The Importance of Freedom of Speech

Personally speaking, I take a lot of issue with the way that the American military is run – and there are a lot of problems with it. This “stand behind our troops or feel free to stand in front of them”, “you’re either with us or against us” mentality that people have that creates no room for question or discussion. The fact that sexual assault is a rampant problem in the military that people are, quite frankly, not doing enough to address. The fact that military recruiters target and take advantage of uneducated and poor children. Yet, whenever I would mention these concerns, and there was someone nearby who wanted to convince me to overlook these problems and regard the American military as an overwhelmingly positive force, the same comment would frequently be made: “these are men and women who are fighting for your rights. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t even be able to say that you disagree with them. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have the freedom of speech.” And I won’t deny that; for years, the American military has been filled with men and women who fought, suffered, and died so that their fellows would be allowed to say things that would get you killed or imprisoned in some other countries.

Freedom of speech is a right that gets discussed frequently, and, it seems, especially lately. Growing up, I always took it for granted that freedom of speech was always a good thing.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Right?

Freedom of speech has been used to defend what are, in my mind, some pretty atrocious things. A homophobic baker refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but he claims that he is only practicing his freedom of speech. White supremacists protest publicly against removing a statue of a Confederate soldier, but they are allowed to be there because that is their freedom of speech. In both of these cases, a message is very clearly being sent to a specific group of people: you are not respected and you do not belong here, your existence will not be tolerated. And this message is awful, and I apologize to everyone who has had to endure it.

And when these instances arise, there are people who say things like, “I don’t believe in freedom of speech if this is what freedom of speech is”, and I understand that. It hurts my heart to think that there are people out there who have to endure messages like these daily. So sometimes, it’s easier to think that we could just shut these people up and be done with it.

But we can’t.

Because we have a flip-side to all of this too. Freedom of speech is not only being put under question when it comes to hate speech lately, but American president Donald Trump has sort of put all freedom of speech into question.

The first time that I became aware of this was when he began his attacks against the media, referring to any news station that spoke poorly of him as “fake news”. Trump has even issued a press ban, refusing to allow certain organizations from attending press briefings at the white house.

But the thing that everyone is talking about now, the issue on every tongue, is the fact that Trump took to Twitter and actively supported the American people punishing NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem.

With this single act, Trump has issued a very clear message: freedom of speech will not be tolerated, so long as it is something he disagrees with.

And yes, Trump has supported free speech in the past, such as when he defended Jack Phillips, the aforementioned homophobic baker, claiming that he had every right to refuse the same-sex couple who came to him for a wedding cake. Which makes it very interesting that this is where he chooses to draw the line when it comes to free speech.

Because in this particular instance, the NFL players in question are actually supporting something that I agree with. While the act of kneeling has since become synonymous with rebelling against Trump’s stance on freedom of speech, this is not where the act began. Initially, kneeling during the national anthem was started with Colin Kaepernick, who explained his reasoning by saying that he refused to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” This is where the issues stems from: a very real, very constant problem in American culture. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, and by kneeling, Kaepernick hoped to draw attention to it.

And yet, by kneeling, Kaepernick and the other NFL players who later joined in unintentionally began a conversation around free speech, for they have not only been told that the workplace is not a place for freedom of speech (unless they’re a homophobic baker, for some reason), but they have had their own president attempt to punish them for doing so.

And, yes, I am aware that the reason why so many people are offended at NFL players kneeling for the national anthem is because, in their opinion, the flag and the national anthem deserve more respect than that. And I could talk all day about how odd it is that these people seem to be more offended by a black man kneeling during the national anthem than a black man getting shot in the street by the police, but I don’t know if I’d get anywhere with that argument, and the point is, these men have a concern that needs to be addressed. And shutting them up won’t get rid of that concern. Shutting them up won’t save black lives, and it most certainly will not increase their love or respect for the country that made them do it.

And that’s why freedom of speech is so important, in every way that it exists: because when someone says something, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it, it still means something. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away; addressing it will. And maybe addressing it makes us uncomfortable, but at least it makes us talk and develop and grow and change.

And, end of day, who gets to decide who is worthy to speak and who isn’t? I mean, Donald Trump is trying to assume the role of decider, but all this has done for him is create a divided country, neither side of which truly feels like their voice is being heard.

