“But it’s freedom of speech”

“Do I really want the racist ogres of this country to learn to spread their (to me repugnant) ideas more glibly and effectively than they are doing now? Well: yes. If their communication continues to be as brutal as it is now, it will not take long before I myself am afraid to use some forbidden words in any context (pedohopilia, Islam, Somalis).”

[See original in Finnish. This is fairly Finland-specific, but there might be general ideas here that irritate my American friends, so I translated it.]

As someone who thinks a lot about freedom of speech, and debates about it with people from all ends of spectrum, I recently read an article that really stuck in my mind (Zeynep Tufekci, Technosociology 14.10.2012). It’s a motherlode of ideas, but I will focus on one only.

Among other things, Tufekci analyzes Reddit. The service is famous in the US but less so outside, so I will summarize. Reddit is a discussion forum with multiple subreddits. A core value of Reddit is absolute freedom of speech (only restricting clearly illegal material). This has led to perfectly legal subreddits like “jailbait” and “creepshot”. Here’s Tufekci’s description:

“Children focused “jailbait” forums typically include photos of minors on a beach in splashing around in bathing suits, a youngster practicing gymnastics, students in school with the picture taken from a low-angle, from-the-behind etc. and are peppered with comments about genitals, looks and rape. The more adult-oriented “creepshot” forum typically include non-consensual “upskirt” photos of women’s crotches, breasts, as well private photographs that were shared with boyfriends, exes, being circulated for commentary and leering.”

On the face of it, Tufekci is using a very primitive debate technique: “Think of the children”. Children are being abused, and the “jailbat” reddit must be closed, and everyone who disagrees is a pedophile, end of question.

Actually, she is being far more subtle. She doesn’t call for “jailbait” to be shut down. She asks instead why Reddit specifically feels it needs to host it. Reddit is a large commercial enterprise, and it does not have to tolerate “jailbait” even though it is legally allowed to do so. It is Reddit itself that has decided to make absolute freedom of speech an issue on which it will stand or fall. Why not just close “jailbait” and be rid of it? “But it’s free speech”. Why give perverts an open playground for imagery that they will use for whatever they use it for? “But it’s free speech.”

Tufkeci strongly supports free speech, but has a pragmatic approach. “But it’s free speech” will turn on itself in the end. Freedom of speech is not a gift from above. It is a right that society has given its members, and as such is a right which society can restrict or remove at will. Freedom of speech has to be constantly defended and fought for. But the fight should be intelligent. If the only strategy, when cornered, is to yell “but it’s free speech”, eventually the community will stop listening and will act.

Here in Finland the community has already acted, against “hate speech”. The best-known example is Jussi Halla-aho, a member of Parliament and former chair of the Parliament’s Administration Committee (which deals with immigration issues). The Supreme Court recently gave him a hefty fine for “hate speech” (against immigrants) and  “defaming religion” (specifically Islam). For information in English, see e.g. Yle 8.6.2012.

Halla-Aho is a controversial figure with controversial anti-immigration opinions, to say the least. In response to how he frames his opinions, the Finnish state, usually soft and mild-mannered, has acted. And acted strongly (though not harshly by any international standards).

Finland consistently scores near the top spot for freedom of speech (see e.g. RSF), but there are de facto limits here. Only one opinion on pedophilia is “allowed”: any and all censorship must be accepted if there is even a theoretical chance that it could limit the spread of child pronography (there is in fact a secret Internet blocking list).

Little by little, immigration and especially Islam is becoming equally off-limits: all critical speech is hate speech. Personally, I believe that if one does not like Somalis or Islam, one must be allowed to say it. I do not agree with the position, but it must be possible for anyone to state it publicly, even a political figure, even a member of parliament, even the chair of the Administration Committee.

However. There is no particular reason why that person should be allowed to say it in the harshest possible way, with maximum intent to hurt and insult people. We now have a Supreme Court decision on this, for the case of Halla-Aho. That is the reality.

Thus I want to clarify to myself what the “freedom of speech” is that I want to hold on to. Is it an absolute and inflexible right to say anything to anyone anywhere at any time, no matter how rude or hurtful? This would be a simple and consistent position. Unfortunately, it is far more complex than that.

Even explosive issues must be open to debate. But one has to know when one is in a minefield, and move accordingly. The more provocatively one wants to speak, the more skillful one must be.

At the national level, Halla-Aho’s next steps will have a huge bearing on freedom of speech and critique of immigration/Islam equally.
1) Will he continue on his blunt and uncompromising line, which may well result in what he himself has feared: any and all criticism (especially coming from him) will be automatically branded as hate speech?
2) Will he consider it more important to actually achieve something with his anti-immigration and anti-Islam views, even if he has to scale down the rhetoric significantly?

The first path would be a disaster for everyone, including people like myself who find Halla-Aho’s opinions for the most part repulsive. If there is no room for debate on immigration or Islam, it will be a disaster.  Everything must be open to (civilized) debate. We must be able to ask whether Internet censorship is the wrong way to eliminate pedophilia; or whether Somali males statistically are more likely to engage in rape than the general population, and if so, what should be done about it; or whether Islam is a threat to democracy. But there is no particular reason why we should be able to ask this in the crudest and most offensive way possible.

The second path is disquieting in a different way. Do I really want the racist ogres of this country to learn to spread their (to me repugnant) ideas more glibly and effectively than they are doing now? Well: yes. If their communication continues to be as brutal as it is now, it will not take long before I myself am afraid to use some forbidden words in any context (pedohopilia, Islam, Somalis).

In fact I already feel afraid, just seeing those three words together. Would I be this afraid if the ogres had not done everything they can to make them offensive? I don’t think so.

I agree with Tufekci on this. Coarse, deliberately offensive speech will cause problems for everyone. In the end, it is society (the state) that decides how much yapping it is willing to tolerate. If enough people deliberately and consistently go over that limit, freedom of speech will be taken away from all of us.