Free Speech and the Right To Not Be Offended

The right to free speech has been invoked to defend all sorts of things, from promoting drugs for off-label uses to parodying trademarks. At the same time, people who make insulting or simply inaccurate statements sometimes expect that freedom of expression means that everyone must let those statements slide.

I’ve encountered this attitude many times. It goes something like this:

“You can’t tell me I shouldn’t say x because it’s offensive or untrue. I have my own truth and I’m allowed to say whatever I want.”

It’s a contradictory idea, of course: “I have freedom of speech, but you don’t have the freedom to say you disagree with me.” The whole point of free expression is to allow dissent. It was conceived as a legal protection to prohibit government crackdowns on citizens who protest or even just hold alternative views.

Not all speech is protected under these laws and the extent of them varies from country to country. For a number of reasons, religion seems to fall into a whole separate category – in many cases, the freedom to practice your religion has its own legislation.

Socially, too, criticizing someone’s religion raises more hackles than criticizing their political or lifestyle choices. A magazine can make fun of someone’s vegan diet or views on immigration, but that freedom seems to stop with religion.

Outside of a country’s laws, no one has the right to impose a religion on someone else. Some versions of secularism (the division of church and state) mean everyone can publicly practice their religion, while others lean more toward limiting religious expression to private occasions. Either way, it is illegal for the state to mandate individual religion in secular countries. This is what freedom of religion means.

In places with religious government, everyone has to respect and even appear to practice the national religion. To many, the most obvious examples are Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Myanmar also punishes citizens for even suggesting disrespect for Buddhism. Earlier this year, the country put three people in jail for an advertisement showing the Buddha wearing headphones.

According to the New York Times, the court convicted them because the advertisement “offended the majority religion in the country,” which violates the country’s religion act.

This incarceration shows that Buddhism is not just about a jolly fat guy who thinks everybody should live in peace. But more importantly, it reinforces a dangerous notion made apparent in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks: people who hold religious beliefs have the right to not be offended. Not only that, but if they are offended and they take revenge, it is at least partly the fault of those who committed the offence.

Of course, ethically, people probably shouldn’t offend other people just because they can. Ideally, all criticism should be constructive and based on facts. However, and here’s the key to all this, people are allowed to offend other people, no matter what their motivation – even if they just want to be annoying. Yes, it’s childish and irritating and unproductive. But that’s not the point. Freedom of speech only works if we protect speech that we disagree with.

No matter what we might think of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ crude drawings, we have to recognize their right to publish them. Religious belief does not exempt us from human rights law, let alone from being offended. If it did, we would have to say that it’s okay for Myanmar Buddhists to imprison people for depicting the Buddha in a comical way, while extremist Christians are right to blow up abortion clinics (which, by the way, is the biggest terrorism threat in the United States).

For good reasons, secular nations and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights have made many religiously sanctioned acts illegal, from honor killings (murder) to spousal disciplining (abuse).  Hate speech, or speech that incites people to violence, is also banned in many places, although its limits tend to be a bit fuzzy.

Photo: Ryan McGuire
Freedom of expression is not a one-way street (Photo: Ryan McGuire)

In the end, legislation is an attempt to stop people from harming other people. Freedom of expression protects us from fear of political retaliation, so that we can all contribute to a discussion on how to make the world a better place. Other laws forbid person-to-person violence, including as an act of revenge.

Free speech doesn’t justify structural, physical, or any other kind of violence.  And it certainly doesn’t protect us from getting our feelings hurt.

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Says Who?

In a scene from the movie Freedom Writers (2007), a character named Victoria is the only dark-skinned student in her high-school English class. The teacher starts a discussion of the The Color Purple by asking Victoria to share “the black perspective” on the book.

Erin Gruwell
Erin Gruwell, teacher of the original Freedom Writers

This episode was inspired by the real Freedom Writers’ Diary (1999), in particular one entry by Joyce Roberts.

