Is the right to free speech threatened?

The answer is yes, but it is not threatened by who you might think it is.

Racist or bigoted claims are simplistic, over-generalizing, and lacking in nuance or subtlety. They unfairly paint large swaths of the population as being at fault for something more reasonably blamed on individuals or other causal factors. For example, some of the discourse around Islam in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack can be characterized in this way, as can some of the views of many fundamentalist Muslims towards the West. But increasingly the accusation of racism or bigotry is taken to be an imposition on one’s right to hold and express an opinion. It is an argument – created and proliferated by conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly who condemn political correctness, but now making its way into certain kinds of liberal discourse – that portrays those who victimize others as the real victims simply because they are unable to make simplistic claims without being criticized for it.

If someone calls your claim “racist” or “bigoted” that does not impinge on your right to free speech – it means you have said something stupid and you have three choices: 1) retract your claim, 2) provide more nuance to explain why it is not racist and/or bigoted, or 3) acknowledge and accept the fact that your claim is racist and/or bigoted and attempt to explain why your particular form of racism or bigotry is justified. In other words, it is a way of extending the conversation and enabling further discourse. If, instead of doing one of those three things, you claim that your right to free speech is being attacked, then what you are effectively saying is that others do not have the right to criticize you – that you are above critique. In other words, you are misusing the notion of “free speech” to shut down debate and close off discourse, and that is the real threat to free speech. In a society in which we are guaranteed the right to free speech, we not are guaranteed the right to make stupid claims without being criticized.

After Charlie Hebdo

If I was home, I would pull a quote from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life or Frames of War as a preface to this post. But I am traveling at the moment, so I don’t have those books on hand. I would encourage anyone taking an interest in the current discourse around Charlie Hebdo to take a look at those two books.

Tragic as the Charlie Hebdo attacks are, I think they – as with any extreme event – provide us with an opportunity. If we can overcome the urge to condemn others, and recognize that these attacks are symptoms (borrowing the concept from Arran) of a dysfunctional relationship, then, maybe, we can begin to build a world in which we can all coexist. My concern is that, in our zeal to criticize, blame, and condemn Islam for these attacks, we will miss the overarching relational problems that underlie them. Instead of working together to fix those problems – in which all parties must accept some responsibility for change – we will retreat to our corners and make the entire situation worse.

We have all failed so far. We have had many of these opportunities in the past, and we have failed in every instance. We are all Charlie Hebdo, but, because we failed all those times before, we are all also complicit in the deaths of those journalists. I am afraid that, given the discourse that has emerged around these attacks, we are failing once again and that this will not be the last of these tragic opportunities.

A Reminder for 2015

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“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.”

-Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

There is no ground. Everything you know is at best partial, and probably entirely wrong. You are not what or who you think you are, and the world refuses to fit your image of it. Nothing that is ever had to be, and could always have been otherwise. Nobody can know what the future will look like and there is nothing inevitable about where we are headed.

What do we do now? Let us forget our ideologies, forget what we think we know, and start fresh. Every moment (not just a new year) is a new beginning. Let us look around this vastly empty landscape, see what’s left, what we might salvage. Finally, let us struggle together to build something wonderful out of the ruins and the ashes. That’s what life is, what it has always done.