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“Free Speech and Fair Speech.” Part 1 of Unspeakable, by Betty McLellan.

March 4, 2013

Free Speech and Fair Speech.”  Part 1 of  Unspeakable: A Feminist Ethic of Speech, by Betty McLellan.   Australia: Spinifex Press, 2010.

Rather than review this excellent book in its entirety, I am reading and reviewing it section by section and discussing it with others.  This is my response to this month’s reading.  For my previous review and other’s responses, look here.

Next week I will be offline having cataracts removed.  I am not sure when I will be back. I hope others will go ahead with comments and discussion.

I really like Betty McLellan’s discussion of the difference between free speech as traditionally defined and defended and fair speech in which people can not only speak but have a chance of being heard.  I agree with her, but I hadn’t previously thought through why the traditional definitions of free speech were inadequate or sorted out of debates about the issue among feminists.  As she describes, free speech has been taken as an absolute, unquestionable demand for any nation that calls itself a democracy.  Traditional defenses of free speech have been based on the faulty assumption that all people’ are equal and have equal access to being heard.  Such defenses also prioritize rights of individuals over those of society or even over well-established facts.  IAbsolute freedom of speech gives most freedom to those who already have considerable power to speak and be heard.

In past, the claim that pornography is free speech has divided feminists.  Some have claimed that, therefore, it cannot be judged as wrong or made illegal.  Other feminists have pushed for its restriction on grounds that pornography hurts women, directly for those forced to perform it and indirectly in its treatment of women as nothing but objects whose conquest is celebrated.  McLellan writes convincingly about the real harm that pornography causes.  Although this fight has quieted, the issue has risen again in the USA over campaign financing since our Supreme Court has rules that free speech means all the speech you can buy.  Their ruling allows big corporate interests to squeeze out more representative voices with less money.  This is just the latest example of the growing collusion between government and corporate interests sealing out the voices of those who seek to protest.

McLellan gives the best response to such issues that I have encountered.  For speech to fair and truly free, it should be limited in the interests of common goods.  She elaborates on the old argument that no one is free to shout fire in a crowded theater if no fire exists.  To make some reasonable laws to restrain obviously hurtful and dangerous speech is not a “slippery slope” down which we will destroy all our freedoms.  We are currently in the midst of the same issue over the limiting the availability of guns with the capacity to kill large numbers of people quickly.

Fair speech, in McLellan’s view, includes the right to be heard, even when others don’t agree with us.  It protects all from speech that is hateful and harmful and affirms that in speaking freely we have a responsibility to our larger community.  Such a definition would raise still more questions, of course.  I am not sure where I would draw the line about what is considered harmless.  But the points that McLellan makes at least give us some alternative to the assumption that we are all free to use our speech to increase our power over those who are already disempowered in our society.

Overall, I appreciate McLellan’s approach and think her book should be more widely read and discussed.  She does an excellent job of summarizing what other feminists have said and where they disagree, raising seldom considered alternatives to problems we often try to ignore.  Too bad the book only seems to be available in the USA as an ebook.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 5, 2013 7:18 pm

    Well, “judged as wrong” and “made illegal” are two very different things–there are lots of things I can judge as wrong without ever wanting them to be illegal–and I’m sure some sex workers would object to the notion that women are forced to participate in pornography.

    I do think that the point about equal access to free speech is a good and really important one. Speech always exists in specific (physical, virtual or conceptual) locations and those locations are always controlled by someone or some group who will exercise implicit or explicit control over what goes on there. As more and more of the spaces in which we exist and communicate with each other are owned by corporate interests, there are real free speech concerns that I think are under-recognized. It does seem, though, that the internet has done a lot to help make some of those less-powerful voices more capable of making themselves heard. It isn’t the great equalizer that early digital advocates thought it would be, and there are unfortunately still hierarchies of privilege, but it’s done noticeable good.

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