What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?

“It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions”

Demonstrations in Berkeley spurred by the planned visit of Milo Yiannopoulos. Photo by Jo Parks (Creative Commons Licence: Attribution Non-commercial)

Using my statement to the Bookseller as a springboard, Ruth Coustick-Deal writes an interesting and challenging piece on counter-speech, and why it doesn’t solve the problem of hate speech in the way that free speech advocates assume.

Certain paragraphs that stood out for me, as particular challenges for free speech advocates.  We need to have answers to these points, and address them in our own responses to controversial speech.

So counter speech is encouraged, but often only possible for those who have the freedom to exercise it without repercussions. It is available only to those who already have privilege, usually white men. They don’t feel the same kind of fear, or live with the constant threat of sexual violence directed at them. It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions.

When we ask for counter speech, rather than a removal of content in response to hate speech, we are placing a huge burden upon an oppressed group to spend their time and energy on speaking back to their oppressors — facing harassment, threats, and more oppression when they do so. Rather than holding oppressors accountable, we once again place the burden on the oppressed to carry out further labour just to defend their existence.

So when we, as free speech campaigners, feel the urge to see a campaign against hate speech and want to reply with “the answer is more speech!” the onus is on us to spell out what we mean.

You should read Ruth’s piece it its entirety by following this link.

While I’m on this subject, Julia Serano makes some related points in a piece about free speech and ‘tolerance’:

Hate speech, and other speech acts designed to harass and intimidate (rather than merely express criticism or dissent), are routinely used to thwart other people’s freedom of expression. Free speech absolutists tend not to consider or fully appreciate this, probably because most of them have never felt silenced by pervasive or systemic hatred and intolerance before.

And this is a killer:

As a young adult, I continued to remain quiet about my identity. Colloquially, we call this being “in the closet,” but that’s just a fancy way of saying “hiding from hate speech and harassment.”

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