My whole life, I have always heard freedom of speech revered as this amazing force that needed to be respect. I have been told that it is a right that people have fought and died for, that is a rare privilege to be enjoyed by everyone who has access to it. And I still believe all this. I believe that, if you have a problem, speak it, because there’s no other way to address it. And maybe this does mean that, if we have freedom of speech, then everyone has freedom of speech – even those who are hateful and who we disagree with down to our very core, and maybe this does mean that people get emotionally hurt along the way. Life isn’t perfect, and even a system like this will have its casualties.

But just because someone says something rude and hateful and awful, that doesn’t mean that I have to tolerate it. That is me practicing my freedom of speech.

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Why Bother Fighting?

I suppose I’ve always taken it for granted that everyone believed, whole-heartedly, that fighting was important.

I’m not talking about fighting in the sense of barroom brawls or schoolyard bullying. I’m not talking about unnecessary physical violence, or even physical violence at all. I’m talking about people who stand by their beliefs to the death. I’m talking about people who refuse to let injustice or cruelty go forgotten or unmentioned. I’m talking about people who will not allow themselves to be pushed around or bullied, they have to stand up and do something. I thought that that was something that everyone believed in, it was just something that was difficult to enforce when the time actually came to do it.

But the other day, I was proudly listening to the news as they talked about people who were trying to stand up to Donald Trump. People who believed in something and were not willing to just let it go. People who needed to fight. And while I was listening to this, someone raised the question, “why do they even bother? They can’t win, so what are they doing?”

I was taken aback by this question. I suppose I’ve heard it raised before, but it’s been a while since I’ve needed to give the answer to it. Because, the way I see it, when you believe in something whole-heartedly, whether that be equal rights for others or equal treatment for yourself, what else can you do but fight?

And why do we fight? Why do we bother? I mean, people have fought battles since the dawn of time, and they have continued to fight even when they knew they couldn’t win. So the way I see it, we do not necessarily fight because we know we’re going to win. We very well might not win. Good battles have been lost again and again, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth fighting.

We fight because we can’t do anything but. We fight because we cannot be silent, we cannot allow people to get away with things that are not fair or right. We fight because it is better than laying down and being walked over.

We fight because we need change, and that will not happen if we do not demand it. We fight because, if we don’t, then nothing will ever progress. We fight because life is not always easy or fair, so what other choice do we have?

And even in fighting, things are not always fair. Good people have been torn down, threatened, spat on, even murdered in an attempt to silence their fight, but that doesn’t mean that they should never have fought. That doesn’t mean that their efforts went to waste. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X both were assassinated, but they and the things they believed in and fought for are still remembered today. The Taliban tried to silence Malala Yousafzai permanently, but she still fights. And she fights because it is a worthy battle that she cannot back down from.

And hopefully we do win. Hopefully our voices are heard and changes are made, but even if they aren’t, that doesn’t mean we should back down. All it means is that we have to keep trying.

Why We Need Diversity in Politics

When it comes to politics, I am a firm believer that people from all perspectives should be considered. After all, who knows more about a woman’s experiences than an actual, flesh-and-blood woman? Who knows more about what it’s like to live in a wheelchair than someone who has actually been in a wheelchair? And who can better speak to the issues faced by people of colour than someone who has spent all their lives being a person of colour? Of course, it’s not always perfect – not every person in a specific community represents every aspect of that community. We all have different forms of privilege, we all meet with different challenges in our lives, and some politicians who represent marginalized people have actively fought in support of issues that concern their community. However, that being said, you are still going to make a much more informed decision around what to do with the lives of women if you are actually confronting a group of women, rather than a group of men.

And it is very rare that you see this nowadays. I am very proud of my own country of Canada, whose cabinet is intentionally diverse, made up of immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, native people, and not a small handful but fifteen women. In America, however, Trump’s cabinet is overwhelmingly white and overwhelming male – so much so that it is, in fact, the least diverse cabinet since Reagan’s. And since Trump has been elected, he has continued to make decisions that do not directly affect white men. Abortion, for example, is not a procedure that cisgendered men will ever have to endure, and yet Trump and his cabinet have made the decision for women that their access to it should be limited. I am not necessarily saying that if you asked any random group of women about their opinions on abortion, the answers will be any different – what I am saying is that too few women were consulted. This was a decision made by men for women.

