Free Speech, Civil Discourse and Your Right to Bullshit

Recently, the primary author of this blog was attacked through several social media platforms and e-mail for voicing her thoughts and opinions about the #MeToo movement and especially some news in her local community. Following that, guest blogger Edward Stanley submitted this:

Free Speech, Civil Discourse and Your Right to Bullshit

Hi. If you’re here, you might be a bit hazy on the concepts of free speech and civil discourse, or perhaps you’ve been referred here by someone else who thinks you are. If so, that’s OK. These are concepts that many people think they understand and surprisingly few actually do.

Let’s dive right in, and start with what free speech actually means, rather than what many people think it should mean.

Here’s what free speech means: “the government is not allowed to silence me.”

Here’s what free speech does not mean: “Other people have to listen to my thoughts and opinions, they have to use their own resources to share them with other people if I want them to, and I must remain free of any and all consequences of what I say no matter how offensive, awful, or plain wrong others find it to be.”

But don’t take my word for it. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression… subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

It also states, very clearly, that “this Charter applies (a) to the Parliament and government of Canada in respect of all matters within the authority of Parliament including all matters relating to the Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories; and (b) to the legislature and government of each province in respect of all matters within the authority of the legislature of each province.”

(If you’re American, the same thing applies: the Bill of Rights states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Congress.)

The Charter applies to the federal and provincial governments. The right to free speech means that the government is not permitted to infringe upon your freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression. If you are attempting to apply that principle to private citizens, you do not understand the law. It is as equally valid to say that the person you’re speaking to has to provide you with a minority language education (because the government does, and it’s written in the same document).

So, unless the person you’re talking to represents the federal, provincial, or territorial government and is acting in their official capacity, it doesn’t apply to them. You don’t have a right to free speech in conversation with citizens, and thus, you can’t complain that it’s being infringed – because it doesn’t exist. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in no way obligates any private citizen to listen to anything you have to say.

Moreover, no private citizen has to give you a platform. They are not obliged to print, broadcast, or in any way repeat your opinions, no matter how great you think they are. If you send an op-ed piece to a newspaper, they are perfectly within their rights to refuse to print it. Your web hosting company is absolutely allowed to take your page down. Twitter is entitled to delete your account and all your tweets. Your friend can totally delete your offensive tirade from their Facebook wall. None of these are government entities, and thus, the Charter does not bind them to respect your right to free expression. They don’t even need to give you a reason. “No” can be a complete sentence.

Free speech also doesn’t mean consequence-free speech. The government is not allowed to punish you for speaking your mind. Anyone else, though? Totally fair game. The Charter (and the Constitution) only apply to the state. You made a racist tweet and your employer fired you? Too bad, they can do that. The government didn’t stop you making that tweet, so your right to free speech is completely uninfringed. You see, the Charter also guarantees freedom of association. That means, when your employer says “I don’t want to associate with this racist by employing him anymore,” the government can’t infringe upon their freedom of association by making them reverse their decision or forcing them to compensate you. Similarly, when people around you call you a racist piece of shit, or start doing their impressions of the man with the silly moustache, the government cannot infringe upon their freedom of speech either. They’re free to do it.

On that note, let’s talk about civil discourse. This means a polite discussion (and when formal rules apply, we call it a debate) intended to arrive at the truth by means of measuring competing ideas against one another, and in order to ensure it is the ideas themselves being measured, it must be done without personal attacks, without diminishing the other person’s worth, questioning their intelligence or their judgement, casting doubts about their character, and so forth. It doesn’t mean “not using swear words.”

I can say, “Well, sir, I have considered what you have said, but many have told me that you are rather lacking in intelligence and that your education was substandard at best. I am also aware that you are frequently drunk, that you might even be drunk right now, and that you enjoy the company of thieves and hoodlums, but then, what is one to expect given your parentage? I therefore question what merit could be found in any argument from a person of low character such as yourself.”

I was very polite, and very well-spoken. I also implied that you are stupid and poorly-educated, I insinuated that you are a drunkard who hangs out with criminals, and I insulted your family. Is this civil discourse? No, absolutely it is not. I’m being well-spoken and using soft language, but there’s no mistaking the fact that I’m being openly insulting and that I’m showing you a profound lack of respect.

“But I would never say anything like that,” you might say. “I know an ad hominem attack when I see one!”

Do you, though? Here are some things I have actually heard in so-called “civil discourse:”

  1. We should consider that there might be something genetic that predisposes black people to violence, which would explain why they are over-represented in prison populations.

  2. Muslim culture is, at its core, violent and profoundly disrespectful to women.

  3. There are many reasons why women make false allegations of sexual assault; many do it just for fame and fortune.

The first is racist and profoundly insulting to all black people. The speaker has stated that black people are inherently violent, possessed of an inferior genetic makeup, and are also prisoners of that genetic makeup with neither willpower nor self-actualization, acting like animals. To a black person, this is both prejudiced and personally insulting.

The second is Islamophobic and implies that any Muslim must be violent and misogynistic, or else not a “true” Muslim. It is personally insulting to anyone of the Islamic faith. It further implies that Muslim women are inherently victims and hostages to the men in their lives.

The third implies that people who suffer sexual assault may be liars, and impugns them as having very base motives, inasmuch as at least some who allege a sexual assault might be motivated by nothing more than greed. If you are the victim of a sexual assault, this is personally insulting and an attack on your character.

None of these are “civil discourse.” They are merely ad-hominem attacks thinly disguised as such.

You might say that all of these are generalizations and that a black person, or a Muslim, or a sexual assault victim might be excused from them. But does the speaker really know that? If they say “oh, I didn’t mean you,” do they have a basis for excluding you from their own sweeping statement? Or are they really saying, “you could be one of the ‘good ones,’ but then, you could also not?”

Does this mean you cannot make statements or ask questions like these? Of course not. But – see above – it means the person you’re talking to can say “fuck you” and walk away, and they have not violated your free speech because you don’t have a right to it, and they have not broken the rules of civil discourse, because you broke them first.

So, to recap:

  1. Only the government is legally obliged to let you speak

  2. Nobody else has to listen to you

  3. Nobody else has to give you a platform

  4. What you say has consequences, and the law doesn’t protect you from any that aren’t actual crimes in and of themselves

  5. It’s possible to be very polite and well-spoken and still violate the norms of civil discourse

Govern yourself accordingly.

One thought on “Free Speech, Civil Discourse and Your Right to Bullshit

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