Feminist theories and theo/alogies are often concerned with voice, naming and re-membering. Many feminists do this work, again and again, because of persistent silence and silencing, invisibility, erasure of stories, desires, religions and ways of being, because of missing histories, and a dominating culture’s inability and unwillingness to hear those they marginalize. We “hear each other into speech,” to counteract and recreate, to find power in ourselves and with those whom we share common cause.
We hear each other into ….speech.
Speech is treated as a sacred thing; and certainly, I hold the stories and voices of those with whom I’ve shared parts of my own feminist journey very sacred. I find the ability ‘to voice’ sacred. But I am also aware that as a citizen of the United States, “speech” or more specifically, “freedom of speech,” is sacralized as a part of my national mythology.
It is an implicit myth: all one needs to do is utter the word “speech” in the United States to conjure images of protest, civil rights, the free press, revolution, etc. There are many heroes in this mythology, most of whom “spoke truth to power,” rebuffing domination for the “common good.” The ‘free speaker,’ is often cast as the subjugated “everyman” (sic) whose autonomy and purpose drive society towards greater freedom. “He” and “his” subjugation, real or “alternative fact,” are then made to serve the larger myth of the American Dream. There is a major problem here: “the American Dream” is about freedom and independence for the white, Western male. So is it any wonder, then, that the myths surrounding “freedom of speech,” are so easily turned around to villianize those who might challenge this hegemonic power?
In case you haven’t heard, “the University” – because, you know, there is really only one, not thousands of different institutions with vastly different missions and agendas (read: heavy sarcasm here)—is out to get free speech. We academics are coming for your children with the goal of sanitizing the taint of any (conservative evangelical) Christian values through our insidious brain-washing programs. We silence students, men in particular, in classes (*because feminist and other liberative pedagogies are about silence after all) and dictate new, heretical culture from our Ivory Towers.
This rhetoric is a common trope: “the University” is not a new villain in U.S. cultural mythology. And certainly, critiques of the elitism, sexism and white supremacy of the “Ivory Tower,” are warranted. The University is not oppressed, nor “othered” by society. However, some writers argue, particularly as details of the new Republican tax plan come to the surface, that universities and higher education in general are under attack by 45’s regime. Perhaps this is due to the challenge that critical thinking and contextual understanding represent to this administration, or perhaps this is about image, the creation of a monster story meant to legitimize Trump’s persecution narratives, which were highly anti-intellectual during his campaign. Either way, conservative news circuits spin the idea that universities are systematically excluding Conservatives, conservative values or Republican ideals (ironically). And resistance—student resistance—to speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos on public campuses is made tantamount to a violation of civil rights.
Let’s pause here and repeat: resistance is described as a violation of “someone else’s” rights. This characterization, which seeks to make members of the dominating culture into victims, is evident in many histories of resistance. It is found in many histories of resistance and more specifically, in response to to activist movements like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter? Where there is no violation, one can be manufactured.
Consider some examples of the manipulation of free speech and set-ups for its violation coming from experiences within my own circle:
I taught one semester at a Cal State University several years ago, well before the current administration took power. Walking through campus one day, I remember watching a man who was supposedly representing a church stand on a bench or some other soapbox, and scream hate towards the LGBTQ community across the campus. A group of students was gathering around the man to yell at and argue with him, which he engaged with further antagonism. Speaking with a colleague about the incident, I was informed that this display was quite common and deliberate. Apparently, the man had come to campus hoping someone would attack him, making the university liable for suit. I had seen this kind of display on previous occasions, but never before had I considered it a deliberate money making scheme—this was an eye opener for me, teaching me about the manipulation of “freedom of speech.”
Fast forward to less than two years ago. My brother was working in student services as a queer advocate for a Cal Poly. On more than one occasion the “free speech wall,” an open wall where students can voice their opinions, was used to post hate speech. In one particular incident a sign was posted saying “Balls out for [student name],” with a caricature of a Muslim person holding guns saying “Islam go home.” In this case, students protested the hate, writing over the sign and hanging around it. But my brother also indicated to me that only certain responses were acceptable in other cases. The lure here: get someone to tear it down, have an ‘inappropriate’ response, then slam the campus for denying free speech. He sardonically told me that his *favorite comment on the wall was, “I can’t exercise my free speech with all of these people watching me.”
At this same school, Milo Yiannopoulos made one of his infamous campus visits, invited by a small group of students and funded from outside of the university. The Cal Poly administrationl, however, funded thousands of dollars in security for this “free speech activity,” while it had charged the Muslim Student Association for its conference security a year before.
Last month, fliers were posted on Cleveland State University, encouraging LGBTQ students to kills themselves, listing LGBTQ suicide statistics around the picture of a hanging person. The flyer was removed but only because of procedural issues—the president indicated that the flyer would otherwise have been protected as free speech, only later expressing “personal outrage” at its message.
Hate is not without intelligence; and the manipulation of free speech and the baiting people to violate this “sacred” right, is an insidious form of oppression and propaganda. Such tactics posit relationality, emotionality, passion and vulnerability as the enemy of right(s), freedom and independence, like so much Western ideology.
But freedom of speech is so much more than a kyriarchal rendition of the American Dream. Speech, so important and so vital, is so rarely re-membered as a source of life for the once silenced “other.”
This blog represents some beginning thoughts on this subject, somewhat disconnected and far from complete. I want to hear something different about freedom of speech. And I wonder, can we bridge the gap between the free speech reality that we live in, its manipulation and use within powerful kyriarchal myths, and the power and creativity of speech heard and brought forth in community?
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.
6 thoughts on “Freedom and Speech by Sara Frykenberg”
Not to get too technical about it, but most feminist ethicists have argued for “contextual ethics” as opposed to ethics based on the application of “universal principles.” Freedom of speech is usually understood to be a universal principle, even one that trumps other rights, such as the right to life (safety). In a contextual “context” the right to free speech would be not be understood to be absolute and universal, but rather relative to other rights and responsibilities, and yes this gets us into “grey” areas and into talking about what kind of world we want to create, including for example whether we want a world in which every individual can spew his or her hatred of others in public or one in which diversity and difference are recognized as values and no one has the “right” to speech that is intended to harm others. Just saying….
Very thoughtful post.
Partnered with the manipulation of “freedom of speech” is “freedom of religion”. Some people seem to think that their “freedoms” entitle them to abuse others. There is something very immature and unbalanced in an attitude of “my freedom of speech allows me to act irresponsibly”, or “my freedom of religion allows me to to trample other people’s human rights because that’s how I interpret it”. Of course those in power want to strangle Universities and places of knowledge. The “freedoms” they encourage are infantile and unjust – suitable for 2 yr olds who want only their own way.
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In the last sentence above “they” refers to “those in power”, not the universities!
Thanks Sara, I love this insight where you say: “We hear each other into….speech.”
It reminds me also of a wonderful insight by Elizabeth Warren — She says: “Suppression suggests weakness, free speech means more speech.” Also linked my name here to a recording of Warren’s speech available on youtube.com
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Freedom of speech is important, we need to protect it. Great writing.