Freedom of Speech (1): modern-day farce

[Transcript of Podcast created 19 July 2018]

Hello, I’m Betty McLellan for Radical Feminist Reflections.

     Today I’m focusing urgent attention on the principle of Freedom of Speech because freedom of speech as so many people interpret it today is a farce – and that’s deeply disturbing. This noble principle, the intent of which was to give the power of political speech and influence to more than just those who belong to the powerful elite, has become a tool in the hands of those whose only concern, it seems, is to use it for their own individual gain.

     How and why has this precious principle of democracy been turned into such a travesty? That’s the question I want to address today in this, the first of a 3–part series on Free Speech.

     Part II will focus on an issue over which there are differing opinions among radical feminists, and it’s this: Is “no-platforming” an assault on freedom of speech or an acceptable form of democratic protest?

     And Part III will raise the matter of Fair Speech which, I will insist, is a necessary part of the principle of free speech. There I will ask: Is it possible for speech to be free when it is not fair? Is it possible for speech to be free in equal measure for all, when it is not fair?

BUT TODAY – Part I: Freedom of Speech: The modern-day farce.


To begin to answer the question: How has it come to this that freedom of speech has become a tool of the individual seeking to pursue his or her own individual ends? – we need, first, to define freedom of speech.

     What is meant by this term that is so freely bandied about these days? Well, it’s actually broader than “speech”. It’s more “freedom of expression” – the freedom to say and do. For example, the freedom to participate in a protest march (even if you don’t actually say anything) is seen as an exercise of your freedom of speech rights in a democracy. So, it’s the freedom to do and say.

     Then, there’s another point that’s often overlooked:

People who demand their individual right to say and do as they please, refuse to acknowledge the communal aspect of freedom of speech. It was never a principle devised for the benefit of the individual. Rather, John Stuart Mill and other early philosophers spoke of it in social and political terms – to give the working class, the powerless groups in society, a voice so that their concerns could be heard by those in authority.

     An important aspect, then, is what philosopher J L Austin, writing in 1962, illuminated and that is, the effect one’s speech has on others. “To say something is to do something”, he said. So, our right to Freedom of Speech brings with it responsibilities, not the least of which is the responsibility to consider what our speech may do to others, and to ensure that our speech does not harm others.

     Feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Rae Langton reiterate Austin’s point when they talk about “speech acts” – “what we do through what we say”.

     So free speech is not a right of the individual to do and say whatever he or she pleases. It is not absolute freedom. It comes with responsibilities, the most important of which is to do no harm, whether it’s through racial vilification, sexist remarks and behaviour, religious intolerance – whatever. To do no harm.

Now, the issue of freedom of speech is a crucial one for radical feminists, especially as it relates to what we argue is the exploitation of women in industries like pornography, prostitution, advertising and fashion. Taking pornography as an example, not only do many men demand their right to access pornography, arguing that it is a ‘free speech’ issue, but also, it is on this issue that there is sharp division between radical and liberal feminists. Back in the 1980s when Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin presented a civil rights anti-pornography ordinance to the Minneapolis City council, arguing for a total ban on pornography in the name of civil rights, it was a group of liberal women calling themselves the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force who opposed it in court – in the name of free speech.

     Still today, many liberal feminists argue that pornography is a free speech issue and that people have the choice to watch it or not. Also, that individual women have agency and ought to have the choice to participate in its making. We, radical feminists, on the other hand, argue on the basis of harm – that is, free speech is not legitimate if, in its expression, it does harm to anyone. The existence of pornography does harm to women. It disempowers and silences, not only the women who choose to work in the industry, we argue, but all women.  Similarly, racial slurs do harm to all minority racial groups. Religious intolerance, that is, the vilification of Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. does harm to all who identify with those religions. Harmful speech, hate speech (as it’s called) disempowers and silences.

     Why is this happening? Why is there so much hate speech today, dressed up as free speech?

Well, let’s take a broader lens to this whole topic. Let’s look at democracy itself and ask what is happening in so-called democratic countries that has enabled individualism to take the place of communalism – where the focus is on ME rather than on US. There are lots of articles and books being written today lamenting the fact that democracy is dying, and blame is being laid at the feet of the economic philosophy of neoliberalism – and I am inclined to agree. Yes, I know  that many people have predicted the end of democracy since at least the 1930s and that, so far, it hasn’t happened, but if governments continue to be wedded to neoliberalism where the market is all that matters, I don’t think democracy stands a chance of survival. Under neoliberalism, the needs of the people don’t matter much. It’s the market, big business, profit, competition, wealth, greed, individual success and dominance over others. That’s what matters. I ask you: Where is democracy in all that? And knowing that those who have dominance in market terms, those who are wealthier, are infinitely more able to have their voices heard, we have to ask: Where is universal free speech in all that?

     Looking closely at my own country, Australia, I see that while purporting to be a Democracy, our form of government more closely resembles that of an Oligarchy. Instead of rule by the people (which is democracy) we have rule by the few (which is a brief definition of Oligarchy). Government by the few. This is true of the US, the UK, indeed all countries where neoliberalism reigns. Because neoliberalism brings together multi-national corporations and governments to rule over us. It is government, not by the people, but for the people. They govern us and tell us how it will be. A truly powerful Oligarchy.

My first inkling that something was not right was back in the 1990s, though many could trace it further back than that. My awakening came with the attempt on the world stage to bring in what was called the MAI, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. This was an international treaty being negotiated behind closed doors by 29 wealthy countries belonging to the OECD (by governments and big business together, negotiating behind closed doors). The terms are familiar to us now because they’ve been included in every so-called “free” trade agreement since. But back then, it was shocking to contemplate.

