This is a post inspired by a comment by Biohazard on a blogpost on Skepticblogs, in which he referenced an exchange in a video chat that concerned A+.  The following is Biohazard’s comment:

In the latest video chat held by PZ, “Atheism+?”, one of his guest (Esteleth) said the following:

Esteleth: One of the things about these people who don’t want to give up their privilege it’s the concept that’s been talked about for a hundred years if not longer is your right to do something ends the second that what it is you are doing hurts someone else. You know the original phrasing is you can waive your arms around but that right stops when you hit somebody in the nose. You know.

Rebecca Watson: Your right to waive your fist ends where my face begins.

Esteleth: Something along those lines. And, and that’s actually very true and that also applies to things like language. Yeah, I can say all manner of words, I have the right to do that, I have the freedom of speech but my right ends the second that somebody that is affected by those words hears me.
***********[end quote]**********


Statement occurs at about 56:30

Ah, no. Outside of the very narrow cases of libel, slander or incitement, you do not have the right to be “unaffected” by the speech of others. IOW you do not have a right to never be offended by the speech of others.

Talk about a silencing technique! That way lies madness.

Words are not blows or bullets, they are words and the proper response to words you don’t like are your own arguing against them.

This is my reaction:

There was a pretty strong communication that legal freedom of speech did allow for saying just about anything, but that the right of someone to say something was not absolute once it had an effect on others.

That begs to be clarified.  What did she mean by “right”  (legal right? ethical right?) and what did she mean by “effect”?

The word “effect” that Esteleth used was not very descriptive.  Considering that the conversation just before her statement was about how you don’t have the right to hurt someone by smacking them in the face, it makes sense that we are discussing ill effects not effects generally.  A defensible interpretation of “effect” in this context is “harm”; not simply feelings stemming from disagreement or even disgust for the opinions voiced by someone else.

If she was indeed advocating an absolute “right not to be offended” I would find that highly problematic, but I don’t think that’s a very charitable interpretation.

Your contention that “Words are not blows or bullets…” if taken metaphorically is demonstrably not true.  We know that words can cause real harm to others.  This harm can include:

Harms experienced by victims of hateful speech, outlined by Matsuda et al.
(1993) and Sullaway (2004), include psychological and physiological symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): panic, fear, anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts of intimidation and denigration.

Whether or not words cause harm are based on context.  Sometimes “cunt” “fuck” “retarded” “douchbag” “nigger” “faggot” do not cause harm.  Many times they absolutely do, especially with consideration for the phenomena of “micro-aggression” where the words and actions of others taking by themselves would prove to be simple annoyance, but in their totality cause severe harm.  Sometimes words as seemingly innocuous as “girl” “she” and “miss” are indeed “blows and bullets”.

For example, would it be completely legal for someone to purposefully misgender my nephew?  Yes.  Would it be ethical to do so?  Absolutely not, as that action causes him harm and is a very minor consideration for those accommodating his request and is also an accommodation that is extended to others through social expectation.

I agree that, when words effect someone in significant ways, the absolute nature of free speech rights ends.  That doesn’t mean that the one effected automatically has the right to silence.  It only means that we are no longer in absolutist black-and-white land.

In Esteleth’s statement, the lack of absolute right to speech is dependent on whether or not that speech effects others.   If there is little or no ill effect, than that is not the speech she is discussing.

Ill effects are easily shown in the case of someone shouting in someone’s ear, being disruptive, following someone around hurling insults, threatening someone or attempting to trigger someone.  These types of speech have ill effects on others, so the person who is speaking does not have the absolute right to continue to speak in that way.

In the end, there is a balance between fostering safe spaces and allowing free expression.  With respect, where that balance lies depends on many considerations and is not an issue that deserves to be reduced to relying on wisdom gained from childhood jingles.