Fauzia Rafique: Freedom of expression—a shape-shifting tool
The supporters of the Letter on Justice and Open Debate did not take difference of opinion that well.
After my response appeared on Straight.com, I was put in my place several times regarding my race, gender, skills and social status: ‘you, a person without any noteworthy accomplishments to her name… I wonder if your point has any validity to it whatsoever.’ ‘This writer has less than zero understanding of Western History, and how capitalist power and systemic racism work.’ ‘This is awful writing, I can’t believe this is considered a serious contribution to our public discourse around these issues’, ‘typical nauseating beyond far left viewpoints’.
I also bagged various titles including dictator, ignorant, fascist, a Soviet-era speechwriter. But most agreed that I was someone who is ungrateful for the rights she enjoys here in the ‘West’.
And then: ‘What’s the daft woman’s alleged point?’ ‘the garbled word salad you wrote’, ‘What a load of tripe’.
Poet Sophia Naz, who shared my article, was harassed on Facebook till she blocked the user, who then popped up on Twitter to continue with it till hard hitters Liam and Monk Slim showed up. Then, for the first time since the advent of social media, I was finally blocked by someone, lol.
But underneath this heat, serious discussions are happening at many places on the Internet, including in the comments section on the Georgia Straight website and on Twitter and Facebook. I will continue to draw upon them to have a deeper understanding of this issue and to clarify my own position on free speech for some of my friends and colleagues whom I deeply care for.
Here, I like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the people who have contributed to this discussion: Will Ali, Mark Austin, John Baglow, Lulu Bowen1, SnavelyBrent, Peter Carson, UndeadDan, Stephen Elliott, Debbie Hong, Bob Holden, Gordon Hunchak, Ken Jeannotte, Jonina Kirton, Lisa McFadden, mforsis, Sophia Naz, Doc Parker, Stan Persky, Troy Rauhala, Annie Ross, Moazzam Sheikh, Michael Sierchio, Greg Simmons, John Slade, Charlie Smith, Michael Trani, Salil Tripathi, Adele Weder, Regan Zhang, and S. Zuberi.
“Free speech is something we extend to the young as well as the old, the foolish as well as the wise. Once we begin to decide who may or may not be granted the privilege of free speech, we begin the slide towards a dictatorship of either the political left or the political right. Supporting a constitutionally protected right to free speech means that we have to tolerate words and ideas with which we may passionately disagree. This is simply the price we pay for living in a healthy democracy.”
— Andrew D. Irvine, “Free Speech, Democracy, and the Question of Political Influence”, 2000.
(From Mary Novik’s Facebook timeline.)
Sounds really good on paper—noble, egalitarian, democratic. It has as many nuances as the multicoloured feathers of a bird.
A few years back, I admired it and believed in it. I still admire it but I don’t believe in it.
Instead, I see this interpretation of Freedom of Expression as a shape shifter that changes from being a vital tool in one situation to a deadly weapon in the other—both for the benefit of the powerful.
It is a vital tool to moderate discussions in well-defined environments and with chosen participants, such as in the sessions of a Parliament, conferences, board meetings, summits, workshops, galas, readings, talks—places where balance of power among participating individuals and groups is kept as desired. When applied in those situations it empowers everyone and helps participants to discuss, interact and to reach consensus.
In these situations, the balance of power among participants is meticulously maintained through qualifying criteria operated by the systems that run our lives. In this part of the world, as we know, all systems are run by Wealthy White Men. (This may be true for every part yet I don’t want to overlook similar roles played in other parts by Wealthy Black Men, Wealthy Brown Men, Wealthy Red Men, and Wealthy Yellow Men.)
In controlled environments, no actual threat is posed to the existing power holders, rather it becomes a much-needed method of negotiation around influences, ideas, and resources.
In most cases, what could be at stake as the cost or consequence of a disagreement with the ‘powerful’ may only be the threat of losing some perks, hardly ever anything that is basic—only perks.
The tool shape-shifts into a double-edged weapon
Outside of such controlled environments, this tool changes shape and becomes a weapon. In real life, where power balance is stark, uneven and lopsided—giving equal resources to both the powerful and the powerless invariably results in increased influence for the powerful and so it further perpetuates and heightens the systemic exploitation of common people.
You know, who practises it often? The government of the United States of America supplies weapons and dollars to both the rebels and the local governments in countries of Africa, Latin America, and Asia; and you know who pays for it with life and blood? The poorest of the people.
And you know who benefits from it? The United States and the faithful factions of the local governments.
In other words, this concept becomes a violent and destructive set-up for the majority of common people—not just in one but multiple situations.
