Recently, there’s been a war of words happening in my mind. I am, for those who do not know, a strong advocate of the first amendment. For those who are not up to date on the US legalese, the first amendment protects people (citizen or otherwise) from laws prohibiting the freedom of expression, or activities related to such freedoms. The text reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Now, a bit of disclaimer here, but I’m not actually American. I’m from Canada, where the right to freedom of speech is not nearly as protected. There is a provision in section 1 of the charter, here in Canada, which allows the government to enact laws limiting such freedoms, so long as its scope can be seen as reasonable and just.
Now this may sound reasonable (as there are libel and defamation laws in the US as well). And, for a while, there wasn’t. These two values — freedom of speech on the one hand, and the ability to limit it when deemed necessary on the other — sat peacefully in my mind, coexisting like the two countries on the same continent. And, for a while, it seemed that it would last. But it all changed during the 2016 election.
For those of you who have been living under a rock, or for those who are reading this in the distant future, let me recap what happened in 2016. Donald J. Trump. He, and every value he believes to be true, was elected to office in November of 2016. This was the event that changed everything.
There is a common belief in the world that the “snowball effect” logic is a logical fallacy. The mere act of thinking in this manner is a sign of simplicity, lack of sophistication, and low education. But, the election of Donald Trump to the White House set off this snowball. And it grew. And grew. And grew. One of the events that marked this snowball’s rapid growth was Charlottesville. In August of 2017, alt-right protestors, and Antifa protestors met in Charlottesville, when a statue of Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, was scheduled to be removed from a public park. Tensions escalated, ending with a member of the alt-right driving his car into the crowd of Antifa demonstrators, killing 1 and injuring 19 others.
The death of Heather Heyer is not something I’m going to be discussing today. That was just wrong. There’s no doubt in my mind about it. But the protests, more specifically, the alt-right protests, continue to this day. Even here, in Toronto, there are alt-right protests happening. And, quite frankly, this worries me. But what worries me more is that the aforementioned, coexisting ideals in my mind have begun to realize they’re contradictory. They’ve begun to war it out, and have reached an uneasy stalemate.
The question is, where do we draw the line? This is a question that we, as a society, have been pushing off for a long time. Societies across the world have experimented with various lines, but there doesn’t seem to be an answer. There are societies, like the absolute dictatorships like North Korea, where freedoms of expression are heavily oppressed. We’ve agreed, as a society, that that’s too much censorship. We’ve agreed, tacitly, that freedom of speech is something worth guarding.
But then, on the other hand, we have societies with laws limiting the freedom of speech. Libel, defamation, perjury — we’ve decided, as a society, that lying is bad. But, then, where do these alt-right proponents fall? This isn’t an argument of whether or not their beliefs are based on false pretenses; this is an argument of whether or not we should be protecting the freedom of speech when its consequences directly impact other people.
Specifically, should we allow freedom of speech when it is being used to strictly discriminate against a particular group or individual? In school, there are rules that prevent bullying. In society, there are rules against discrimination for the workplace. But outside those sanctuaries, in the US, at least, there’s little to suppress the freedom of speech. Maybe it’s time to change that.
Because the riots in Charlottesville would not have escalated to such an extent, had there been laws in place to prevent such expressions. Had there been such laws, innocent blood would not have been shed. Because the race issue is a conversation that America has avoided for a long time. And it’s a conversation that we must have before we can move on.
But in the world where Donald Trump is president, the snowball effect fallacy lives strong. Perhaps enacting such laws, even at a state level, could be the beginning of overarching censorship laws that reach too far. Maybe it will be the start of the desensitization to censorship. I don’t know. Maybe we should all just stay quiet.