And in my personal opinion, that isn’t okay. I do not think that men should have the ability to limit what a woman can do with her life and body, any more than I think that white people should have the ability to limit what people of colour can do, or that cisgendered people should have the ability to limit what transgender people can do. If you do not have the lived experience of belonging to that particular group, then you do not have the necessary information to tell that group what they should do and how they should behave. You do not know what they deal with.

And yet, I have heard my own perspective countered multiple times. “I think that people should be chosen for a job based on whether or not they are qualified, not based on whether or not they belong to a specific minority,” people will say, and I understand. To a certain extent, I even agree. If someone is faced with hiring one of two people: a black, transgender lesbian who is completely unqualified in every way or a straight, white man who has spent years preparing for this job, of course they should choose the man. But from what I can tell, that isn’t what’s happening. Unqualified people are not being chosen over qualified people to fill a minority quota, as this statement seems to suggest. Rather, in situations such as the one that I described in my home country, where Canada’s cabinet is a diverse one, perfectly qualified people are given jobs where they perform according to standards while simultaneously offering up their marginalized voice, providing a perspective that a straight, white man (a figure that continues to be seen in this workplace) lacks. In other words, the black, transgender lesbian from my example is not only good at her job, but she offers a perspective that would otherwise be lacking.

When I say that we need diversity in politics (and in the workplace, more generally), I am not saying that straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical (etc., etc.) men should go without jobs. I am not saying that minorities should be given any special treatment that their more societally accepted counterparts don’t get. All that I am saying is that we should support minorities achieving positions that they are perfectly capable of filling, but that they haven’t in the past due to societal imbalances. There are a wide variety of people in our world, but if our political system continues to hear the story of only one side, then that is the side that will eternally be catered to. Inequalities will continue to be enforced, because as much as it is completely possible for a cisgendered man to sympathize with the issues of a woman and want to stand up for her, he cannot understand it in the same way that she does because he has not lived it. She has. Let her tell her story. Let all of us tell our stories. And let us all fight these battles together.

A Letter to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

I am not one of your people. I am a Canadian woman, who will only be affected by the laws you pass in an indirect, ripple-effect sort of way. But I have to admit, the things that you have done and the words that you have spoken have caught my attention, and they have caused me great concern, and not just for myself. I am talking for my fellow humans. For the innocent men and woman who you have intentionally attacked, and whose harm will be on your hands.

I am talking for the woman who feels like she desperately needs an abortion. I don’t know her reason for feeling that way, and really her reason doesn’t matter. All that matters is that, if she feels like she needs it bad enough, then it won’t matter if you’ve made it impossible for her to get one safely or legally. She’ll listen to the man who tells her that “he knows what he’s doing”. She might even try to do it herself. She’ll put her own health and life at risk if she feels like she needs it bad enough, and the physical and emotional damage that that woman will face will be on your hands.

I am talking for the people of colour who now fear stepping outside their own homes because you have spread your hate so widely, that there are now regular men and woman who think that that’s not only normal, but perfectly acceptable. I am talking for the innocent black man who will be beaten in the streets on his way home from a friend’s house. I am talking for the Muslim girl who will have her hijab torn from her head. I am talking for the Mexican immigrants who will have their worth and legitimacy as American citizens openly questioned by people who forget that they’re human beings too. And all of that will be done because you, as not only a public figure but a man in a position that is supposed to be respected, showed your support for it.

I am talking for the disabled people who watched you mock a reporter with arthrogryposis, and felt that all-too familiar sinking feeling in their gut as they remembered, not for the first time, that the world sees them as different. I am talking for the disabled people that now have to live in an America run by a man who has made it clear that he not only doesn’t understand them, but he laughs at them – mocks them publicly, and then doesn’t apologize for it. I am talking for the disabled people that find themselves surrounded by people who now think that it’s okay to look down on them, because their president did it, so why not them? You, Mr. Trump, are the cause for their further alienation.

And I am talking for the women who are raped or sexually violated, because the wrong man heard you say “grab them by the pussy” and saw that as an invitation. I am talking for the women whose consent doesn’t matter as much as yours does – you gave the go-ahead to touch women in any way that men want, and while not every man will hear that and agree, too many might. I am talking for the women who are frightened to exist within their own bodies because you have made it that much more difficult for them to do so.

Now that you’re officially in office and you’ve begun your promised work, I have to say that I am frightened. I am frightened for all of the people that you are going to hurt – and you are going to hurt people, Mr. Trump. You’ve already proven that simply by going after abortion. There is going to be blood and tears on your hands, and I just hope that you can live with that.

