“Linguistic Reprisal” and How to Take Free Speech Back

I’m a tolerant person, but I have no tolerance for intolerance. When someone says something that is hateful or discriminating, usually intentionally, I have zero patience for that. And in the course of one of these conversations (usually about how gays are destroying the moral fabric of society, or Don Lemon asking why didn’t you just, you know, not get raped by Bill Cosby), I will be told that I’m not as tolerant of a person as I claim to be. Effectively, the question comes, “Don’t you have to tolerate intolerance, too?” They’ll say that surely, by claiming that I’m a tolerant person, it means that I have to tolerate intolerance. Here’s the simple answer, now and forever: No. I. Don’t.

Don’t you have to tolerate intolerance, too?

Here’s the complicated answer: I’m not sure when the world decided that free speech means you’re never wrong, or that I have to sit and listen to hateful beliefs about issues and people and stay silent. News flash: Some of the world’s most vile atrocities happened, not because anybody did anything, but mostly because nobody did or said anything. Silence kills more people than anything else, and I’m no conversational vigilante, but in the words of the illustrious and late Christopher Hitchens, “I won’t…HAVE it, ok?”[1]

This “tolerate intolerance” mantra is, as I see it, a defense against the one thing that no one wants to admit: that they don’t have any solid reasons backing up their beliefs. It’s one of the lowest forms of comebacks, an adult version of “I know you are, but what am I?” In a recent Buzzfeed video called “Diet Racism”, my favorite line is “Diet Racism! It’s the perfect beverage for people who don’t directly contribute to oppression, but have strong opinions about how other cultures should handle it.” This was followed by a white guy saying, “Stop and frisk shouldn’t be a problem if you got nothing to hide.” The reason what he says is a problem is because we all (should) know that all across the country, there is a consistent problem of police forces disproportionately targeting minorities and minorities don’t want to be felt up for drugs by a police office than any other person is. But the worst part about this false culture of political correctness means that if I’m hanging out with that guy, and he says something like that, I’m not even supposed to bring it up. This is where I pull out my big BS megaphone.

Stop and frisk shouldn’t be a problem if you got nothing to hide.

The way that I understand political correctness is that everyone really does have the right to be talked to like they’re a human being. So just because you’re against a women’s right to choose, that doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to unscrew our heads, take out our brains, mold mine into a hammer and yours into a nail, and try to pound away until my version of reality is yours. However, I expressly reserve and fight for the right to bring up difficult conversations, because I don’t believe in being afraid to talk about things. The false culture of political correctness is for people who want to just say things like, “Psh, why don’t we have a white history month?” and want me to have zero edge to talk back to that. Cue the Hitchens.

When I was a child, my father told me, “If you want to have friends, don’t talk about politics or religion.” But I think he was wrong. As I see the world, many more topics than these will test friendships, and if you don’t believe that, approach a conservative Adventist (assuming you know what the hell that is) about Harry Potter. If we were to shut up about all the things you could possibly lose friends over, we wouldn’t even tell each other about the episode of Game of Thrones we watched last night. (Actually, especially that.) What I’m suggesting here is “linguistic reprisal”, the idea that while others may be able to practice free speech, you can practice “free backtalk”.

If you want to have friends, don’t talk about politics or religion.

Later in life, I found out that MLK once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” It’s possible that I only appreciate the depth of this quote because I’ve never really been able to be silent about just about anything, but its truth still stands. Listen up, world: it’s okay to talk about difficult things. Finances, suicide, sex, porn, abortion, racism, political affiliations, sex slavery, religion, and many more things are up for grabs and open for discussion. I think it’s a shame that in this country where we prize so much our right to free speech, we sometimes forget our right to “linguistic reprisal”, and I’m not going to take it. Because, as scary as it might seem sometimes, in the myriad other ways that you could or might have to stand up for a principle, a conversation is, by far, the easiest.

[1] As quoted from this debate: Christopher Hitchens vs Dinesh D’Souza – What’s So Great About God? [2009] Here. Hitchens was referencing being told what to eat, wear, and do in the name of God. I cite him for his outspokenness, a parallel I find apropos when challenging social conventions of silence around important matters.

Question: What kinds of conversations do you feel others are afraid to have, should or should not be afraid to have, and why? Be sure to leave a comment below!



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