Freedom of speech as silencing

Freedom of speech

Concerns over the alleged erosion of freedom of speech have dominated social discourses for some time. Many continue to bemoan the ‘undue’ caution dominant groups have been asked to exercise about the words they employ. As a result, arguments in defence of the so called ‘right to offend‘ have taken prominence in society as a way to protect this allegedly threatened ‘freedom of speech’. Uncritical discussions abound. And it can be difficult to take an informed position in the mist of common platitudes and alarmist headlines. Just this week the government announced it would be looking into legislation to help ensure the protection of ‘freedom of speech’ within universities, following the ‘no-platforming’ of Amber Rudd at Oxford University.

Freedom of expression is a human right. Although this right as I have previously argued, is not distributed uniformly in society. It nonetheless is a human right enshrined in UK law. It appears in article 10 of the Human Rights Act (1998) which itself incorporates into the legal system in the UK, the rights contained within the European Convention on Human Rights. Freedom of expression which includes freedom of speech (when such expression is in speech form) concerns the right to express one’s opinions or views, ideas or artistic or scientific creations etc…, the right to protest and, the right to receive information; without interference from the state or government (or those carrying functions on its behalf).

This is important. This means freedom of speech as it was intended as a human right, is about protecting individuals’ expression from the powers of the state and those carrying out public functions. Freedom of expression once more, quite plainly is about protection from state censorship, retaliation, violence and interference.  Freedom of expression is of course far from boundless. Something which also seems to get lost amidst heated political debates and controversies. In fact, after setting up freedom of expression as a human right, the Human Right Act goes on to add at 10.2;

‘the exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary’

In other words in my lay person’s understanding, freedom of expression has always been conditional rather than absolute and subject to various processes, rights and obligations. For example hate speech and incitement to hatred, trumps freedom of expression, speech which puts the health and mental health of others at risk can, at least in theory, be prohibited and, other ethical or moral reasons can curtail our freedom of expression. These restrictions exist to protect ‘public interest’ and the rights of others (and I would say the interests of State as an entity, but, this is conversation for another day).

Epistemic violence and silencing

The idea then that freedom of speech should be unrestrained amidst accusations of silencing is thus an interesting one, which I would says needs much attention, beyond the legal arena. In a previous paper I have referred to silencing as a discursive device with the purpose or effect of smothering unpalatable marginalised voices. Voices which are then purposefully made indecipherable. Such silencing serve various functions. Some functions are psychological such as the denial and repression of painful histories. Others are more structural such as the reproduction of inequality. Regardless of the function, silencing here is thought of as an act that denies the Other the functional use of their voice, thus agency and power. It is an act of violence.

Epistemic violence is ‘a type of violence that seeks to eliminate marginalised subjects’ knowledge. According to Dotson (2011) violence is enacted by denying marginalised voices reciprocity. And this lack of reciprocity is sustained through ignorance, a kind of commitment to misunderstanding or to epistemic incompetence which results in harm namely, damage to the speaker’s ability to give their testimony, to speak or to speak with authority and thus, to be heard. At group level, epistemic violence disappears marginalised forms of knowing and consequently reduces the availability of alternative epistemic perspectives.

Dotson proposes that silencing leads to two main practices of silencing; testimonial quieting and testimonial smothering. Testimonial quieting is in operation when a speaker is denied competence as a knower because they belong to a marginalised group. This, she refers to as an ‘active practice of unknowing’. This practice occurs when voices and knowledge of the marginalised are actively dismissed or discounted because of stereotypes and prejudices. That is to say, in testimonial quieting, marginalised voices are denied credibility and authority to speak because of racism, sexism and/or other systems of oppression.

Testimonial smothering on the other hand, is a form of self-censorship whereby the speaker perceives their interlocutor or audience as either unable or unwilling to understand them. This results in them Dotson say, ‘truncating their testimony’ and only speaking of those aspects of their experience they expect to be met with comprehension. In this case rather than being quietened, the speaker smother their own voice. They sensor their contents, and keep the parts of their experiences or stories they believe may be unsafe to share with particular audiences, to themselves.