But who am I kidding? You won’t live with that. You’ll deny that you’ve caused any harm, or claim that you were rightful in doing it. After all, the damage that you’re causing is too big for one man to carry on his conscience.

No More Victim Blaming

When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, he had 12 allegations of sexual assault against him.

When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, he had 12 allegations of sexual assault against him.

Honestly, think about that. Think about how shocking and disgusting that is. That means that twelve women came forward and spoke up about how this man put his hands on their body without their consent, and the majority of the American people heard that and just kind of went, “yeah, whatever. That doesn’t say anything about him as a person. I’m sure he’d still make a good leader.”

That means that the majority of the American people heard these twelve women speak up against a very public figure, something that must have been incredibly difficult for them to do, and they either didn’t believe them or they didn’t care.

And you know what makes me even angrier at this whole ordeal? Imagine what it would have been like if Hilary had come forth and said that she had been sexually assaulted at some point in her life. Not by Donald Trump, just by anyone. It doesn’t even have to be recently, just at some point in her life. There would be people applauding her for her bravery, sure, but I bet you anything that there would also be those who question what sort of person that makes her. Was she drunk at the time? Was she wearing revealing clothing? Was she leading him on, like some sort of slut? Did she deserve it? Because we can’t have someone like that leading the country. Clearly, being sexually assaulted as a woman is an indication of a lapse in character.

And clearly, being responsible for sexual assault is no problem at all. It doesn’t affect the kind of person you are. It doesn’t make you any less capable of leading a country (even though half of its population consists of the very people that he’s proven he doesn’t see as people). Being a sexual predator means nothing at all.

Fuck that.

You can call me an angry feminist all you like, because you know what? I am angry.

I’m angry because when my mom was a teenager, the police advised her not to seek legal action against her rapist because it was her word against his, simultaneously robbing her of her chance at justice and entrapping some other poor girl to the same fate. The very people who were supposed to keep her safe and protected did this to her. I’m angry because that was in the 1980’s – it is now 2016, and things still aren’t any better. There are still women who are afraid to come forth about their rape.

I’m angry because of men like Brock Turner and all the pandering, misogynistic men lost in their own heads around him who excused his actions and let him get away with the violation of a human being. I’m angry because, according to the judge, it would have been unfair to give Brock Turner a long prison sentence for a crime that witnesses saw him commit – never mind how unfair it is that his victim now has to live with the resulting trauma. She isn’t an athlete or a man, after all, so that somehow makes her trauma okay.

I’m angry because the first questions that always come to the public’s mind when they hear about a rape case don’t tend to be “is she alright” or “how could he do such a thing”. No, it’s the same old bullshit about how they can somehow pin it on her, somehow make this traumatic experience her own fault. I’m angry because people so rarely blame the rapist, when he is the only one at fault.

And that’s when the woman is believed – there are so many situations where it’s just assumed that the victim is lying. Take Donald Trump for instance, or any situation where a woman (or women) come forth about being assaulted by a celebrity years after the event. “Well, if he did it,” some people say with their nose in the air and a holier-than-thou attitude, “then why didn’t she say anything earlier?” Honestly, think about that statement: you are doubting a woman for speaking up, and yet you wonder why she didn’t speak up? Not to mention: he’s a celebrity. He’s a rich and powerful figure with lawyers who could probably crush you and a fan-base determined to see him in the best light possible: why would she speak up? And this doesn’t just happen with celebrity cases, either. The idea that “the woman is lying” is so common that it’s practically become a trope, and while I have heard of cases where women have lied, I can assure you that they are such a minority that, really, it isn’t a problem. Think about it: why would a woman subject herself to all of that for a lie? Why would she allow herself to be doubted and blamed, slut-shamed and accused, for something that wasn’t real? And, more importantly, why are we doing all of these things to innocent victims of traumatic experiences!?

This needs to change. And as much as I’m encouraged by the fact that people are talking about this issue more openly lately, especially with such big cases in the news such as the Brock Turner case, it isn’t enough – and the baffling election of a sexual predator as president of the United States is proof of that. We need to do something. We need to demand a change, we need to talk about it more, we need to consider the way that we think about these things. We need to stop ignoring or putting the blame on the victim. We need to make this right.