     Under the agreement:

. governments would virtually be ruled by large corporations,

. governments’ ability to implement laws in the public interest would first be scrutinised by big business,

. corporations, including foreign-based corporations, would be able to sue governments and demand huge settlements if their business opportunities were impacted by government decisions.

It was like corporations would become the rulers behind the scenes, with elected governments as their compliant puppets!

     And all this was being negotiated without any consultation with the public. Luckily, the draft agreement was leaked to the Internet in 1997 – flushed out of secrecy. Then, the protests began. Activists in Canada were particularly vocal. And the MAI was eventually defeated.

     But, of course, neoliberalism made sure its defeat was not terminal. Since then, we have seen Free Trade agreement after Free Trade agreement, all with a similar intent: to give power to corporations and reduce the power of governments, with virtually no voice for the people. And this, remember, is with the agreement of governments, which is the weird part.  

So began, in my view, the demise of democracy. We see the damage being done around the world, the eroding of human rights, the disregard for ordinary men and women – when corporations and other powerful cashed-up organisations splash their money about.

. The National Rifle Association in the US is a powerful, cashed up organisation. It beggars belief that, because so many politicians receive financial support from the NRA, politicians are prepared to stand by and watch school-children and many others being gunned down – mass murders every week – and do nothing about gun-control.

. Here in Australia, it is now being revealed by a Royal Commission, that Banks and other financial institutions have been ripping people off for years, a fact that many of us suspected but were powerless to stop because successive governments have run a kind of protection racket for fear of losing the support of the big end of town.

     Along with the granting of greater political power to corporations in line with the philosophy of neoliberalism, governments, looking to corporations to inform economic policy-making, have deliberately curbed the capacity of unions to represent workers. Consequently, wages have been stagnant for a long time – except, of course, those of CEOs. Protests and strikes are almost non-existent. And workers just have no option but to accept it.

     It’s so obvious to me that neoliberalism is killing democracy and, with it, freedom of speech, the freedom of ordinary people to have a say in social and political matters – and be listened to.  

Now to focus on freedom of speech and what the rise of neoliberalism

has meant for the speech of women in particular since that’s our agenda here at Radical Feminist Reflections.

     In the feminist movement, we often talk about the gains we’ve made after much agitating over many decades since the beginning of Second Wave feminism. And it’s true that, in Western societies in particular, women have gained a lot more freedom, thanks to the tireless work of feminists. There seems to be general agreement in the community that equality between the sexes has been achieved (or is close to being achieved).

     A closer look, however, reveals that equality is only allowed when it suits the neoliberal agenda. For example, a push for equal educational and employment opportunities for women is encouraged because it suits the economy of the nation to have more and more women in the workforce (though the notion of equal pay still doesn’t seem to be a priority)!

     Governments devoted to the neoliberal economic agenda encourage greater participation of women in this way but turn a blind eye to the gross inequality that exists in industries where women and women’s bodies are exploited for the pleasure of men. Prostitution is encouraged. In fact, it is renamed so that prostitutes can feel that they are engaged in a job like any other. They are now “sex workers”, taking up a ‘business opportunity’, working within the Sex Industry selling their greatest asset – their bodies – to whoever is in the market to buy. Industrialising prostitution, dressing it up as a legitimate and empowering job allows the workers and, indeed, the whole of society to close their eyes to the physical and psychological damage done to women who must see 8, 9, 10 clients a day in order to make enough money to exist on whatever is left over once the pimp has taken his/her share.

     Prostitution, pornography, the sexualisation of women and children by the advertising and fashion industries are all OK in neoliberal terms, because someone is making money and generating business opportunities, and that’s all that matters. The negative effects, short-term and long-term, on the women and children being exploited don’t seem to warrant attention.

One more point: Those who demand the right to exploit women and women’s bodies through such industries, in the name of their right to free speech, are sometimes heard to quote free speech advocates like John Stuart Mill to support their case. But, in doing so, they conveniently omit those parts of Mill’s writing where he said clearly that the only reason an individual’s sovereignty over himself (and back then he was talking about men) – the only reason an individual’s sovereignty over himself should be denied him was “to prevent harm to others” (Mill, On Liberty, p. 72). That’s when free speech must be denied, he said. Because, for free speech to mean anything in democratic terms, it must be for all. It can’t be speech for some at the expense of others.

     So, in relation to those industries that exploit women, when politicians and other individuals pledge their support for absolute freedom of speech in the name of prioritising market opportunities, they are simply refusing to acknowledge the harm caused to women in particular, but also to children, men and relationships.

     And voices to the contrary are silenced. Political parties, including those on the left, as well as the media join with other advocates of prostitution and pornography in support of those industries that exploit women, and ignore all who speak out against it. Even Amnesty International voted a couple of years ago to support the prostitution industry, after silencing their members who were opposed on the grounds of the harm it does to women.

     I say again: For the principle of Freedom of Speech to mean anything, everybody’s speech rights must be protected. Not speech for some at the expense of others. Not the farce we have today where individuals demand the right to say and do whatever they like, regardless of the harm it may do to others.

     Yes, the voices of radical feminists and other human rights activists protesting against sexism, racism, religious intolerance, protesting against the demand for individual free speech rights without the responsibilities that go with that – our voices – are silenced.

     But we will continue to speak until our voices are heard! Free speech must be for all…

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