Insidious reversing 

Freedom of speech arguments have moved well beyond the state orbit. On social media for example, many seek to defend racist debates and those who calls them out are told they are infringing on freedom of speech and/or that they should learn to tolerate being ‘offended’. But this logic is flawed. Firstly, the notions of ‘the right to offend’ or ‘political correctness’ although, the law may not have caught up, conceals the real and empirically documented psychological and physical harm caused by racist and discriminatory speech. We are, therefore well beyond the offensive and firmly in the domain of the harmful. What is being consequently argued for is not freedom of speech, but at best freedom from the consequences of the harm one causes or at worse, freedom to do harm.

Second, by seeking to bar those directly concerned by the contents of speech who should have in turn no right of retort since expressing opposition, dissent or offence (e.g. accusing one’s expression of being racist) would create…offence, those who find speech harmful or otherwise objectionable are deprived of their right to freedom of expression since they are asked to be quiet. This is thus an act of silencing. Elsewhere I have proposed that silencing may be enacted by individuals with more social power, thus in the context of race white individuals, claiming or believing to be victims of silencing, whereby they may make persecutory claims in relation to individuals of colour by positioning themselves as being gagged, when they are challenged.

Thus, in addition to quieting and smothering, I would propose another practice of silencing which could be called insidious reversing. In insidious reversing, the oppressed is insidiously positioned as the oppressor often covertly or indirectly. The silencer becomes the silenced and therefore the harm marginalised bodies suffer because of their marginalised identity/identities, which they attempt to vocalise as speaker and to conceptualise as knower is invisibilised. It is clouded or replaced by the discomfort the audience experiences in a projective role reversal. This is a distinct epistemic practice of silencing which is widely observable socio-politically and which others have also noted although not named.

Insiduous reversing may be performed through the use of affect. So that in situations where discrimination is alleged a disproportionate amount of time and energy may be spent coddling, reassuring and or placating white people distressed by racism, including accusations of racism made against them, cementing the false equivalencies that already exist between between suffering racism and being accused of racism and, depriving the marginalised person of support, of compassion or attention. Insidious reversing thus results in the most socially powerful gaining additional safety and protection against the harm they inflict on the marginalised in a socially sanctioned centring of their hurt feelings associated with their pseudo victimisation.

Insiduous reversing is particularly likely in situations where those constructed as fragile are held to account by someone who belongs to a group constructed or stereotyped as dangerous or aggressive. For example, it has been known that women of colour feel they have to choose their words and demeanour carefully when expressing grievances or speaking of their distress when the perpetrator of such violence is a white woman. The binary positions these identities occupy in terms of strength, vulnerability and innocence render women of colour particularly vulnerable to become positioned as the aggressor in these epistemic exchanges. Thus, in insidious reversing what we make visible and speak of may not necessarily result in testimonial quieting or in the discrediting of one’s testimony and/or in testimonial smothering or in self-silencing, but in accusations of doing the very harm one attempts to speak of epitomising the words of Sara Ahmed, when we speak of a problem, we become the problem.

Concluding thoughts

The practice of silencing people of colour and marginalised bodies generally, their social concerns, and their/our lived experience has a long history. In essence, the current freedom of speech argument demands that accountability, challenge or resistance to speech as violence be quashed. It weaponises freedom of speech to force those expressing dissent or resistance to the violence they experience into compliance and submission. It denies those with less social power not only freedom of speech, but also the right not to suffer discrimination-related harm. As such it amounts to a demand that the social and psychological realities, and lived experience, of people of colour be ignored, an act of epistemic violence. Although appearing to seek freedom to speak, it is in fact an act of silencing, a censorship act. Insiduous reversing is another practice of silencing which attempts to shift the burden of responsibility for social harm from dominant groups to marginalised bodies in epistemic exchanges. It leaves marginalised bodies vulnerable to more violence and further exclusion. In the context of race, it follows a reproduction of wider relational configurations and the traditional direction of power.

Thank you for reading

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