Freedom of speech has been in the news lately, and I’ve had my own brush with someone who, wanted to be free to spread fear, hatred, and ugliness on my Facebook page. It made me stop and consider the idea of free speech.
I absolutely believe in the ideal of freedom of expression, even to the point of provocation. But I also believe that this ideal is naturally balanced by the concept of consequences. I am (and should be) free to express myself, even if what I say is abhorrent to you, but I should not be free of the consequences of that expression. If I express hatred, I should be prepared for the backlash from those who are the targets by my speech. If I speak provocatively, I can’t be surprised by the response of those whom I provoke. To be free of consequences is not a right, it’s privilege.
This gets at the heart of the necessary tension in the ideal of free speech. And it is where those who are offended by political correctness expose their lack of intellectual rigor. To suggest that political correctness (by which those who use the term with derision refer to moderated speech designed to create common ground that does not harm nor offend) is flawed or wrong is sophomoric. Politically correct speech is intellectually superior to the kind of hate speech that hides behind the idea of free speech because political correctness aims to acknowledge the speaker’s rights and yet refuses to assume privilege. When Milo whines about the reaction to his hate speech, he’s exposing his intellectual limitations. He’s wrong to think that the vehement public response to his hate is a constraint on his speech. The reaction is a consequence of his speech, and his privilege to be protected from that consequence is neither guaranteed, nor is it a right.
The interloper on my Facebook stream seemed to make the same intellectual mistake as Milo. He felt it was his right to spew his hatred, and that my decision to cut him off was an infringement of that right. He is right that he has the freedom to speak. He doesn’t have the right, though to choose the consequences of his speech. Freedom of speech is not the same as the right to be heard. There is no such right. That the interloper doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to express his fear of others with self moderating political correctness is not my problem. Until he learns to exercise his brain, his freely-spewn hate speech will not be heard by me and those I care about. He does not deserve that privilege.