When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people… “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”

How the hell should I know what the black perspective is on Affirmative Action or The Color Purple? What is it, magic? Black people read, and poof, we miraculously come to the same conclusion? The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own.

Let’s go over that last sentence again: The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own. Unless they’ve done some solid, long-term, in-depth research, no one can claim to express other people’s views (and even then, it’s limited to the topic at hand).

You know that politician or activist who you never agree with but who relentlessly claims to speak for “the people?” You know that they don’t, because they don’t speak for you. Or what about celebrities? Someone like Pamela Anderson might make a valid point here and there, but that doesn’t mean she represents a consensus among all animal activists or Vancouver Islanders or 48-year-olds or people with breasts or Russian ancestry.

So why is it that we sometimes think a shared “racial” status confers legitimacy on a spokesperson? No matter how appealing their ideas are, they only speak for themselves and maybe a few of their direct supporters.

The notion that shared skin colour equals a shared perspective is ludicrous. An elderly, urban, wealthy Jamaican woman with a doctorate in physics and a transgender child will not have the same worldview as a single male Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with a hefty student loan debt and a love of physics.

Yes, they both like physics and they both have dark skin, maybe even exactly the same shade. But they can’t speak for each other and everyone else with those characteristics, as if their minds and experiences are interchangeable. Also, who’s to say that their shared skin colour – or even their similar (or dissimilar?) experiences of discrimination – are the key elements that form their identity and relationship to the world?

A black (white/Latino/Asian/aboriginal/etc.) person is a social type, much like a politician, an entrepreneur, a public intellectual, a feminist, or an activist. There is no essential quality of “blackness” that is shared among all people with dark skin, just like there is no essential quality of “politician-ness” or “activist-ness” that lets us know right away what that person is like and how they see things.

What’s the exact shade variation that determines when a person is no longer “black” but “brown” or  “red” or “white” or something else? Or maybe ancestry determines your race. How many ancestors do you need to belong to a certain category? What if you have five different ancestral lines (or even two)? How do you choose which one is your race, let alone someone else’s? How far back can you go to justify your inclusion in a racial category? How far back do you need to go to justify your ancestors’ inclusion? Have we encountered the infinite regress fallacy again?

“Whiteness” is generally the unmarked racial category, meaning that when we think of race, we often think of “non-whiteness.” This difference means that most people don’t assume that a person with light skin speaks on behalf of all other people with light skin. But as soon as someone with dark skin speaks up, we have Joyce Roberts’ situation above, where they have become the spokesperson that “hold[s] the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans [or whatever] are.”

There’s so much wrong with this notion that I can’t elaborate on it all here. But the crux of the matter is that we need to challenge “the conventional presumption … that any black individual’s participation in public life always strives to express the will of the racial collectivity” (political scientist Adolph Reed, Class Notes, p.81) – as if a “racial collectivity” could even be delineated in any kind of concrete way.

And of course this applies to all groups, not just racialized ones. A male and a female Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with student loans and a love of physics probably have a lot in common with each other, even though their gender doesn’t match up. Class lines, experiences of inequality, personal interests, family relationships, type and level of education and many other factors intersect to shape a person’s identity and outlook.

So instead of assuming that we know (or don’t know!) something about a person or group based on one thing, let’s stop prejudging, whether the judgement is ostensibly positive or negative. In either case, it’s probably off base.

As an extension of this stance, let’s stop supposing that a “First Nations leader” or a “black intellectual” speaks on behalf of everyone who gets lumped into the same racialized category or labelled as the same social type. Their view is no more or less representative than that politician you dislike. Let’s examine their merits on a case-by-case basis.

In other words, let’s just get to know people on a human level and see what we have in common and what we can learn from one another. Surely it’ll be more rewarding than the divisive essentialism that “race-ists” would have us believe in.

