Fiction Theory (fiction_theory) wrote,
Fiction Theory

The fiction of "free" speech

I can't help but find this article from The Washington Post by Christopher Fairman, "The Case against Banning the Word Retard" to be a mix of ignorance, obnoxiousness, and privilege waving.

The varied and evolving uses of such words ultimately render self-censorship campaigns unnecessary. And restricting speech of any kind comes with a potential price -- needlessly institutionalized taboos, government censorship or abridged freedom of expression -- that we should be wary of paying.

As a writer, the concept of freedom of speech is near and dear to me. I think of writers in countries who truly do not have the freedom to speak freely - those who face imprisonment, beatings, torture, and execution for the mere act of criticizing their governments or writing fiction that those in power find too provocative, too controversial. I think of the people who could only get their political protests heard beyond Iran's borders through Twitter. I think of those who do not even have that much access to make themselves heard when those in power decide they must bear their burdens in utter silence.

Hearing Mr. Fairman speak as though a campaign to ban a word that has been used to hurt, demean, and further oppress people who are intellectually disabled is in anyway an equivalent to torture and state-sanctioned murder angers me. His example of New Zealand's censorship of the r-word when used to describe Susan Boyle left me rolling my eyes. Currently, America's own mechanisms of censorship already bleep out, record over, or outright ban certain things. The FCC is notorious for what it will and will not allow on TV.

I want to ask what precisely he thinks free speech is.

I have a feeling I know.

Mr. Fairman seems to imagine that free speech means speech with no consequences, speech that cannot be protested by those who find it offensive. Apparently, in his world, people are only free if they are allowed to dole out words in insult without facing disapproval for it.

Yet it is on this word that Fairman stakes a claim to freedom of speech.

In other words, Mr. Fairman's free speech is only free when it is the sole domain of the privileged. A quick google shows that the author of the article is a very well educated, published white male coming out of academia. (ETA (30-Mar-2010): Please see this comment for a correction on this. I have edited this article such that it reflects this statement, but left the original text in crossed out form because I am not interested in denying that I *did* make a mistake.) I make no assumptions about his sexuality, ability, or other attributes.

ETA 2: (30-Mar-2010) Whatever Fairman's personal identities, and I apologize for having gotten them wrong and misrepresented, I absolutely believe it is useful here to examine the interplay of privilege. At the top we have educated white males in the United States. They are the sole group for which there is no slur with the intensity of the n-word or 'retard' or even, as for women, 'bitch' or 'cunt' or 'whore'.

Before anyone brings up the words 'cracker' or 'honky', I would point out that those words lack power in our society. I have never seen 'Honky Go Back To Europe!' spray painted or graffiti'ed over a white person's door. White people certainly have not had the experience of their ancestors being dragged in chains to this country while being called cracker. No one has ever had occasion to say 'let's string up that honky' or 'that cracker looked the wrong way at a black woman!'

There is no word in our language to compare something to the characteristics of a white male in order to demean it. To be a person of color, disabled, female, homosexual, transgender, or even fat is to have a characteristic society disdains and turns into an insult.

The r-word and the n-word are far from extinct, and I don't give a damn what he says about changing words. He misses the point entirely. In asking people to be aware of one word, you create awareness that using the descriptions of groups of people as insults is harmful. This not about telling people, the way my parents' (white) generation did to my grandparents' (white) generation, "The correct term these days is African-American or black, not colored or negroes. Shh! Don't call them that. Say 'black' or 'African-American'!"

This is not about replacing one word with another without changing the underlying mechanisms of privilege.

The reason every word for the intellectually disabled has come to be turned into a slur is because those who are in positions of privilege have flung it around, because they consider the intellectually disabled to be a group so lowly that to be compared with one, even in simile or metaphor, is a dire insult.

The flinging of the word r-word is not done in a vacuum, divorced from the characteristics of the people it was originally intended to describe. When someone says "that's so retarded" or "you're so retarded" - they are basically pointing to society's image of an intellectually disabled person and laughing, ala Nelson Muntz, and saying, "You're so [insert characteristic] that you're like an intellectually disabled person!"

The point of a campaign such as The is to tell society that it is not okay to use intellectually disabled persons as a method of insult, it is not okay to disdain them so much that we point to them when we wish to hurt another person.

It is not, in short, okay to find intellectually disabled people so inferior and unworthy of respect that you freely use them as a comparison for everything you dislike or find also inferior and unworthy of respect.

Mr. Fairman's ideal of free speech has never existed in this country, and never should. It is something any member of an oppressed group speaking about their oppression learns quickly. You are never free from those who voice their disapproval of what you say. Casting that disapproval as a curtailing of rights is Defensive Clueless Person Tactic #3 out of the "How To Keep Being Privileged" playbook.

Those who find themselves in power often want to paint themselves as victims or potential victims of oppressed groups who dare to demand respect, equality, and fair play.

So, if a campaign like the R-Word seeks to level the playing field, I support them utterly and will take the pledge. If groups of oppressed people tell society at large they will face scrutiny and protest privileged folks use their words and identities as insults, more power to them. That's how it should be.

Yes, you may say what you like in this country without fear of governmental reprisals. Use the r-word or n-word if you like. You won't go to jail for it, you won't be tortured, you won't be executed. But you will hear angry protests, you will get dirty looks, you will learn that others do not approve of your behavior, that they will exercise their right to free speech in telling you that using those words is unacceptable. They will show you this by not accepting it, by speaking out against it.

ETA 3(30-Mar-2010) The Christopher Fairmans People of the world may find themselves having to re-order their thinking. They may have to stop pointing to gay people, persons with disabilities, women, and people of color when they want to describe something as bad. And thus, they may have to stop thinking of these people as bad.

I've had this argument before, but I stand by my principles. Language is always, always, always reflective. We say what we are thinking. If we use the r-word negatively it is because we think of intellectually disabled persons negatively. Do not for a moment think that someone who says the phrase "that's so gay" and then adds, "But I don't think badly about homosexual people" is not a liar and a hypocrite. If you use "gay" as an insult, you are thinking badly about gay people. If you point to that identity as a means to tear down another person, you are thinking and treating both parties badly and I refuse to buy into your sorry defense.

In asking people not to use such word and phrases, we are asking for them to respect those persons enough to change their behavior. We are asking that they stop thinking of intellectually disabled persons or gay people negatively in the first place. This isn't about coming up with a better word, it's about coming up with a better attitude.

Fairman may be right that any word we use to describe intellectually disabled persons will be appropriated as an insult - but he is wrong that the R-Word campaign is the wrong way to combat this. If all labels and words and terms for such persons become insults then we must, if we want to become a better society, draw the line here and say, "We're not just going to teach you that this word is bad, we're going to teach you that this attitude is bad."

Teaching those who don't understand the underlying attitude new words is just giving them better camouflage. Just like teaching the language of anti-racism to clueless people just makes it easier for them to hide their cluelessness and privileged thinking until it explodes in someone else's face.

I do not at all mourn for the ETA 4:(30-Mar-2010)Fairmans privileged people of the world finding that their frictionless speech is no longer frictionless, that it now comes with the consequences and backlash that all hurtful speech is heir to. The privileged are still as free as they ever were, but as campaigns like this progress, the rest of us will become freer as well. And safer. And more respected. And less oppressed.
Tags: ablism, links, race, rants

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