Is freedom of speech and expression really free?

In countries like the US and Canada, Halloween just passed and in recent years, there has been one argument that has dominated all social media feeds in the months leading up to and during Halloween. It usually goes something like this:

Person 1: *Posts picture of Halloween costume that is a play on a culture or cultural stereotype. For example:

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Person 2: “You shouldn’t wear that. It’s offensive to people of [insert culture here]”

Person 1: “I’m not wearing it to offend anyone. I don’t know why you’re getting offended. I think it’s showing my appreciation of the culture. People are too sensitive these days.”

Person 2: “It’s based on stereotypes so you shouldn’t wear it. You’re going to offend someone”

Person 1: “I have a right to wear what I want. If someone is offended, that has nothing to do with me.”

I’m sure we’ve all seen these conversations of Facebook before and typically the argument is split two ways. It’s either people are too sensitive or people are being racist. I personally think both sides of the argument are wrong but there is some truth to what they say.

In today’s growing PC culture, I’ve watched people’s ability to have disagreements in a civil way diminish to nothingness. Never has there been a time in history where the rediscovery of human connection and the art of conversation was desperately needed. Social media has so much to do with this but I also believe the failing education system is the root cause (I’ll save that for another post). I recently got into one of these conversations about halloween costumes and cultural appropriation with a Facebook friend. He was of the belief that costumes like the one pictured above are harmless, and that people blow it way out of proportion when they voice their opposition.

He shared a picture and asked people for their opinion. I think this was great because it opened up the floor to conversation in a way that I typically don’t see. A contrast to the typical inflammatory or reactionary post on the topic, it was a genuine curiosity about others perspectives. As a lover of intelligent discourse, I shared my perspective.

  1. Majority of the costumes that are deemed controversial are based off of stereotypes or Westernized perceptions of native cultures.
  2. Defending a decision to wear such a costume by saying you are genuinely interested or “think it’s cool” is a bit of a cop-out. You rarely see these people taking an interest in these cultures on any other day of the year. Besides if you genuinely are interested, you’d realize the costumes are inauthentic/stereotyped and would probably not wear them.
  3. People have a right to wear what they please, but they should acknowledge that others have a right to let them know if what they are wearing is problematic.
  4. If you’re going to wear the costume, get it right. Don’t wear a Kimono and say you’re a Geisha. No you’re not. You’re a person wearing a kimono. A Geisha is something of cultural relevance. Wear costumes not identities.
  5. It’s not a black and white issue. Intention certainly matters but in many situations, the impact it has will outweigh your good intentions.
  6. It’s especially problematic if you come from a place of privilege because you are adopting an identity for just one day, when people of that identity have been historically and systematically oppressed by people who share your privilege, and they live that reality every day. You’re basically slapping them with a history of oppression.
  7. There’s a fine line between admiration of beauty, and irreverence in certain situations and people who choose to cross into that territory should know that there is the possibility to land on the wrong side of that line.

Immediately I was confronted with the usual arguments about how people who are too sensitive and offended by everything are encroaching of freedom of speech and expression. What surprised them was that I agreed with them. Shocked? Let me explain.

I don’t believe the answer to this constant argument is people steering clear of wearing any potential costumes that might offend someone. The reality is that no matter what, people will be offended by something. Also capitalism and consumerism will ensure that these costumes stay on shelves. A more holistic approach would be a change of tactic to dialogue. Making mistakes is a tried and true method of learning. When people wear potentially offensive costumes, it’s an opportunity to educate. They should be willing to have a conversation about it without being blindly defensive. It takes less effort to listen than it does to speak. Equally, people who are offended should also be willing to have conversation without vilifying. One person who has learned has the potential of educating more people. This means at least one less person buying these costumes.

The number one rebuttal from people about the costume is the Freedom of Speech argument. I’m all for free speech, but if your free speech negatively affects others, then you should be ready to have a conversation about why. Untempered free speech (do not read as censorship) is not a good thing. If you believe your free speech should be defended at the expense of others, that’s a very individualistic notion. And the world is a messed up place because of individualism. The rise of Nazism is a classic example in history of the effect of so-called “free speech” by way of propaganda. But is free speech really free if someone else has to pay for it? In hoc casu

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1938 Anti-Semitic Nazi Leaflet. What picture does this paint about who a Jew is to the common working person?

Many would say that Hitler used censorship to promote his cause after he got into power, so he shouldn’t be used as an example of free speech gone awry. While that is partially true, it is undeniable that Nazi propaganda and the education of Hitler Youth with false truths about “the greatness of the Aryan race” contributed to widespread discrimination, freedom of anti-semitic rhetoric and acceptance of the brutalities of SS Regime.

An example closer to home is the now infamous Donald Trump. His rise to the presidential ticket is eerily reminiscent of Hilter’s rise as the leader who is “for the people” and will overthrow the current government to give us back our rights and “Make Germany Great Again.” Trump supporters talk a lot about free speech but the rhetoric they spill is very dangerous and comes at the expense of “the other”. Here’s a video that sums up quite succinctly the rise of Hitler. Notice any similarities?

How’s that for the power of untempered freedom of expression and the promotion/support of problematic free speech?

This is in no way an argument for Political Correctness. For people that know me well, I’m not a huge fan of PC because the way it has been executed recently does have the potential to hinder free exchange of thought and promote a culture of avoidance. From my experience some of the most vocal proponents of PC culture come at it from a “shut it down” perspective and not “let’s talk about it”. However the boy that cried “first amendment” usually does so to shut down the responses of the people they offended. That doesn’t come from a place of actually wanting to understand. It comes from a place of people wanting to defend their actions at all costs. Your right to freedom of expression should not take away from another’s freedom of speech.

So I say, give people the freedom they want to potentially offend and equally the freedom to express their disdain. But also teach them how to have constructive dialogue when these perspectives clash. Only through conversation and not avoidance do we truly get to see the other side.

Oh how I miss the days of the great debates.

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