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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sexism and Freedom of Speech

For some reason, I have recently been confronted a lot with sexism and other discriminating language. It’s quite disillusioning to notice how many people use such language without any thought on the matter—and worse, how many of them actively defend their behavior when confronted.

After finishing yet another round of discussions regarding the topic, I figured I could just write down the recurring arguments.

The Problem

Quite often, the users of such language will claim that they are not sexist at all, and that therefore, the words they used are not sexist. They’re jokes, satire, or have been adopted into normal language.

Consequently, the users think that opposition is based on the same arguments as to why some people think we should avoid saying “fuck” in public. Namely, that the use of words such as gay or the typical sexist crap, which usually includes sexual references, would offend someone. I’m not one of those people, and my problem is quite different.

I am not offended by the words. If I am offended at all, it is by the thought process, or lack thereof, that leads to using those words in that way.

But there is a much bigger problem for me, and that is the effect on my social environment.

When gay is a common derogatory word, how will those young gay people feel who have not dared to have their coming-out yet? Like shit, of course. Coming out is a very difficult step, and it’s incredibly harsh on the psyche of a person to stand up against society’s norms like that. We should support them, and not make it more difficult by reinforcing stupid social norms.

Likewise, what will the person over there think, the person who actually is opposed to homosexuals, who wants to persecute them, who wants to oppress them? He will feel confirmed in his prejudices. Apparently, the society is quite fine with his opinion.

This is what you support when you use gay in a derogatory sense.

The same holds true when you make jokes of women. We still have a rather high ratio of women who are being abused at home, but who feel that this is likely their own fault, that they have to endure this. Because it’s normal in this society, right? What will such a woman think when you tell your next sexist joke? She will see her perception of society reinforced. And her husband will feel confirmed in what he does. Thanks to your “just a joke.”

And no, this is not some kind of hypothetical situation. This is, sadly, very real.

Freedom of Speech

Amusingly enough, the most recurring argument I have to face when I call people out on their discriminating speech is the right of freedom of speech.

This is amusing, because in essence, they are telling me that I have no right to tell them that I think what they say is crap, because Freedom of Speech guarantees them that they can say what they want. For some reason, they tend to forget that then, I have the right to tell them what I think, too.

But beyond this shortsightedness, the argument has further problems.

Freedom of speech is the right to express yourself, but it does not give you the right to express yourself wherever you want with no consequences whatsoever. For example, it does not give you the right to come to my house and sit next to me and get on my nerves. It also does not give you the right to be on my party if I don’t want you there. You can express your stupid opinions if you have to, and I am against judicial repercussions for that, but you will have to deal with the social consequences of your behavior.

Freedom of speech does not say that people have to be your friends regardless of what you say, nor does it guarantee you invites to parties.

What You Should Do

Consequently, when you find people in your social circles using discriminatory language, ask them kindly to stop. Explain the problems to them if they ask. And if they refused to stop, utilize your right to stop to associate with them.

Wherever you see discriminatory speech, utilize your freedom of speech to speak up against that. Every time you are quiet, you concede that this kind of language is normal and accepted and that reinforcing social discrimination by thoughtless language is fine. Don’t. Speak up.