Contemplating on some of these made me change my stance on free speech. For example, it is problematic for me to give any ground to fanatic Muslims in Pakistan who are already armed and influential and who are responsible not just for spewing hatred and verbal abuse but for killing, stoning, abducting, and torturing people like me and those that I care about; and, it is equally difficult for me to yield this right to the KKK and numerous white supremacist organizations and individuals in Canada who were/are responsible for hanging, lynching, killing, and abusing Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour, and who daily threaten me with their racism in Metro Vancouver.
As well, I cannot, for the life of me, honour a pedophile who abuses children in his area of influence, or a misogynist who abuses and assaults women, causing emotional and physical harm.
Here, I’m not talking about discussions, these are real physical threats that people face in Pakistan and Canada. I must be brain dead to be duped by your sacred scriptures on free speech, so, here’s an example of where i stand: I support Charlie Hebdo to publish what they want, but I can’t support the organization and people who killed some members of its staff.
It is because the ’blanket’ concept of free expression legitimizes the oppression carried out by historic traditional already powerful exploiters. But that’s not all. It also invalidates my resistance against those historic, traditional, already powerful exploiters by calling me a dictator when I raise my voice, for example, to lobby a Pakistani TV channel not to hire that fanatic as an anchor because of his violent fatwas against minorities and his sexist ideas.
It brands me a fascist when I try to stop a white supremacist being appointed as a police commissioner, when I try to stop a pedophile from taking a managerial post in a childcare agency, when I try to stop a woman abuser or a transphobic person from being invited as a speaker or a teacher at a university.
I face religious fanaticism, various forms of racism, pedophilia, misogyny, and other systemic prejudices in my daily life. Confronting or fighting these is not my choice—I have to do it to function.
So, what the F. are you talking about? Keep your cuteness to yourself, it’s not about writing another book if I don’t like one or to increase my ability to listen to my opponents—it’s about my survival. My survival depends on the survival of many others, so don’t ask me to support, for example, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist, classist, racist, ageist texts or celebrities against any of those people who have been, and still are, enduring the cruelties of this unfair system.
The Open Letter is a weapon in the shape of a tool
‘What the signatories are describing are things that have happened to journalists, academics, and authors marginalized by their respective industries for years… The problem they are describing is for the most part a rare one for privileged writers, but it is constant for the voices that have been most often shut out of the room."
— A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate, signed by those who objected to the "Letter on Justice and Open Debate" that appeared on the Harper's Magazine website.
It is most unfortunate that this celebrity letter was created as a weapon to be wielded against the vulnerable who dared to threaten some privileges of the signatories. People of colour standing against institutionalized racism, LGBTQ+ demanding long overdue rights, women standing against misogyny.
What a shame that in order to continue to enjoy your perks, you created this weapon to be used against people who have been struggling for their survival for so long.
The fact that some members of the privileged circles were challenged by the underprivileged who then went on to score some victories, the letter has a subtle pairing of entities that are actually not at par with each other at all.
Constructions such as these—‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’ and ‘whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society’—falsely presents the protesters and the government as equal and opposing forces, while this group of signatories is projected as being squeezed between the two. A clever positioning indeed.
But what is most interesting is that a rare challenge coming from below on the shoulders of mass movements is perceived by the signatories to be as powerful, well-organized, and well-funded as the country’s bureaucracy, army, police, media, and the corporations combined. Amazing.
Another privilege that may be in some danger pertains to cultural appropriation, and here, I’m just going to mention one aspect of this multidimensional issue.
For centuries, white writers, politicians, artists, and businesses have used symbols, objects, and ideas unique to Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Hispanic communities that they had colonized; they have appropriated our art, artifacts, jewellery, precious metals; children, women, men, ancestral lands; they have appropriated our voices and they have mistold our tales.
They have done all this without respect for our cultural values or traditions, without acknowledging us as the source, and without paying anything for the products that in some cases made billions. Now, after decades of struggle, there is a situation where it has become possible to challenge governments, individuals, and agencies on such appropriation.
Taking from other cultures at will is, of course, a colonial tradition, so, it’ll be wise to try to shed it than to defend it when it comes up in relation to art, literature, fashion, music, dance, yoga, sports or any other area.
This model of free expression
If you decide to keep your upper class drawing-room model of free expression and continue to practise it in parliaments, conferences, and galas to moderate interactions and resolve conflicts, be sure to also acknowledge that ‘as is’, it stands as a mere pawn with justice, democracy, and all other high ideals, ready to fulfill the ambitions of the historic and traditional exploitive power holders.
But seriously, this model of free expression will only work when its relationship with hate speech and cultural appropriation is clearer. There is a need to define and describe these as they pan out in different situations, to see them in the context of what has been happening, and to determine what we need to do to make things better for the majority of us.
This is no easy task since the ruling and privileged minorities have been unwilling to discuss the future of their exploitative practices. Rather, they choose to respond with weaponry, violence, and surveillance when people bring up these issues and demand answers to some burning questions around rights, representation, protection, voice, and resources.