Some human rights make themselves impossible some of the time. Take the right to free speech: some forms of the exercise of this right make it difficult if not impossible for others to exercise their version of the right. Free speech for some can silence others. That may sound strange because it’s usually the violation of the right to free speech that silences.
I’m not talking about obvious cases such as the heckler’s veto because those are not really interesting. Below are some more contentious examples.
A lot of pornography depicts women as inferior and consequently contributes to the continued subordination of women. Both men and women can come to see women as subordinate objects of desire, unable or at least unlikely to speak, complain, withhold consent or resist. Pornography is then taken to provide factually accurate and morally correct information about women as silent and submissive objects of desire and sexual use. In the case of women, this process may silence them, and not only with regard to sexual consent. It’s not just that women’s speech fails to persuade or that men fail to listen (“when a woman says ‘no’ she doesn’t mean it”). It’s worse because women may even fail to attempt to persuade in the first place: they learn that their silence is the right attitude. Pornography deprives women of the capacity to speak.
Politically correct talk
Some of us use our right to free speech as a means to propagate the rule that certain words shouldn’t be said or certain topics shouldn’t be discussed because these words and topics tend to cement prejudice and to have self-fulfilling effects. Others may decide to remain silent as a reaction to this rule, because of shame, because they fear professional or reputational consequences, or because they genuinely believe that speaking in a certain manner or about a certain topic does have negative consequences for minority groups. Hence, political correctness silences certain perspectives, but probably not in the same deep manner as pornography.
Powerful voices, by which I mean voices backed up by lots of money or influence, can monopolize discourse and drown out competing voices. When certain points of view are pushed by well-funded think tanks and lobbyists or by unbalanced media outlets, then less competitive or powerful perspectives are silenced.
When members of minority groups are consistently harassed by hateful voices, when crosses are burned in their front yards, when they’re told not to go to certain places or relate to certain persons, then they may decide that it isn’t wise to protest. They may even internalize the discourse about their inferiority, in which case they are similar to women who have internalized the pornographic female ideal.
These 4 examples of the right to free speech eating itself show that this right – and perhaps other rights as well – should include the right to conditions favorable or necessary to its exercise. When combating restrictions on free speech, we should not only include explicit restrictions but also restrictions of its preconditions. Free speech doesn’t only get hard when governments or fellow-citizens overtly interfere, censor or persecute you for speaking your mind. In free societies you can supposedly say what you want, but how can you say what you want when the “you” in question is shaped and deformed by forces operating under the surface and is turned into a subordinate object that doesn’t even think of speaking? Or, somewhat less extremely, when fear of consequences forces you to remain silent or when a lack of balance in public discourse makes it impossible for you to be heard?
This last point raises a potential confusion: the right to free speech doesn’t include a right to be heard or to be listened to; the duty to respect free speech doesn’t include the duty to listen. That would go too far, even if we admit that free speech is useless without anyone listening. There’s a difference between a duty to listen and a duty not to silence. The latter duty may imply that we need to impose some restrictions on some forms of speech. If pornography or hate speech silences women or minorities, then the right to free speech of women and minorities may require restrictions on the right to free speech of pornographers and haters. Paradoxically, restricting speech can enhance speech.