Very loud, very quiet: free speech, privilege and authority

Lately there has been quite a lot of discussion of limiting free speech. In America, there have been campus protests about offensive speech that has been historically acceptable as well as movements that try to enforce rules against micro-aggressions and trigger events. The Atlantic had a good article on the latter point which somehow confabulates mental health and speech.

All of this occurring at the same time as governments want more powers to monitor private conversations in case of terrorism.

What I wonder about is whether the long term belief in free speech meant what some people thought it did.

When free speech was championed, publication and the ability to disseminate messages was tightly controlled either by direct government regulation or, more often, the economics of printing and delivering books and magazine.

Free speech was privileged

With the internet, that core control was lost. The government, the publishers, the academics and the journalists were not the only voices able to speak up widely and strongly.

The unprivileged, the unheard, the unspoken had access to free speech.

Somehow this has broken the ideal.

Organisations who talk of free speech are horrified by its application by some groups.

More particularly, organisations who have casually protected and allowed offensive speech as free speech are shocked by mass movements that do not see why those opinions and their underlying concepts of oppression and violence need to continue.

Free speech advocates have always spoken of the limits of such speech. The “shouting Fire! in a crowded theatre” rule of speech as causing distress is one. However, these rules do not pay attention to established speech and publications that no one had the ability to complain about before.

Just because academia or the main stream media have accepted some books, some statements and some authors as right and proper does not make that true for all people now.

The arguments against embedded aggression in historic speech and in current privileged discussions are framed as complaints, as insults to the whole culture, as petty.

They are not. They are not infantile. They are not mental aberrations.

It is a very uncomfortable time for many people who thought they were liberal and conservative supporters of free speech as the discussion now includes people who never had a voice that was loud enough or privileged enough to be listened to.

What seems like an overreaction now (again, how words exclude and belittle new entrants to a public discourse)is bundled with years of being forced to be quiet, to be ignored.

Will microaggressions and trigger warnings live on, will campus protests continue? For some years, yes. Yet this is part of the regular rebalancing of public discourse. The scale is vaster than before because there are more ways that people can bring their speech into the public realm.

This is the world we live in now. Free speech and what it means to both people in power and without power is open to discussion. We should embrace that.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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