Pope Francis Announces What We Already Knew

Pope FrancisLots of people have been getting excited about Pope Francis. He seems moderate and progressive, a humanitarian Christian voice in a world plagued by religious extremism. Recently, instead of staying for dinner with politicians, he decided to eat with some of the homeless in Washington, DC.

That’s a great action and he seems like a decent person. He’s made waves by refusing to ride a bulletproof Popemobile and speaking out about climate change. What’s not to like?

He even went so far as to accept evolution and the Big Bang theory. Good for him. He has caught up with the rest of us.

Except not quite. According to The Independent, his acceptance of these theories relies on the fact that they necessarily incorporate a creator – that they don’t work without intentional design:

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

These statements reveal how little he understands evolution. If “beings” automatically require a creator, then nothing can exist without something else existing to design it.

So wouldn’t the creator also require a creator and so on ad infinitum? This is an example of the infinite regress fallacy.

Okay, so maybe he’s imposing God on a theory that pretty much negates the possibility of a creator. But he’s a Catholic, so of course, he’s going to find a way to work God into proven scientific facts, right?

He’s entitled to express his opinion, even if it is based on a fallacy. What I don’t understand is why people applaud him for announcing a distorted, unfounded version of what scientists have already been telling us for a long time. Is Catholicism so far behind on the facts that even inaccurate science has become worthy of praise?

Then we have Elton John, the famous gay musician, calling Pope Francis his “hero” for promoting gay rights in the Catholic Church.  The Advocate, a gay rights magazine, named the pope Person of the Year, allegedly for nudging the church in the direction of greater tolerance and inclusion of the LGBT community.

Wouldn’t that be great if it were true? Sadly, before becoming pope, Francis (then known as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio) spoke out against legalizing gay marriage, calling it “an attempt to destroy God’s plan.”

People seem to have misunderstood what he meant by his now-famous quote, which appeared on the cover of The Advocate:

“If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

Of course, I can’t say what’s in his heart, but judging by his track record and other comments he has made, this statement seems more like a reference to casting the first stone only if you’re without sin yourself. He hasn’t actually said that homosexuality is not a sin, just that Catholics should stop judging others. For a more detailed analysis of the Vatican’s current stance on homosexuality, check out this insightful article from TIME. It’s not as radical as you might think.

The fact that people get so excited about this guy shows how restrictive and judgmental the Catholic clergy often are, not to mention hypocritical. At least Pope Francis appears to practice what he preaches.

It’s like if a two-year-old draws a stick person compared to an adult doing the same. The feat seems more impressive when the person isn’t fully developed.

I guess the same goes for the church taking baby steps. We’re so impressed by this pope that we forget how completely Catholicism would have to reinvent itself if it wanted to achieve any kind of progressive status.

Science Is Not Truth

How do we know what is true? It’s an age-old question that hasn’t been fully resolved.

We do know that evaluating evidence and recognizing the role of subjectivity are part of the most reliable approach we’ve discovered so far in our trajectory as a species.

Generally, we call this approach “science.” But science is not the same as truth.

A few years ago, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) removed the word “science” from its description of the discipline of anthropology. Unsurprisingly, this act created an uproar with partisans on either side arguing for or against the definition of anthropology as a science.

Unfortunately, a lot of them seemed unable to articulate what science really is.

It’s a common mistake and one you will encounter in other areas. When people debate the validity of science, we tend to take for granted that everyone knows what the term means. Fun fact: we don’t.

You may have come across the phrase “the scientific method.” This phrase provides a clearer indication of what’s going on than the single word “science.” “Science tell us that the Earth orbits the sun” would become “The scientific method tells us that the Earth orbits the sun.” It’s a subtle difference, but revealing nonetheless.

The first statement implies some sort of oracle or god (“Science, goddess of the Sky”) revealed an absolute truth. In the second version, we understand that a rigorous process was involved.

In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (drawing on his teacher Franz Boas) wrote down three principles of science:

  • The method of science is to begin with questions, not with answers, least of all with value judgements.

