot consider defense of free speech to be futile. The Sisyphean legend speaks of the futility of pushing the boulder for eternity for seemingly no purpose. But there is a purpose. There is an understanding from some that limiting free speech and free expression would free certain people from oppression. But the reality is that it is more likely to have the opposite effect. What hope then do the oppressed have if they are unable to speak truth to power?

With free speech, we will always have disagreements. That is, in itself, a testament to our ability to reason. But without it, evidence and reason will no longer hold sway, and truth will reside solely in the bootheel of power.

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