“You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride
Freedom of speech, that is.
I spent most of last week at the Swedish Book Fair, a huge event with lots of exhibitors, seminars, and thousands of visitors. Overwhelming, to say the least, for an easily-distracted booklover such as myself. The Radical Book Fair (which I also attended), with its poetry readings and talks on political activism, felt like a safe haven in comparison. But I did learn a lot!
The theme (for the big fair) this year was apparently Freedom of Speech. Did you know that Sweden has the oldest constitution of freedom of speech in the world? I didn't, but I do now. It's the freedom of press, to be more exact, which celebrates 250 years this year. There seems, however, to be a lot of confusion concerning what freedom of speech actually means.
Ironically enough, the magazine Nya Tider, which basically writes Nazi propaganda, had been granted permission to exhibit at the fair. We organised one of several manifestations against them. Peacefully, mind you; just standing by their monter with our backs turned against them for ten minutes. We weren't even blocking anyone's way; there was plenty of room to move around us. Despite this, a lot of people got upset at us. We got pushed around, filmed, glowered and yelled at. Apparently we were impeding the freedom of speech.
Now, let me get this straight. Freedom of speech does not grant you the right to say or print whatever you want without having to take the consequences. It does however mean that anyone has the right to call you out on your bullshit. Furthermore, you never have the right to impede on someone else's safety or freedom of speech by saying or printing things which threaten individuals or groups of people.
By standing up against their misinformed propaganda we are not constituting a threat against democracy. We are exercising democracy, at its very base level. Hate speech, on the other hand, is a real threat against democracy because it silences people.
I've met a lot of writers this weekend who have had to flee their countries under threats of death because of words they had written. Words are dangerous. Writers have power, because they give people opportunities to put their desires into words. That's why totalitarian regimes usually make sure to get rid of writers, poets and artists the first thing they do, and to keep journalists subdued.
In such a world everything written is political, whether the writer intended it or not. Every word is potentially dangerous, because it has the power to make people think. It is in order to protect this right of sharing ideas and freedom of thought that the freedom of speech and press exists. Everyone should have the right to think and communicate without having to fear for their lives or their freedom. Because this right is impeded by hate speech, this is an exception from the constitutional freedom of speech.
You are under no obligation to remain silent when somebody engages in hate speech in the name of freedom of speech. It is an abuse of the very concept.
“[N]o practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.”
- Terry Pratchett (Going Postal)
Love and freedom,