Liberals need to have an honest chat about free speech

I don’t want misogynists to be quiet. I want feminists to be louder. 

When liberals debate free speech and George Orwell’s 1984 comes up, it’s usually in the context of spying or censorship. But the cleverest oppressions in Orwell’s world come from not censoring speech, but from controlling the language people can use in the first place.

If you don’t know the language for ‘rape culture’ or ‘patriarchy’ it doesn’t matter that you theoretically have the freedom to talk about them. You can’t even think them.

This is central to the free speech debate. Who controls language? Why is the expression ‘violence against women’ okay but ‘male violence’ too uncomfortable? Why is abusing a child on camera ‘child pornography?’ Why is naming micro-oppressions being ‘offended’?  Why is the oxymoron ‘rape fantasy’ the best term we have for erotic power play? What is the point of the ‘date’ in ‘date rape’, or the ‘domestic’ in ‘domestic violence’

And why do we believe it’s too damn difficult to grasp the distinction between ‘porn’ that depicts a woman or girl being raped, and hating it, with a title like ‘bitch slut got raped’, and actors showing consensual kink or power fantasy, often told from the perspective of the fictional ‘victim’? Why do we believe it’s too damn difficult to understand the difference between reducing a woman to an object, and a woman expressing her own sexuality?  Why do we pretend it’s too damn difficult to differentiate between expressing your opinion about Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknotes campaign, and threatening to rape her, or sending hate mail directly to a family member’s home address?

A lot of that linguistic framing comes from liberals. Liberals so protective of their own free speech that they never noticed some people don’t even have language for what they need to say, let alone a space to say it in.

Free speech is necessary and must be defended but free speech is not enough. If your voice is louder than mine, free speech won’t solve that. Free speech is a starting principle, not a solution to injustice.

I support free speech. That’s why I critique what people say so much. But when you pretend all words are of equal power, thrown from an equal height, it sounds naive. Women have free speech to say no – but men decide that sometimes no means yes. When you pretend free speech is about the right of the powerful to dictate language, when you pretend that calling someone a sexist is the same as calling them a rapeable bitch, don’t be surprised if people use you and your sneering dismissal of power structures as an excuse to shut that freedom down for the rest of us.

Because the irony is that when free speech is restricted, yours usually survives anyway. The ‘rape porn ban’, if it works at all, will probably end up penalising marginalised groups – gay people, BDSM enthusiasts, trans people, sex workers, rape survivors – while arrogant Libertarian Dudes will find their conscience-free wank fodder elsewhere. Similarly, a Twitter troll button would probably silence not the ‘bullies,’ but those who shout back. You can already see how woman-haters run riot on Twitter exercising their free speech while accounts like @Misogyny_Online, set up to record the abuse, get suspended.

And yet, the blame for censorship still, somehow, falls on marginalised groups. I don’t agree with the content of the rape porn ‘ban’ but if you honestly think you’re being oppressed by feminists because you have to change your internet settings before wanking over a rape video, you need to take your head out of your rectum.

It’s not just liberal men.  Some liberal feminists are ‘protesting’ online abuse by leaving Twitter for a day. Choosing to leave the platform you are privileged to have in the first place seems, to put it gently, an odd way to protest the silencing of the marginalised.

This hypocrisy is why so many throw up their hands and give up on free speech altogether. That’s dangerous. I don’t want misogynists to be quiet. I want feminists to be louder.

But if you care about free speech, you have to care about how it works in practice, not just as an abstract principle. You have to care about the structural. You have to care about the voices you don’t hear and why you don’t hear them. It isn’t because they’re not talking. You have to care when speech is used to silence others, even when their silence makes you louder. Free speech is needed in order to resist oppressive power structures. And the best way to protect free speech is to make sure that more people have it.


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