  • Science is dispassionate inquiry and therefore cannot take over outright any ideologies “already formulated in everyday life”, since these are themselves inevitably traditional and normally tinged with emotional prejudice.

  • Sweeping all-or-none, black-and-white judgements are characteristic of categorical attitudes and have no place in science, whose very nature is inferential and judicious.

Kroeber’s teacher, Franz Boas, divided science into two branches, which he called the general sciences and the historical sciences. For him, the general sciences try to discover universal laws, while the historical sciences uncover the processes behind things that happen only once, usually in a specific time and place. The social sciences, including history, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology (among many others), fall into the latter category.

Both use the scientific method. Although the type of knowledge they produce is not identical, both the general sciences and the historical sciences contribute “true” ideas to the collective body of knowledge.

I put “true” in quotation marks because scientists of all stripes constantly work to disprove accepted theories. When evidence supports a theory, that’s great, but it’s more important to see what other evidence might disprove the theory. In this way, while it is a challenge to conclusively prove a scientific theory beyond any possibility of dispute, it can be quite simple to disprove the same theory. This is how we know that vaccines don’t cause autism (a disproven theory) and that gravity is likely more of a push than a pull (a theory modified from its original version).

As The Skeptical Raptor suggests, evidence against a hypothesis is more powerful than evidence in favour of it. In other words, if you have three bits of evidence in favour of a theory and only one against it, the theory is wrong. It might not be entirely wrong (as in the gravity example above), but something about it needs to be changed to more accurately represent what is happening.

This is why so-called scientific laws are not carved in stone. Just like national laws, they can change.

Scientists face a lot of criticism when they announce that they were wrong about something. Also when they refuse to state anything with 100% certainty.

But what they are trying to say is that, while there is no absolute truth, there are degrees of validity.

Additionally, a theory is only based on the scientific method if people can imagine a way to test or disprove that theory.

If there is no way to test it, then there is also no way to prove it or argue it either way. We’ve left the realm of science to enter the realm of philosophy (which, by the way, has a lot of value in its right).

One of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s more infamous theories says that all girls experience penis envy, recognizing the male sex organ as superior to their own. When challenged with evidence that went against his theory, namely that many girls and women say they do not have penis envy, Freud simply asserted that they were in denial.

This is an example of how logic can fail us by denying or explaining away contradictory evidence. Evidence is more important than logic and the hypothetical plausibility of a theory based on logic alone says little about how a process might actually play out in the real world. We can imagine all kinds of logically possible beings, processes, and events. Both Freud’s theory and his explanation of contradictory evidence sound logical and plausible. But as soon as he explains away the gaps with circular logic that draws on no evidence, the theory stops being scientific. You can no longer falsify (i.e. come up with a way to test his theory) since there is nothing observable (i.e. no evidence). We are forced to toss the whole thing out the window.

Real scientists and seekers of knowledge are always trying to disprove their own theories. They don’t need something to be right just because they have always thought it must be true. Instead, they constantly re-examine their assumptions and come up with new ways to disprove existing explanations.

Of course, if people test a theory for decades and centuries with no successful disproof, then the theory generally becomes established as fact. In careless everyday speech, many people including scientists will say it is therefore “true,” but I would recommend being more specific in what we say. Otherwise, we risk obscuring that in this context the word “true” simply means “rigorously tested but never disproven.” If contradictory evidence surfaced, we would accept the error in the original theory.

Science requires a flexible mind, as well as an acceptance of uncertainty.

On a final note, I use the word “disproof” above, which is probably more recent incarnation than the word “proof.” Originally, to “prove” something meant to test it, as in its derivative word “probation.” Knowing this helps us understand what the scientific method means by proving something is true – it actually means the opposite of what we might think: you can only prove a theory by seeking to show it is false, but failing to find evidence that goes against it.

