Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Freedom of speech

"The freedom of speech is a rather relative concept," - I noted to myself about a year and a half after moving to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, while standing in my guidance counselor's office, accused of sexual harassment. Having realized that, I decided to keep it to myself for the time being.

(The sexual harassment in question involved telling a single joke with sexual content, and did not involve any physical contact. The accuser was Waldemar "Wally" Ulich, a teacher of German, who should have known better, considering that he was an expert on sexual harassment himself. He is currenty serving his 20 years' probation on 10 counts of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14.)

Seriously, though: don't take freedom of speech for granted. Not in the Land of the Free, not in Lintukoto, not anywhere.

I don't want to go into "there is no true and perfect freedom of speech anywhere, so why bother" kind of cynicism. I have had a chance to observe the differences between the civilized and the uncivilized world in this respect, and it is enormous. Freedom of speech is, however, not absolute, and its borders are usually unclear and constantly moving.

The reason for it is, well, us. The freedom of speech belongs to the category of things that are very nice to have for oneself, but when somebody else exercises it to say the things we don't like, we look for excuses to silence them. Because it's insulting. Or obscene. Or bad for the children. Or bad for the music industry. Or likely to piss Muslims off. Or creates a hostile working environment. Or is racist. Or sexist. Or sexual. Or whatever.

It's sort of like tolerance. Almost everyone claims to be tolerant, except of course of things that should never be tolerated.

Of course I try not to demand restrictions on other people's freedom of speech, and even tend to believe that I am totally for the freedom of speech, within reason of course ("fire" in a crowded theater, incitement to murder, etc., etc.), but I guess so also believe all the other people who are totally for the freedom of speech. Within reason, of course. You know, almost everyone is totally for the freedom of speech but every new restriction on it has a fair lot of people behind it.

(Note: I am talking about freedom of speech as a right to say what you want without being punished by the Powers that Be. I am not talking about being censored from HS or Suomi24 forums, or about being ridiculed in the media for what one says, or about losing one's constituency's votes after saying something unseemly. These are very different issues.)

I think people (myself probably included) need occasional reminders that the freedom of speech as such was not invented so that you could tell your neighbor "good morning, isn't the weather lovely today?", although I am quite sure that somebody somewhere got punished for that, too. The freedom of speech is there so that people whom we don't like can feel free to say things we don't like. For example that Holocaust did not happen. Or that having sex with children of any age should be legalized.

(As a carrot to my dear readers: wouldn't you like to know what your enemies are saying and who they are? That's what I usually tell myself when I feel like limiting someone's freedom of speech.)

I did not really write this to remind people to safeguard others' freedom of speech. A lot of people write about that, with variable results, and I don't think I really have that much to add. I wrote this to tell people to watch out, and not to rely on the freedom of speech. They really are out to get you - the people who don't like what you say. The laws are unclear, the exceptions and gray areas are numerous, and it is quite easy to get in trouble. Be careful.

OTOH - people who get in trouble for what they say are constantly testing and pushing the limits of the freedom of speech and are probably the only thing that keeps the whole concept from collapsing in on itself. Keep up the good work, guys.

(Unless, of course, what you are saying is a call to Jihad, in which case do us all a favor and eat shit and die. By yourselves, mind you, and without any innocent bystanders.)

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