Image 20160224 16464 cojqb0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Who really benefits from freedom of speech?

Does freedom of speech benefit any group of society more than another? Shutterstock

Who really benefits from freedom of speech?

We’re seeing a new trend in Australia: retracting visas from figures whose controversial views a segment of the community find objectionable.

As a result of petitioning, Australians have successfully seen figures like Jeff Allen, Troy Newman, and Julien Blanc removed from our shores.

But the hubbub is no less present toward controversial figures who have not applied for visas. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the recent case of Daryush Valizadeh (or Roosh V to his followers).

Valizadeh had organised coordinated meetings (in over 40 countries) advocating “neomasculinism”. This spawned a petition demanding that the police stop this event from occurring in Sydney. The public outcry led Valizadeh to threaten to come to Australia and attend the meeting himself. Getting in would be easy, he said, explaining:

I don’t need to apply for a visa if I’m coming by boat. The border is like Swiss cheese.

However, Valizadeh ultimately canned the events amid death threats.

Why this recent trend in silencing controversial figures? And what about freedom of speech? Isn’t this a dangerous precedent to set if we value democracy, not to mention human rights?

If we’re going to think through these questions, we should be reminded of precisely why these people were targeted.

Good characters?

What do these men have in common? None of them are criminals, but each espouses views which can be largely classified as misogynistic.

Valizadeh essentially advocated for legalising rape (although he later claimed that this argument was satire); Allen gets about in a vehicle he’s nicknamed the “rape van”, while promoting tactics to “deflect last minute resistance” from women in a potential sexual encounter; Newman is an anti-abortion activist who thinks those who perform abortions ought to be executed, and women who obtain them charged with murder; and Blanc advocates “pick-up” tactics such as choking women and pulling them to his crotch.

As it turns out, there are a broad variety of grounds under which a person can be denied a visa to Australia or have their visa revoked. That person might incite discord in the community, they might vilify a segment of the Australian community, they might harass, molest, intimidate or stalk another person, or they simply may not be of good character (among others).

That last ground, especially, might make you uncomfortable. The issue of visa cancellations is typically couched in terms of freedom of speech. Federally, Australia only has an implied right to freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, many Australians recognise the importance of such a freedom. It’s not that the views of Valizadeh, Allen, Blanc and Newman are good; it’s debatable whether they are even political. Still, freedom of speech is a crucial democratic good, one that certainly ought not to be trumped by a desire for “good character” – right?

Who benefits?

This is a legitimate concern. What I’d like to do, though, is point out an often invisible element of the “freedom of speech” defence. Specifically, that hate speech privileges certain social groups, and completely unfettered speech – in the context of the West – has a tendency to privilege men.

It also privileges heterosexuals, able-bodied people, white people, and secular (or moderately Christian) people, among others. And this sustains hierarchies of oppression.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all white, straight, able-bodied, secular and Christian men are bigots. Nor am I saying that non-white people, or people who are queer, Jewish (for example), disabled, and so on, can never have any form of social privilege in relation to their speech.

What I’m saying is that the phenomenon of hate speech cannot escape its social and historical context. To understand the harm of unrestricted speech, we need to understand the workings of inequality in our society today, and (relatedly) have an understanding of the history of subordination and privileging of certain groups.

It helps if we recognise that every person lives an “intersectional” life. By which I mean we are all sexed, we are all gendered, we are all raced, we all have nationalities, we all have moral codes, religious or otherwise, and so on.

And crucially, just as one’s sex, gender, race, etc. can interlock to create a unique experience of social dislocation and oppression, so too can group membership interlock to create a unique experience of social privilege.

Is it a surprise to anyone that Valizadeh, Allen, Blanc, and Newman are also Western, heterosexual, secular/Christian, able-bodied, and almost exclusively white (Valizadeh being the exception)? Is it a surprise that defenders of free speech – even when they disagree with the formal content of such speech – usually also belong to many of these same socially privileged groups?

Getting our house in order

If we are going to take seriously the task of social equality, then we need to acknowledge where inequalities exist in our society. Thanks to an increased feminist presence in the media, and the extraordinary work of former Australian of the year, Rosie Batty, the general Australian public are waking up to the fact that women remain an oppressed group.

But when people start campaigning against women’s right to choose, when they essentially advocate for legalising rape, when they seek to teach methods of coercing women into sex – if equality is our aim – shouldn’t we look not only at the target group, but also the perpetrating group?

Men (in this case), as a group, are privileged in relation to free speech in ways that women, as a group, simply are not. As US lawyer and activist Mari Matsuda put it in her book Words that Wound:

Tolerance of hate speech is not tolerance borne by the community at large. Rather, it is a psychic tax imposed on those least able to pay.

This is not just about “character”. The speech of these men is vilificatory.

Valizadeh, Allen, Blanc and Newman have already reached audiences well beyond the scope of their physical location – practically speaking, they cannot be “silenced”. But at least this action sends a symbolic message to all that the Australian community will have no part in providing a platform for these men to advance their agendas.

Does this eradicate male privilege entirely? Of course not. After all, even our Immigration Minister has shown (albeit to a lesser extent) misogynistic sentiments (recall the text message scandal?).

You might then think: shouldn’t we get our own house in order before we start banning people from our shores?

I don’t think it’s an ultimatum. We should get our house in order and continue to ban misogynists from our shores. Not because they aren’t of good character (although, in my opinion, this is certainly true), but because these figures do, in fact, vilify a very large segment of the Australian community: women.