The Course of Reason

Should All Speech Be Free?

January 15, 2013

The question of free speech at atheist conferences is a tricky one. Lately, there has been a debate over what constitutes acceptable criticism of feminism at conferences. My previous post for CFI discussed the issue of safe spaces for feminists being set up at these conferences. In it, I made a comment about how my views on free speech likely differ from the majority of the atheist community. That is to say that I have some disagreement with the idea that all speech should be free. For a bit of context, I should note that I'm coming at this from a Canadian perspective. Further, I should make it clear at the outset that I'm talking about free speech and restrictions on it from the perspective of private conferences. The following isn't a commentary on government restrictions on speech.

Keep in mind as you read this that none of what I suggest has to occur at every single atheist conference. It will largely be up to the organizers as to what restrictions they want to place on speech, if any at all. The purpose of the conference and the beliefs of the organizers would likely dictate how far each conference goes to establish rules regarding speech. The same thing goes for forums, blogs, and video comment sections. The people running those sites are the ones who get the final say on what is permissible speech. One point that some advocates for free speech miss is that these are private events/places. This isn't the government cracking down on your right to speak, it is another individual (or group) making rules for their place of gathering/discussion. No one is forcing you to go to an event that has rules you disagree with.

My contention with the idea that free speech should be an unquestionable right, that all should be allowed to speak freely with no restrictions, is that I don't buy into the notion that people who engage in oppressive and hateful speech should be allowed to speak. Defense of people who engage in such speech isn't something I want to advocate for. I believe that we can place restrictions on speech without descending into a totalitarian dystopia. Canada has not descended into a hell-hole because of the country's hate speech laws. As a community that wants to approach things critically we should be able to have a conversation over what constitutes hate speech and make reasons for why there is a benefit to restricting such speech. Telling people that they can't use gendered insults or threats of rape doesn't mean we then turn around and say that you can't make a few blasphemous statements.

To use an example that the atheist community can identify with, consider allowing a creationist into a biology class to say that evolution is false. I'd be surprised to find many in this community that would disagree with the suggestion that we do not allow that to happen. The school should actively restrict the ability of the creationist to talk about creationism in the biology class. This is because the aim of a biology class should be to teach biology, not Christian myths.

So how does this apply to safe spaces for feminism in the atheist community? It means keeping out the "trolls". Those who only want to derail the conversation and are more interested in insults and intimidation. Further, this would help to ensure that such safe spaces remain a place to discuss feminism.

Now for some this may come across as an attempt to censor all criticisms of feminism, but this is not the case. Criticism of feminism happens all the time, especially amongst feminists. These are people who all come from different backgrounds and thus have different ideas about how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on. That sort of criticism is fine. Here is where a critical approach comes into play. At what point does the criticism cross the line from being constructive to disruptive? I would argue that it starts with people that simply want to say that feminism is poisoning the atheist movement, who engage in logical fallacies to make their arguments, and goes on to the people that engage in gendered insults and threats of rape and death towards feminists in the community. I believe that restricting this sort of speech should be permissible as it adds nothing of value to the conversation. While I think it's clear, at least to me, that such speech should be restricted. The question of how to deal with the feminism 101 comments is a different matter.

First off, what do I mean by feminism 101 comments? These are the sort of comments that ask the same old questions over and over again. E.g. "What about the men?", "Aren't you just engaging in reverse sexism?", "Does patriarchy really exists?", "I'm not a feminist but I believe in equality for both sexes". Sometimes the person asking the question is innocent enough, they honestly don't know because they've never been involved in such a conversation. However, most of the time this results from someone's refusal to look up "Feminism 101" and find the answers to these questions that have been asked again, and again. The questions become a way to derail the conversation and prevent feminists from moving on to more critical discussions about how they should move forward. The restriction of feminism 101 comments would depend on the nature of the event/conversation. If the purpose is to discuss feminism 101, then allow such comments. If the purpose is to discuss how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on then the feminism 101 comments are likely to be a distraction. They should be discouraged if not actively restricted.

Restrictions on speech should be made where we can agree that the speech causes more harm than good. I do not think it is a loss to the community to keep hateful voices out. Doing so may allow us to get back to conversations that really matter to us.


About the Author: Chris Burke

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Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.




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