Freedom of Speech: What are we protecting?

Trigger warning: This article contains themes of violence, r*pe, white supremacy and police violence.

Freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, it’s the first amendment and as such we hold this right in high regard. A symbol of a truly free nation. There have been notable decisions by The Supreme Court around what is and is not protected by the first amendment. In all of these cases, however, hate speech has remained a protected form of speech. Ignoring the true cost of this rhetoric and the lived experience of those that it targets — while things like burning a draft card, urging for resistance to the war effort, calling for a general strike, or advocating for a violent revolution are all not protected. You can burn a flag though. 

Despite this, my interest does not lie with hate speech, but rather in the reaction to it. Those in power will always seek to create a narrative that allows them to maintain their power. This has been demonstrated quite clearly throughout history. More interestingly, however, is in the way that minority communities have found powerful ways to combat this speech. Calls of: Punch your local Nazi. Kill your local R*pist. All Cops Are Bastards. Melt I.C.E. Kill the cop in your head. Kill the colonizer inside of you. These are damning cries, they reach to the very heart of oppression and seek to tear it out.

When we say these things, we are inciting violence against these people, but this is exactly what makes it such a powerful rhetorical tool. It is jarring and makes you consider people’s positionality in our society. It makes you consider what this really means for people. This rhetoric pushes the boundaries, it pushes back against oppressors and abusers. People who are violent towards others simply for holding a certain identity. 

Punching a Nazi is either self-defense or community defense because when you punch a Nazi you are punching all that they uphold: anti-semitism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, etc. That is where the power in these calls lies. 

This rhetoric is violent. This rhetoric incites violence. There is no denying that. But, if we are being honest, we did not start this violence. We did not initiate this yet we are living in a world that is violent toward us. 

When considering violent language or action one must consider the power structures at play. Inherent in the identities we carry is the violence that has been woven into the fabric of society. Centuries of violence that we carry on our backs as our ancestors did. Centuries of violence which is upheld to this day. White supremacy, coloniality and the patriarchy are upheld through acts of violence. Violence which has been normalized over the centuries: the over-policing and incarceration of communities of color, the criminalization of immigration, and the degradation of women are few examples of the ways that this violence has been normalized against our communities.

So, in saying these sorts of things we are challenging oppression that has existed. These calls are challenging the inequitable distributions of power and protection in society. They’re calling for rights. They’re calling for visibility. They’re calling for equality. These calls are violent in their nature, and because of that, they give us the ability to fight back against the status quo and the injustice inherent in it. It gives us the power to call for change, real change, lasting change. It shifts the dynamics of power and it causes you to reevaluate the society in which we live. 

Why is burning a cop car considered destructive, but redlining and gentrification are not? Why are the asylum seekers at the border being criminalized, but the country which caused the devastation in their homeland forcing them to flee is not? Why is murdering the man who raped you condemned, but raping a woman is not? 

When those who hold power in society are violent it is written off. It is excused because we have grown used to it, it has become a part of our lives and it is embedded in the very fabric of the world that we have come to understand. When those who do not hold power in society are violent we pay attention. We pay attention because we recognize that there is a shift in the dynamic as we have come to understand it. Something fundamental has been challenged, and that is terrifying for those who have come to accept their existence as it is. Whether it is because they in some way profit off of the current system or if it is because they are simply fighting to survive within it.