With the ongoing anti-racist protests taking place all over the Western world, many have focused on what they consider to be “offensive” and “racist” speech. Calls for eliminating shows that portray the police on a positive light, shows that use blackface makeup, or which put forward negative racial stereotypes, have all become a common sight. For some, the removal of this type of material is the only way to go, as otherwise society would be perpetuating the negative portrayal of minorities and other disenfranchised groups, while also furthering their “oppression.” Although, undoubtedly, many have the best of intentions when they seek to eliminate or restrict certain types of speech, the risks of taking that approach greatly outweigh the benefits, and threatens the existence of artistic and intellectual freedom.
The first problem that any fight against offensive or hateful speech encounters, is that it is very difficult to define what these terms are supposed to mean. So, first and foremost, any rule that we establish against certain kinds of speech (yes, even hate speech) will require the kind of subjective decisions that result in too much speech being restricted. Although we all believe that our standards of offensiveness are completely reasonable and justified, so that everybody should live by them, “one man’s vulgarity, is another man’s lyric.” In other words, we all draw the line differently, so that it would be impossible to police speech fairly.
Even words that many consider outright hateful have been reclaimed by oppressed communities, as was the case with “queer“, a slur against gay men that (controversially) part of the gay community has reclaimed. Even the use of “nigger”, one the most infamous words of all, has been defended by black artists like Mos-Def, who argued that African Americans were taking “a word that has been historically used by whites to degrade and oppress us […] and turning it into something beautiful, something we can call our own.” In Canada, some black professors have opposed the ban of the word in Universities, because such a ban would place a huge limit on the freedom of the black community, while also doing little (if anything) to stop or combat racism.
“If the university finds no place on campus and community for the N-word, then the statement censors my language, and constructively banishes me, not only as a Black man, but also as a Black studies scholar. I refuse to accept that the problem is my research or me; nor do I believe that if I stop using the word in my personal life, teaching and research that white supremacy and anti-Blackness will end. The problem is just the opposite.
To forbid the N-word actually serves the purposes of white supremacy and resuscitates racism rather than defeat it. I say this because we know our society oppresses Black people. But do you know that we are also culturally suppressed in predominantly white spaces? Barring the N-word functions as a too-easy way to quash the six or seven insightful ways the word functions in Black culture.
The university’s proscription, to be blunt, is a form of cultivated ignorance about Black lingo. The university is a microcosm of society, and neither seems eager to do the interesting and important work to understand Black peoples, Black communities and Black rhetoric.”
Strictly speaking, the current trend of removing or restricting content from streaming services is not censorship. Companies are (and should be) free to decide which kind of material they want to broadcast. At the same time, however, welcoming such removals, let alone demanding them, sets a very bad precedent when it comes to access to knowledge. While films like Gone with the Wind have enough of a reputation to warrant HBO to go through the trouble of creating additional content to explain what the film gets wrong about race and history, the vast majority of controversial works are not part of the mainstream, and are therefore much more likely to simply be excluded or quietly eliminated. To this, of course, we must add the problem created by the power pf companies like Spotify or Netflix, and which represent such a large segment of the market, that being excluded from them virtually has the same effect as being censored. After all, freedom of speech is useless if there are no ways in which we can make ourselves be heard, and when “cancellations” seek to have people removed from every platform, the risk of de-facto censorship is very real.
Although, recently, there have been a few cases of controversial bands boycotted or excluded from marketplaces because their content and ideas were labeled as far right, this censorial approach has also been used to exclude and punish minorities and dissidents. Indeed, regardless of who is in charge of policing content, disenfranchised groups will always end up being its victims.
This is what happened to the band Body Count when they released their 1992 debut, containing their song “Cop Killer.” Released the year after the infamous beating of Rodney King, the song was told from the perspective of someone who fantasizes about killing cops, in response to the police brutality he has witnessed (the song expressly references police brutality, harassment by the police, and the Rodney King beating). While nowadays we are used to seeing videos and photos of everything (even torturers take photos now) the 1991 video of the beating had really exposed the brutality suffered by some African Americans. Although the lyrics of the song are undeniably violent, the context from which they emerged makes us understand them differently. And yet, that didn’t stop many (particularly police organizations) to push stores to not carry the record, until the album was re-released without the song.
At a time when Body Count‘s message was especially relevant, when the debate around the effects of policing in black communities should have been focused on the policing part, an artwork depicting the perspective of a section of black America, was silenced. And this isn’t the result of racism (at least, not exclusively) but rather a necessary result of speech-suppressing policies, which will always, by definition, favor conventional wisdom. At the time it was released, the song showed a very unpopular perspective, and was therefore eliminated (we shouldn’t miss the irony that now, as an actor, Ice-T is part of a police drama that some want to eliminate for being too nice to cops).
Since Body Count‘s example involves the private sector making a bad decision (a company submitting to a boycott and bad publicity), some might be tempted to advocate for the government to fill that role. Some kind of “decency” committee protecting the rest of us from hateful ideas. After all, many European countries actively enforce laws against hate speech and, as the argument goes, they have managed just fine. The problem with that, however, is that these laws (which most people assume are used against neo nazis) are often employed to silence unpopular ideas. That’s what happened to Azhar Ahmed, who was charged in the UK with hate speech for saying that soldiers occupying Afghanistan should “die and go to hell”; or to French Palestinian activists who were convicted of inciting racial hatred for campaigning for the boycotting of Israeli goods in Supermarkets; or to Laure Pora, a French LGBT activist convicted of hate speech for referring to the head of an anti-gay marriage organization as a “homophobe“; or to the several Danish people who have been the targets of hate-speech prosecutions for blaspheming against Islam.
Although there is no doubt that many seek to eliminate certain types of speech with the sincere desire to benefit and protect minorities and other disenfranchised groups, such impulses are mistaken. As we have seen, content policing will always backfire against those who hold unpopular views, particularly in the very communities these policies seek to benefit. But there’s more to it than that. The fact of the matter is that offensiveness is necessary for society to advance, as virtually all of our progress has been made possible by unpopular ideas. From women’s suffrage to gay marriage, society has always needed voices that speak the things that nobody wants to hear. Be it in the art, sciences, or politics, offensive and controversial ideas have been the force the keeps us moving. Empowering Silicon Valley giants, or the State, to make these decisions for us, will not only backfire against those we want to protect, but will also stifle our progress.
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