The big news of the day seems to be the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and what has erupted is a big hullabaloo about free speech, and how it is necessary and super awesome and how all the cool kids have it. However, there is a catch: it is a packaged deal that allows terrible people to espouse their terrible opinions.

America is the prime example of this. America is a country that allows a certain crazy-as-fuck family to protest the funerals of soldiers, not because they’re against war, but because they believe that God is punishing America for not murdering all the gay people. The belief is that if we disallow people to say crazy, offensive and oppressive shit, all of a sudden we won’t be able to say bad things about the government and we will literally become Stalinist Russia.

In Canada, however, we have hate speech laws that forbid certain aspects of speech. For example, that crazy-as-fuck family is not allowed into our country. We also can’t spray-paint swastikas on synagogues for reasons other than trespassing or defacing private property. The idea behind hate speech laws is that when people engage in hate speech, it propagandizes that belief, normalizes it, and either incites violence or fosters apathy towards other violence that might be going on elsewhere. For example, if you were exposed to the open and unquestioned public ridicule of Islam, you might be more apathetic to the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Think of it like anti-bullying. It would be like if the suicide of Amanda Todd went unpunished, as the man who harassed her was merely expressing his freedom of speech. Or if sexual harassment laws were merely suggestions rather than the rule.

Anwar al-Awlaki is an American who quite voraciously engaged in hate speech against the USA. He was a normal, everyday Imam that was actually interviewed as a moderate Muslim after the 9/11 attacks on the WTC, but became disenfranchised with the West, to say the least, and went over to join Al-Qaeda. Anwar al-Awlaki’s main function was to serve as an English-speaking mouthpiece for the organization, and he espoused all sorts of terrible things: saying America sucked and deserved bad things to happen to it, this and that, you know, regular terrorist-y type stuff. The US, recognizing the power of hate speech, sent al-Awlaki a firm cease and desist order via the courts to put an end to his widespread hate-mongering. This surprised the world because America is so firm on its beliefs in regards to freedom of speech, and to impinge on someone’s right to vocalize their hatred goes dead-against those beliefs.

Of course I am kidding. America straight-up murdered Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, and then drone-striked his teenage son. They’re dead now. They didn’t get a trial.

So it seems that America doesn’t really love its free speech as much as it might think. Even outside of the extrajudicial assassination of its own citizens, people are punished socially for hate speech all the time. Has Michael Richards had work since he called that heckler a “nigger”? Wasn’t the owner of the Clippers banned from the NBA after he made a racist comment? The social cost for hate speech is quite high, and the completely insincere public apologies that inevitably follow are proof that pure free speech does not exist, even in the States.

Is that bad? Well, killing folks for talking is probably a little much, as both the Charlie Hebdo and Anwar al-Awlaki incidents are both horrific tragedies in their own separate ways, but I believe that quashing hate speech trumps freedom of speech. Perpetuating oppression and instigating violence/hatred are, you know, bad things. If you believe that those are necessary evils for civil discourse and dissent, well here’s a little test for you. Since this began with a cartoon, let’s see if you can tell the difference between these two images:

AntisemitismCriticism of Israel

To the untrained eye, these two images appear identical. However, upon closer examination, one can be identified as hate speech, and the other as criticism. See if you can work out for yourselves which is which.

The common example of an acceptable exception to the rule of free speech is yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre. I honestly don’t know how this example came to be, because honestly why a movie theatre? Why not just a generic room? But anyway, the idea is that it would cause a panic and could potentially injure somebody. Yelling “FIRE!” is usually done for superficial or trivial reasons, without much logic behind it. So superficial reasoning leading to potentially injurious actions is an exception to free speech. To me, that sounds an awful lot like hate speech, especially if the intent is the injurious actions.

Post-script: I don’t know how much this is actually in contention, but a depiction of Mohammed, especially a vile one, would be considered hate speech. Islam has a long, proud history of avoiding imagery in its art, and has made-do with beautiful text-based artwork. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, but to trivialize the anti-idol mandate of the Quran is to be ignorant of the history of that belief, as well as to purposefully disrespect, degrade, and further disenfranchise the already internationally ostracized culture of Islam.

Advertisements