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 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.

“If You Come Here, You Better Act Like Us” and Why That Would Be Boring

I want you to try to imagine something with me for a moment.

Imagine that, one day, you need to leave your country.

It could be that something has happened, some sort of political or environmental tragedy, and you have no choice.

It could be that you got a job offer and you just can’t turn it down.

It could be that your entire family is moving because they think they’ll find a better life there, and you’re going along because they’re your family and you don’t want to be separated from them to that extent.

Whatever the reason, you’re going. You’re hopping on that plane and you’re crossing land and ocean both to find yourself suddenly in an entirely new place. An entirely new world, really. The language they speak isn’t the same. You can’t navigate the street signs without help, and most of the strangers you try to speak to can’t help you. Your culture and your traditions aren’t recognized by your new country, and people look at you funny when you try to celebrate them. After a while, you probably start to feel pretty alone, being one of the few people you know who shares your way of life.

And it’s not that you actively don’t want to fit in, or that you think your entire country should change to cater to your way of life or anything like that. It’s just that this is your way of life. This is the way you’ve always done things, and you don’t necessarily want to stop that just because you’ve come to a new country. In fact, in many ways, you couldn’t. You can’t change the way you think – not entirely. You can’t change the things you believe in, if your beliefs are true and strong enough.

And yet, even despite all of that, the people of your new country still look at you with disdain and tell you that you’re wrong for it.

“If you don’t like this country and its ways, then maybe you should go back,” they say.

or

“If you come to this country, then you better speak our language and conform to our customs.”

And as far as the language goes, you’re trying, you’re really trying, but it’s difficult to learn an entirely new language, and as much as you respect the customs and don’t want to change them, they just aren’t your customs. So how can it be fair that you have to change overnight, to become an entirely new person, just because you crossed this country’s border?

End scene.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never lived through this. I was born and raised in Canada, which is the country that I currently reside in. But there are many people who have experienced this, and that is why I don’t understand this mentality that many of my fellow North Americans have – this idea that “if you come here, then you better act like us”. It’s an unsympathetic idea, one that doesn’t take into account what the immigrant is actually going through.

But even more than that, even if you take the human aspect out of it entirely, I don’t understand why we even want everyone who comes to this country to act like us. Because: a) we are already an incredibly varied culture. We are made up entirely of immigrants already, borrowing from their cultures and traditions, while simultaneously creating our own and building off of each other. Canada describes itself as being a ‘melting pot’, meaning that multiple different cultures – all kind of cultures – come together to create the culture of Canada. The United States, on the other hand, describes itself as being a ‘salad bowl’, meaning that, again, multiple different cultures have come together to exist alongside one another. Whether or not these ideas hold true in practice, they are the ideas that our countries claim that they want to uphold. So to say that someone who comes to our country and adopt our culture, in theory, shouldn’t really mean anything, because which of our many cultures and customs do they need to adopt?

And more than that, b) why would we want everyone to be the same? Let’s imagine that everyone who came to our countries somehow could adopt our culture and customs – we all practice the same religion, all speak the same language, all celebrate the same holidays. Where would be our room for growth? How could we ever change, adapt, learn, if everything was constantly the exact same? And, most importantly, what reason would we have to learn tolerance for others if they were all the exact same as us?

And that’s what a lot of this comes down to, at the end of the day: tolerance. We need to be more tolerant toward change and difference. Now, I’m not saying that if a truly harmful ideology comes into our country, we should just tolerate it, but how often does that happen, really? Most of the differences that immigrants bring are differences of language, of customs, of culture, and they’re all opportunities for learning on the behalf of the North American who comes across them. We shouldn’t shun or belittle difference, we should embrace it, because that is the only chance we have to become stronger and more intelligent, tolerant people.