Freedom of speech, our First Amendment, is a vital part of the U.S. Constitution. But lately, particularly among the right, it has been used as a protective aura around their hate-filled rhetoric. To fully understand we need to look at a) what the First Amendment is, b) the difference between hate speech & freedom of speech and c) where freedom of speech should/shouldn’t be applied.
The Constitution of the United States’s First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This clearly states that Congress has no right to restrict an individual, group or the media’s freedom of speech. Meaning we are “entitled to our opinion” as concerns the government, which is not allowed to hinder our ability to voice dissent.
Nevertheless, as vital as this constitutional amendment is for a “democratic society”, this protection is being incorrectly utilized to protect people and groups that do not and should not fall under it.
Hate Speech Vs. Free Speech
One reason few look at the alt-right’s malignant verbiage as freedom of speech is because it is “hate speech”. One definition of hate speech found online is —
abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, as with the case with how racism is defined, this definition is too broad. Firstly, — like the current definition of racism which implies that any group can be a victim — it doesn’t take into account power dynamics in the society (dominant societal group vs. other).
“Abusive” and “threatening” are terms that leaves room for subjectivity, which is why power dynamics should always be incorporated in a determination as should justifiable rage/hate versus bigoted rage/hate.
A Indigenous women who says she hopes a white woman chokes on a turkey bone is less of a threat than a white man who says they hope she’s gunned down. One has the rage and pain of centuries of inhumane treatment that still occurs today, while the other is a racist, shrouding said racism in “palatable” terms like “patriotic” and “America first” and “urban crime”.
Which is the real threat? Which person’s anger and pain comes from a place of seeing their people murdered, beaten, subjugated, discriminated against for centuries? Which person uses racial stereotype, is part of the “power” group which increases the likelihood that they (or someone like them) will complete the task while facing little to no consequences— to justify targeting “other” groups? Which is likely a gun owner?
This is why speech from the dominant group, that strips human rights away from BIPOC, LGBTQIA, the disabled, and women are, and should be, considered a higher threat and, therefore, hate speech. It doesn’t have to include a slur to be hate speech. Telling someone sweetly that you hope their locked up for their sexuality, or that their children are caged like animals, is hate speech, with or without a slur attached.
Social Media and Hate Speech
At the time the Constitution was crafted no one could’ve foreseen the global spread of social media.
Thanks to this advent, we have access to perspectives from a motley array of people all over the world, giving anyone a soapbox from which to expound. This leads to both positive and negative experiences.
One negative is that people, who typically spew hate among like-minded friends or regale subway riders with their toxic beliefs, now have the ability to organize and mobilize with others of their flock to spread their views to anyone online, young or old.
Regardless this “freedom” only covers the government stifling our voices, and while hate speech, particularly from the dominant group (white patriarchy) should be prohibited that will likely not happen anytime soon. It is more likely that any restrictions on freedom of speech will be applied to “other” groups because the dominant group (white patriarchy) and the ruling group are the same. The alt-right is filled with white people espousing the need to limit civil rights, women’s rights and LGBTQIA rights and they are not about to pass laws that would inhibit their ability to maintain their positions.
However, this doesn’t mean they can avoid taking responsibility for their hate. The people on social media as well as the owners of these sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube) can take steps to eliminate people from platforms that propagate hatred against marginalized groups.
The reason enough isn’t being done is because:
- The person/s in charge of these sites are typically from the dominant group
- They separate marginalized groups rights from human rights.
Like previously stated, if the people making the decisions are from the white patriarchy or opt to perpetuate whiteness, there is little to no chance they will limit their own’s reach.
More importantly — thanks to whiteness, Christianity and politics — they view rights for LGBTQIA, BIPOC and women as “debatable”. These are talking points to energize a candidate or political group’s base rather than inalienable human rights. They feel that rights outside of cis, heterosexual, white and male are topics that should be discussed but not “necessarily agreed upon”.
Once they understand that taking away a person’s autonomy based on gender or gender nonconforming, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion or lack thereof is an assault on human rights they will realize that even a person stating in a video that “transgender should not be allowed to change their gender or even exist” is both a threat and violation and react accordingly.
Eliminating their soapbox is not an attack on freedom of speech. It’s a human rights stance.
It’s up to these sites and us using them to force accountability and to bear in mind that hate that stems from marginalization is not the same as hate that comes from ignorance. One is based off years of experience, the other is based on racism and propaganda. You cannot have a society that continually treats a group as less than in all areas, targets and shames them, leaves them feeling helpless and impotent, then feign horror when they voice hate towards you.
Their pain comes from experience. Yours does not.