“My right to swing my fists ends where my neighbour’s nose begins.”
In other words, I am free to do as I please so long as I don’t harm another person. On university campuses across Canada, the question of where my neighbour’s nose begins — and the limits of free expression — are greatly disputed.
Figures like Jordan Peterson, Lindsay Shepherd and Masuma Khan have drawn massive media attention to the debate about free speech. Meanwhile, calls for freedom of speech are often met by concern from those who advocate for marginalized groups, whether that’s by indicators of race, gender identity or sexual orientation. In these cases, they often favour a more “politically correct” approach to speech.
Where there seems to be disagreement — and where my neighbour’s nose begins — is on what the limit of free speech is and whether free speech is really cost-free. Living in a community as diverse in opinions and experiences as UBC’s, striking a balance is bound to lead to heated debates.
New era, old problems
Freedom of speech has dominated social discourse since the 2016 US presidential election, making it feel like the whole free speech debate is something that has only come up recently. Dr. Rima Wilkes, a professor of sociology at UBC, disagrees.
“If you think about it, we had the same debates 40 years ago about racial slurs. People said ‘Actually, I find these slurs to be super offensive,’ and other people said ‘You’re stifling my right to free speech, I don’t mean anything by it,’” said Wilkes. “It’s not any different now, and now it’s widely accepted that you just don’t use racial slurs and I don’t really know too many people who are saying that they want to go back to using racial slurs.”
Now, she said, the conversation is happening with preferred pronouns and pushback from people who don’t like being told what to say. “Maybe 40 years from now, we’ll look back on these debates and we won’t think it’s a big deal to use [preferred] pronouns.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Scott Anderson, an assistant professor of philosophy at UBC, said that on a philosophical level, language is an act — not just making a statement or conveying information.
“Though you might in fact just be saying a sentence, the sentence itself has a function that then can be used to cause somebody fear, to give somebody reason to expect that you will do something to harm them later, and so on,” he said, naming the acts of voting and making a threat as examples.
This is an impact of speech — when you say something, you are more importantly doing something that can have consequences on other people. Wilkes agrees, saying that the impact of speech is key because it’s how we learn to live and coexist with other people in our communities.
“It is about you as a person, what you have to say, and your right to express yourself, but when you’re in a classroom or wherever, you are in a relationship with other people. So when you say things, they can’t unhear what you said,” she said.
What freedom of speech is all about, then, is how to govern interactions in terms of human relationships.
“One of the difficulties about these debates around freedom of expression is distinguishing statements that meant to convey mere facts, opinions, or information for the sake of teaching or informing with content that people would not have had otherwise,” said Anderson. “And separating those from actions that are designed to harm, threaten, silence or cause psychological damage to others.”
For Anderson, the challenge of drawing the line is compounded with the idea that most speech should be protected.
“If someone is saying something that is intended to be true and informative, and doing it in such a way that is also not an act that’s criminal or otherwise disrespectful, then we should try to protect that sort of stuff as much as possible,” he said.
“That’s exactly how we both learn new things and the academy furthers the bounds of knowledge.”
Speak your mind, but mind your speech
The dialogue on free speech at UBC isn’t purely academic. Student groups have engaged themselves in the debate, and their voices are among the loudest.
For many students, the UBC Free Speech Club conjures up images of “Make Canada Great Again” hats, the male symbol on top of the Engineering Cairn and trolls on social media. Jordan Schroeder, the club’s president, attributed this reputation to multiple, consecutive “right-wing leaning” events put on by the club’s executive in the previous academic year. He also thinks that part of the reason that the Free Speech Club is associated with hate speech on campus is that there are “probably” people who hold hateful opinions in the club.
“There are certainly some white nationalists in the club. There’s also some very left-leaning people in the club,” he said. “I think that the reason that the Free Speech Club gets associated with those people this kind of guilt-by-association tactic. If there’s one white nationalist in the club, people take that it be representative of the whole club, which I don’t think is logical.
“If there’s one white nationalist in the engineering department, it doesn’t mean that all of the engineers are white nationalists.” Instead, Schroeder encourages debate to challenge such viewpoints.
Under Schroeder’s leadership, the Free Speech Club has tried to take on a non-partisan, moderate stance on free speech to improve the club’s reputation.
“Although most people think that the Free Speech Club is just in favour of unbridled speech all of the time, I think there’s a more nuanced idea of free speech — an idea that free speech is not just an end in itself, but rather it’s a means to an end,” he said. “We use our freedom of expression so that we can discuss ideas and hopefully reach the best ideas and then make society better through those ideas.”
For Schroeder, this “means to an end” approach to free speech means that political correctness, reviled by some free speech advocates, is necessary to ensure that everyone is able to partake in conversations.
“If we’re talking in a way that makes it impossible for other people to participate in the discussion or make people feel like they can’t contribute to the discussion, then what do we have free speech for?”
Along a similar vein, Curtis Seufert, a fourth-year sociology major, pointed out that there’s a certain degree of “self-censorship” that occurs with political discussions, which is what people who are more in favour of free speech, like Jordan Peterson, often complain about.
“I find it kind of funny that people will talk about censoring themselves and how everything’s racist nowadays and how you can’t say anything without being stigmatized for it,” said Seufert. “But if you allow people on the other side to push back against that, you just get more pushing back against one another.”
Indeed, in a world that seems divided by the left and right political spectrum, allowing some a platform means consequences for others.
“We can’t just say that the right to free speech is entirely neutral. It’s consequential, and it’s consequential to different groups of people, sometimes in more harmful ways for some groups,” he said.
The fault and burden aren’t all on free speech proponents though. With the issue of limiting immigration, for example, Seufert thinks that sometimes people on the left, as he identifies himself, are too quick to stifle discussions because of the racial dimensions.
“In hesitance to talk about an issue like [immigration], we don’t leave ourselves room to tackle opinions that are maybe worth having, like the economic costs of immigration,” he pointed out.
“In terms of valuing free speech, by committing oneself to understanding one’s values and debating and having honest conversations, we can probably end up with a less divided country. I feel like morally, we all want the best for everyone, generally speaking.”
Breaking the binary
Simultaneously, it’s possible that seeing the problem as left and right, politically correct or incorrect is the wrong approach.
“I said this to the Free Speech Club, that this becomes all about winning and there’s no dialogue on either side,” said Wilkes. “Maybe we have to take away this winning and battling way of thinking about this and start thinking about it in terms of evolution and growth.”
After all, even truth itself isn’t linear. “Claims about how to judge human practices and institutions can’t just be a question of, ‘does this accurately reflect what we do now?,’ but it will sometimes be ‘does this improve or destroy things that are important?’” said Anderson.
“Having the idea that it’s only right or wrong, true or false as a way of addressing those kinds of claims just doesn’t seem to fit the kind of thing that we’re doing when we talk about how we should act and structure our discourse.”
So how do we live and interact with one another when the free speech debate isn’t as clear cut as for or against?
“There are these two parts to freedom of expression,” said Schroeder. “It comes not only with the right to speak, but also the responsibility to be held accountable for the words of your voice and ideas.”
It’s about where my right to swing my fists ends, where my neighbour’s nose begins and being prepared for criticism if the two collide.