Free Speech

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What does free speech look like when turned violent? Hate speech. Protecting one form of speech requires the protection of all, and once acknowledging this, the ironic dichotomy between hate speech and free speech becomes clear. It seems that while we excel at exercising expressive liberties, we’ve violated the sanctity of mobilized thought.

Hate speech and free speech express their frustrations through acts of social injustice. It’s from our political systems that their tension seeks release, and in consideration of increasingly polarized parties, their dynamic is especially tainted.

Throughout the month, UC Berkeley intends to host a series of right-wing political speakers, inciting student protests. Part of a “Free Speech Week” event on campus, UC Berkeley planned visitation from figures like former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and right-wing political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Student body response suggests urgency in unpacking the relationship between hate speech and free speech.

Hate speech originated from free speech, placing the two in a disrespectful relationship. It’s near impossible for both to exist in equal measure, leaving our communicative climate under constant compromise. I say compromise to imply that a party is losing, this party being free speech. Hate speech utilizes hostile language to smother opposing beliefs, intending to intimidate others from exercising free speech. With this, hate speech has the ability to limit free speech in ways free speech can’t similarly administer, at least without hypocrisy. To remain bystander however, would be for free speech to fulfill the paradox of intolerance. A theory developed by Karl Popper, if free speech remains unconditionally tolerant of hate speech’s oppression, hate speech will exhaust free speech’s ability to remain tolerant.

Although free speech created hate speech, hate speech controls their dynamic and it manifests in political and social differences. Free speech is a right derived from a history of opposition to oppressive authoritative figures, figures abusing their position with the desire of limiting the admission of those whose beliefs were contrary to their own. When posed through these terms, there seems to be little difference between denying free speech and dismissing hate speech. We condemned authority for limiting our expression, so it’s essentially hypocritical for students like those at UC Berkeley to diplomatically cherry pick their guest speakers.

In an interview with Los Angeles Times, UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol T. Christ acknowledged this troubling dynamic. In response, she stressed her belief that the most effective way to fight hate speech is with more speech. I can’t say I entirely agree with her stance—I feel it downplays the power disparity between free speech and hate speech—but I stand with her believed intention, above all else, advocating for (at this point) all forms of political dialogue.

Because the objective of language is based in communication, a large majority of its existence is defined by personal interpretation. There are different intents behind different messages and acts of communication. With their expression bound within our political system, the characteristics of different language intentions inherently align with specific parties. Understanding this, right-wing violence is not the same thing as left-wing violence. While they may mutually originate from the paradox of intolerance, they act for different values, so are represented in different ways.

Autonomous, anti-fascist group Antifa participated in the UC Berkeley protests. With a history of vigorously active, combative and aggressive behavior, their self-styled congregations are the paradox of intolerance in motion. Right-wing political commentators are pointing-fingers. In a post published September 20th on American Enterprise Institute’s website, Marc Thiessen (Fox News) said “they [Antifa] succeeded in imposing a $600,000 tax on conservative speech.” Here, Thiessen refers to the $600,000 UC Berkeley invested to securely host conservative political commentator, Ben Shapiro. Additionally causing $100,000 worth of damages in broken windows and other activity, Antifa’s actions, to me, resemble those physically processing after feeling their rational outlet (free speech) has been compromised. Because hate speech holds free speech at a disadvantage, free speech is forced to embody a form that’s unflattering from every angle.

The principles underlying the conflict between language equality are the same underlying other larger controversies, an example being abortion laws. Abortion laws, similar to radical protests and public speeches, are all the results of individuals trying to dictate the lives of their peers, most frequently, because they believe they’re spreading sound guidance throughout the public. In the case of abortion, it’s an argument between one party’s desire for basic human rights and another’s violent commitment to stopping the continuation of what they believe is wrong. When understanding this, it’s easier to understand the difficulty we face in permitting an exercise of deserved rights.

Clearly elemental principles of—do we say humanity?—to refine our desire for others to live by similar values, to do more than speak but speak with intentionality, I believe, would be to refine the inner workings of what invades this desire in motion; for in its forfeited form, this desire resembles that which we’ve observed in the Berkeley protests.

Sounds easy enough. Right?

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