Too Much Sleep and Not Enough Research: The Blunders of Popular Science

Whether shift work, high-performance careers, or the incessant appeals of infants, many of us just can’t get the sleep we want. So when a miraculous day off appears, the freedom to sleep in feels like the best thing that has ever happened.

Yet somehow, after ten, twelve, or even fifteen hours of sleep, we wake up groggy and still sleepy. The refreshment we craved has eluded us even after a bout of solid sleep. How can that be?

That’s the question posed by Wired science reporter Nick Stockton in his article “What’s Up With That: Why Does Sleeping In Just Make Me More Tired?”

Stockton explains that sleeping in upsets your body’s sense of time in the same way that quickly crossing time zones leads to jet lag. Your “biological clock” gets confused and your cells don’t know how much energy you need at what time. This part of the article makes sense.

He should’ve left it at that.

He then goes on to explain how sleep scientists have linked regular oversleep with health issues, specifically “diabetes, obesity, and even early death.” He lists a number of factors that could induce oversleeping, from alcohol and drugs to a lumpy bed that inhibits deep sleep, thereby causing you to feel tired for longer.

The article starts to leap from subject to subject with no transition or explanation. We start off with oversleeping being like jet lag, and then suddenly we are talking about regularly getting nine to eleven hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period (which is not like jet lag at all, since it’s regular). All at once, he turns to the subject of irregular sleep hours and how those who sleep in the day can trick their brains into thinking it’s nighttime. We are just getting our bearings when Stockton switches over to what happens during a sleep cycle and how to improve the overall quality of your sleep by changing your sleep situation. At this point, we try to catch our breath when he sprints over to discussing recognized disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy, one of which causes you to stop breathing in your sleep and the other which makes you fall asleep at inopportune times. He tenuously links these conditions to his topic with the line, “In addition to all the other terrifying aspects of this disease, it’s not doing your quality of sleep any favors.” We are far from the realm of oversleep at this point.

In the end, Stockton recalls his original point, advising readers to  establish “some equilibrium between your weekend and weekday sleep.” Huh? Most of the article has nothing to do with this kind of imbalance and a lot of the health issues he presents don’t actually have anything to do with oversleeping.

Although a punchy, enjoyable writer in terms of style, Stockton doesn’t seem to know what his article is about. He never defines oversleep (is it sleeping more than you usually do or sleeping more than the social or scientific norm?). He answers the question in his title in the first four paragraphs and then takes a nosedive into a bunch of tangentially related material.

He also sets up an artificial causality not present in the scientific studies he cites. Although cliche, we have to remember the famous statistics phrase: Correlation does not imply causation.

Just because memory loss or diabetes is more common in people who sleep more than is scientifically accepted as normal in this part of the world, we can’t assume that the relationship between a health condition and sleep is unidirectional. In fact, one study he cites from Harvard makes it explicitly clear that the jury is still out on how any of this works:

“Another possibility is a two-way street between sleep and memory: sleep quality may affect memory and thinking, and the brain changes that cause memory and thinking problems may disturb sleep.”

I’m not arguing that sleep has no impact on health. However, popular science writers like Stockton tend to ignore other possibilities. Their presentation style, if not their actual arguments, suggest that what they say is an absolute fact. But maybe people who work a lot have diabetes because they don’t eat well, not because of their sleep. Perhaps someone who chronically “oversleeps” (whatever that means – we still don’t know) has some other condition that leads to both longer sleep duration and earlier death.

Nobody knows. Scientists don’t know, and they will be the first to tell you that sleep studies are still in their infancy. The world has only had the technology and social conditions to study sleep objectively since around the mid-twentieth century (see, for example, Kenton Kroker, The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research, 2007).

It’s no wonder we’re still confused.

So instead of pretending we have all the answers, let’s allow ourselves to live with our lack of knowledge. And let’s cut the muddled pop science articles trying to create coherence out of limited scientific evidence.