John Stuart Mill, that very ardent proponent of libertarianism and free speech said “the right of my fist ends where your nose begins”.
I suppose the problem is that in this modern age, defining the boundaries of noses and fists is a problem.
The Everyday Sexism Project, WAM and others wrote an open letter to Facebook about the depictions of women on Facebook. You can go and see the depictions and make up your own mind about them. They are not for the faint of heart.
Facebook makes reference to community standards. This was a bit puzzling to me, it has a meaning in common law as it relates to pornography, but effectively, when women protested about some of those images, Facebook said it didn’t violate their community standards.
And this is where it gets sticky. Because if you spend a lot of time thinking about community standards, you realize that the definition of community is problematic, and there can be no definition of standard. It’s ironic to the arm chair philosopher, but no less axiomatic. There is no standard definition of a standard. We actually and literally can’t agree and we can’t all agree to disagree either.
We can talk about fists and noses and reasonable standards and community, WAM are inhibiting free speech – or at least asking Facebook to do the same. We might as well just be blunt about that.
I had, for the record, absolutely no idea that there was a group called “I kill bitches like you” or one called “This is why Indian Girls get Raped” or “Raping a pregnant bitch and telling your friends you had a threesome”. I apparently spend time with people who talk about Monsanto or post photo’s of their kids and pre-school and talk about their new computers. There is literally a photo of a cat at the top of my Facebook feed right now.
When you post that person X should be raped – it’s specific and targeted and it’s a threat. It’s illegal under common law to threaten an individual. We can point to something clear and real and present and that’s why we inhibit your speech. There’s a danger. We stop free speech when it threatens another person with danger.
These photos. Apparently they are meant to be humour and not danger. We can argue they contribute to an atmosphere where women are less valued. It is not direct danger, but it is a statement that you think it’s ok to hurt a group of people based on a specific attribute. But the harm – it’s less clear, less real and less present. So maybe, in absence of direct danger we should simply leave things be. We can agree that humour is a matter of taste and preference.
I can choose not to look. In the way that we all self-censor based on our peer groups, I have managed to be on Facebook for six years and I had no idea this world existed. I suppose that’s another solution to inhibiting free speech. If I don’t like these groups, I don’t have to go there and be offended. I can leave well enough alone. I don’t have to take away your right to free speech, I can simply chose not to listen to you exercise it.
In my pragmatic way, I would almost rather this not be hidden. I would rather know that about you. Maybe we don’t prevent you from posting these images. Maybe we celebrate your right to post these images. We hold you up – your photo’s, your name along with what you post. We make free speech really free, really available. We hold you up to the community you are a part of, the one whose standards you say that you aren’t violating and impinging. We give you your right to free speech.
We enable that society – your peers, your bosses, your teachers, your children and your family to hear your speech. And yes, we enable that community to make up it’s own mind about you.
Because that’s the other side of free speech. You get to say things and I get to make up my mind about you based on those things.
After all, we think that if you want to believe things like this, you are entitled to. And we think that if you truly believe these photos are funny, you can post them and say that you think they are funny. You can say whatever you would like in this mythical world of mine.
You are also entitled to face the consequences too. When you lose your job, when the government intrudes into your family because your community is concerned about the safety of your children, when you are asked to leave a public place, when you are ostracized by your peers – well, you had free speech. You exercised it.
We gave you the right to free speech, you used it to be what our community defines as vulgar and offensive and crass and, well, stupid.
I think stupidity should often be more painful than it is.