by SD Campbell
In this piece, I seek to rebut the growing chorus on consequence free speech.
I don’t like doing this. I really dread it in fact. Not because I fear it, but because I never imagined that I would have to talk about this.
Over the past few weeks, and months even, there has been increasing discussion of freedom of speech. And no matter the side talking about it, everyone is convinced that freedom of speech is under threat from the other side. From the Others. And everyone continues to assure anyone that will listen that they really know what freedom of speech is.
But there is a problem. A terrible, cancerous problem in philosophists pontificating the demise of free speech. And it only grows worse with every article I read.
The problem is that they do not propose free speech. Instead, they argue for consequence free speech with gilded words that hide, even from themselves, what they ask for. And what they argue for, when laid in its barest self, is for words to mean nothing.
If someone says something incendiary, and others tell that person to shut up, that is not a violation of free speech. The person can say, can think, whatever they want. They can continue to espouse whatever they want to. Their voice isn’t silenced.
But if someone says something incendiary, and everyone believes that telling them to shut up would violate the inciter’s platform, then whatever they said is irrelevant. It no longer matter what they say, in any regard. Because people stopped listening.
We are writers. Words mean things. And none of us should argue that they shouldn’t. Our tools are language and communication, whether we are novelists or journalists or poets or screenwriters or playwrights.
We all strive to be heard with our words. And to pretend that our words can’t offend or upset or scar is to also claim that our words can’t bring joy or triumph or fulfillment. And not just our words. All words.
Words are important. They are the foundation of language. And to suggest, even unintentionally, that we can somehow have communication among ourselves without our language having any meaning is insulting to the highest degree. It’s suggesting a nihilistic condition of nothingness. And it invalidates the work that we as writers all strive toward.
All of this isn’t to say that there can’t be spirited debate over the nature and limitations of free expression. There absolutely can be. But saying that, for instance, a racial or religious supremacist's speech on the virtue of racial or religious supremacy cannot be protested because that violates free speech is insanity.
We cannot fall down the road of encouraging words to lose their meaning. Every time we say to someone anything that invalidates their reaction to something we said, we take a step closer to losing out ability to communicate. We lose a bit more of our large reserve of tools.
And in the end, if we lose all our tools, what did any of them mean? Sure, new ones might come, but all the ones before are just lost forever. And that leaves all of our work lesser.