Complicating Freedom of Speech and Nonviolence

Pulling back from social media has its perks when you can get away with it. I am often less upset and hurt, and it’s easier to see the flow of trends and how thought travels. It’s interesting, I know I’m missing huge swathes of reactions and emotions on Twitter, but usually these arise in think pieces, still with that immediate feeling. Then, there are people on slower social media like Facebook who then publically mull over said passionate think pieces, and you get a range of reactions and a couple of names to unfriend quietly. The best part has yet to come though: the reactions to the reactions, which tend to be longer, more dense, and funded, and if not done perfectly, pedantic and moralistic. By then, people have staked out and mostly excommunicated anyone who isn’t on their side, including self-dubbed moderates who only party with other middlers.

This was most interesting for me around the time of “Je Suis Charlie,” not necessarily the shooting, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Januarys, for some reason, hold a paradigm shift for how I look at activism and its effects on social media. I watched people, typically self-identified liberal/progressive, struggling with their respect for “first world” values while trying to answer to the calls of racism and colonialism by these events. It’s very stark, how minoritized people on Twitter really bring their lives and perspectives out to share, advocate, and make visible, and how that is consumed by others. Like I’ve said before, it’s a twisted entertainment, because it takes so much for those watching to actually internalized what’s going on, if even at all.

I saw a lot of liberal people shocked by what some radical voices had to say about these events, mostly because it attacks some common assumptions of ‘western’ society. This feeds into what I see as a constant struggle between mainstream feminism and more radical groups of people, as the former tries to change as little as possible of the structure of society while tweaking things here and there in line with broader feminist values, while the latter critiques the system as a whole and aims to completely change it. Progressive, in this sense, can be and is a harmful ideology when left uncritiqued. Progress for the left wings of western European countries and their descendents is an additive function, making better by adding on to what we’ve had before. This isn’t to say that these additions haven’t done some sort of good, rather, many if not all were deals with the devil; you can have this concession as long as you play well under this system that will always disenfranchise you. These countries use this progressivism to ‘safeguard’ or ‘help’ the rest of the world and the minoritized peoples residing within them. Take how often we must ‘save’ and ‘educate’ people in African and Middle Eastern countries, as if we didn’t play a part in fucking things up in the first place. This is a crude explanation of the relationship between the (neo)colonial and post-colonial. We are constantly dealing with the tension between European assimilation and reclamation of heritage and difference.

At this point, European values are seen as universally right, and things that are against it, wrong. Let’s take the freedom speech; there is a difference between the value of freedom of speech and valuing someone’s ability to speak and be heard. One does not need to uphold ‘freedom of speech’ to value expression. It tends to be the opposite: those who are extremely forward about valuing freedom of speech don’t directly value a person’s ability to speak and be heard with that value. More often than not, you’ll hear the phrase “you have the right to speak, but not the right to be listened to.” So it isn’t a person’s volition that is valued here, rather the ideal that if everyone can avoid censor, all ideas can be expressed. However, that is not how this value actually plays out in our societies. Freedom of speech, as an ingrained value, allows the powerful to be heard and for the marginalized to be silenced. Freedom of speech here is limited to the government, yet the value is perpetuated by the people commonly for any sort of person restricting expression. Again, this isn’t to say that freedom of speech as a value hasn’t done any good, rather to show how it is an enforced value that is used by the colonial aspects of society.

When I saw “Je Suis Charlie,” I often saw excuses for people to have the freedom to say and do marginalizing things because it is a western value to be able to do that. However, it’s not a coincidence that the kinds of publications and voices who do these sorts of things are part of the dominant demographic of western culture. There isn’t a bigger fan of satire for concepts they don’t have anything to lose in than the white man. The freedom to speak diminishes greatly when you are not in a position to be heard, and we know that the people who will be heard are valued by a discriminatory and oppressive system. To be clear, I’m not saying nor do I feel like those killed at Charlie Hebdo deserved to die. Rather that, freedom of speech as a value is one that can only be broken by governments, not people, and it’s telling that minoritized postcolonial people are being targeted as ‘opponents of the freedom of speech.’

This relationship is alive with activism online. Figures that mainstream feminism ordains will have this ‘freedom of speech,’ and it is often wielded against minoritized people. The fact that there is ‘black twitter’ is in itself a postcolonial phenomenon, a state of resistance that is forced to co-opt the tools of their oppression in order to be heard. How often are black women activists targeted and chastised for what they say, while also fielding the hurt feelings of neocolonists who continue to gentrify these spaces? This right to speak isn’t the respect of speech.

Along with this, #BlackLivesMatter appropriately used MLK Day to further bring awareness that his work carries on unfinished to this day. Some reactions to this I saw centered around the idea of nonviolence, usually with some uninformed statement about why MLK is prefered over Malcolm X (that they didn’t question that their  history education or whiteness might have informed this preference is all that’s needed here). From what I can see, the white liberal front really, really wants movements like #BlackLivesMatter to be completely and utterly nonviolent, despite that the police are acting violently against them. Ultimately, they are positioning black bodies to be sacrificed for their own good feelings, they want to be SURE that the police are bad by watching, up close, that they are being assaulted without reasonable cause and nothing’s being done about it. Then they feel slightly bad about themselves and go watch some other TV drama.

I recently borrowed this book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg from a friend. I’ve actually been hearing a lot about it before I finally got to my hands, since self-help books tend to have their own viral lives in the tech space. Apparently, it’s been around a while and widely celebrated, basically a book on how to communicate with others in what the author describes as nonviolently. The choice of language struck me as a perfect painting of this imagined white liberal that wants everything to be okay with just talking, and not even just all talking, but also nonviolent (he even got a grandchild of Gandhi to write the forward) speech. Rosenberg often uses examples of him going to ‘urban’ (read: black) schools and events to use nonviolent communication to see past racism, calm down tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and even throws in how women have avoided rape and murder by speaking nonviolently.

The curation of these examples show how something like the value of nonviolence is, actually, incredibly violent. It implies that arguments involving claims of racism, violence, or even straight up assault, can be deterred by speaking in a way a therapist would to a patient. Meaning, condescending when it’s without consent, and people in places of power often get into this sort of pedantic tone about how the conversation ‘should’ go and if it did then things would be ‘solved’ by now. There are good parts to this book that are super useful, and with the underlying dissection of how we use language in order to throw off hierarchical values, you think, would indicate that this is a goldmine of a text. Yet we can see how this contributes to this pacifying narrative, which struck deep in me when he cited how a police officer used nonviolent communication to quell a group of black people who were claiming discriminatory practices were going on with the law. The call for nonviolence is really a power grab for the privileged to set the pace and direction of social justice, not for the benefit of the oppressed. The control and power only goes to the people who get to speak and be listened to.

Freedom of speech and nonviolence are central to liberal progressivism, and they are utilized in a way that completely disarms the marginalized and gives those already in power the majority influence of what and how to change. The problem is in progressivism itself, because it has already decided where our future is going to be, and it was without the input of the peoples trampled over to achieve it. This analogy works for attitudes in social justice and in technology and games where now we have a narrative of Women in Tech/Games that continues to value women at the top disproportionately to the grassroots activists near the bottom. It is important to keep these radical communities creating spaces away from the powerful, as assimilation into these industries and mainstream movements means exploitation and erasure.

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