The OF Blog: A few thoughts on "free speech" in relation to social protests and boycotts

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A few thoughts on "free speech" in relation to social protests and boycotts

As a former civics/US government teacher, it pains me to see arguments such as this recent one on the Westeros message board.   More and more I encounter arguments that when someone calls for social protest, often in the form of not purchasing something tied to the perceived offender, that these calls are somehow "chilling to free speech."  I read through and while almost invariably such complaints about "censorship" devolve into a justification for that particular person behaving in a fashion that s/he wants, I think there is something larger here that should be considered the next time (almost always there is a "next time") such an argument is made.

Accepting the premise that "speech" involves certain actions in addition to printed and verbal words, one has to consider the range that "free speech" allows.  Leaving aside the Supreme Court-specified exceptions ("fighting words," libel/slander, treasonous speech, certain statements/actions by those under age), the notion of "free speech" is not something inalienable in its application, but rather an agreement that opportunities must be provided (within above-listed bounds) for the "speech" to occur.  This viewpoint takes into consideration that one individual or group's "speech" may be in conflict with another's.

Not all world-views are made equal.  The Flat Earth belief, for example, has been thoroughly discredited (not least by Magellan's fleet sailing around the globe), yet there are still those who advocate such a view.  They have the opportunity to start their own blogs, to talk about it on UseNet, chat on the phone with like-minded fellows, or buy TV ad space to proclaim such views.  Nevermind that 99% of the world's population would look at them with bewilderment; they can express their views and try to persuade others, but the overwhelming numbers of those who oppose those views make their opinions not worth debating in a public forum. 

Ideas, and "speech" springs from them, are not immune from competition.  Ideas have to be challenged in order to be transmitted to more people and some notions come into vogue before fading into obscurity due to changing social climes.  It is not "censorship" when one group of people challenge the bases of another group's ideologies.  As long as the other group has the opportunity to disseminate their ideas, then it is not a "suppression" of "speech."  But often one ideology will gain the ascendency over another and their views will dominate the discourse.  Sometimes this occurs without governmental interference and sometimes it does not, but in the case of the former, this is but merely the triumph in a social forum of one set of views over another.  One example of this could be the ongoing American debate about "gay marriage" or "marriage equality" (the choice of moniker to frame the debate serves to crystallize sides).  Each side used door-to-door campaigning, advertisements, and public referendums in their battles to see their views expressed.

Sometimes, these battles extend into economic matters, as adherents to one view do not want to see some of their capital expended to support antithetical world-views.  I remember a couple of years ago when the founder of Chick-fil-a expressed publicly his conservative views regarding what constituted marriage.  There were calls for boycotts of the fast food chain and many decided to cast their opposition to his views in a symbolic and yet very real (in economic terms) fashion by not spending their money in his stores.  Yet there was also a counter-protest in support of the owner/stores and on an agreed-upon day, record lines were seen for people buying fast food there.  Each side had an opportunity to express their "speech" without any "suppression" of the dissenting view.  This is the thing that is too often overlooked in boycott/free speech "suppression" issues:  there is always an opportunity for those who oppose certain social protests/boycotts to do a counter-organizing to establish a public show of support for the idea under protest.

In regards to the specific matter being debated in the link, I think Orson Scott Card's social views to be reprehensible.  I have never read any of his novels (only a couple of shorter fiction pieces back in the 1990s; not enough to persuade me to read more) and I have no desire to see the cinema version of Ender's Game.  I am OK with the calls for boycotts because those are an expression of "speech" with which I can identify and while I would look askance if there was a counter-protest of people organizing to get more people to see the movie precisely because of Card's public support of anti-GLBT organizations, I wouldn't want for that hypothetical counter-protest to be stifled.  Instead, I would argue vehemently against such a group and try by presentation of ideas to persuade others that the views that I possess are the better.  That is not a "suppression" of "speech" but instead a triumph of one ideology over another (at least until a viable counter-argument can be presented).  It is a notion as deeply rooted in the "free market" of competition as it is in the Hegelian thesis-antithesis=synthesis theory of socio-political interaction.  If only some would keep this in mind when they argue about "free speech" in the future...


Eric Rhoads said...

Nice post and well put.

The Westeros post you linked was rather odd with the idea that personal boycotts are fine, but organized boycotts are chilling to speech.

The only thing in the OSC debate thus far I disagree with are the calls to blacklist his work.

bibliotropic said...

That's the fun part about free speech. It goes both ways. And more often than not, one side or the other seems incapable of recognizing that.

I think that Card's views are rather disgusting and I refuse to support him. That being said, he does have the right to have those opinions and to talk about them. To a degree. There comes a point where stating your opinion breaks through into hate speech. When you start advocating harm to a person or persons, you throw away your right to hide behind the freedom of speech laws.

You're definitely right that so long as both sides (or rather, all sides, since there may be more than 2 sides to a debate) can stand up and make their points, then at least there, the ability to speak freely is being upheld.

Ugh, this is a slipperly slope. On one hand, I'd dearly love to shove something smelly and disgusting in the faces of people who have advocated that my friends (and to a degree, myself) should be treated as subhuman. On the other hand, I have to concede that they do have the right to think that way, and no matter how many horrible things I throw at them, it won't change their minds. It might make me feel better, but what does it do in the long run? Far better, I think, to do as people have been doing, and showing their opinion by organizing boycotts and protests, by having their voices heard.

Bryce L. said...

Studying for the bar, I've had the chance to brush up on my First Amendment and I think you're exactly right. Speech and counterspeech is what we're talking about and "chilling" isn't even in the same ballpark. Chilling speech is when the government tells you to report the names of members of your group and it stops people from joining up and that's unconstitutional (just reviewed that example today in fact). If anything the boycott creates more speech.

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