Jeremy Felt

Thinking through free speech and communities (a bit)

…and probably reaching some conclusions we disagree on. 🤷🏼‍♂️

I read Aaron’s post about symbols of hate at WordCamps a week ago, appreciated it, liked his tweet, and then kind of moved on. To me, it seemed like basic and healthy community-oriented thinking. I was somewhat surprised several days later to see the opinion piece on WP Tavern identifying the red MAGA hat as one of the “ideas outside our own” we may be presented with when attending a community event.

I say “somewhat” because I do remember a time when I identified completely with thoughts like Evelyn Beatrice Hall‘s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Free speech is not as simple as that statement.

It’s a topic I spend a lot of time juggling in my head, but my current conclusions align more with how I read the entirety of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights than with how the United States has historically chosen to interpret and apply the first amendment.

In general, I do agree the government should not create laws that abridge speech, the press, assembly, or petition. How the first amendment is interpreted by the government is at its most important when it comes to thinking and speaking critically of the government itself.

I don’t believe that democratizing publishing means fighting for the others’ right to say hateful things. I do believe it is okay for a community to value non-hateful speech and to call out hateful speech when we see it.

Working within the bounds of that, I want to be a member of communities that strive to be welcoming to a diverse group of people and viewpoints. As part of those communities, people should feel comfortable having beliefs. People should not feel comfortable asserting those beliefs in ways that harm or create an unsafe environment for any other person.

There’s some naievity in the next statement, but I’m okay with it. Establishing a definition for “unsafe” in this context isn’t as difficult as it may seem.

I am a white male who identifies as he/him. It is easy for me to share my opinions without feeling unsafe. The only true barrier to me sharing an opinion is my comfort level—here I am writing this post, sneaking just past that comfort level. Ask me in person to share the single time (mayyyybe two) I have actually felt unsafe in my life and I will. Ask a person of any other demographic and the list is often too long for me to fully comprehend.

This makes it easy for me to draw some kind of line as part of a community: if somebody tells me a symbol or behavior makes them feel unsafe, I believe them.

Even if I don’t understand it: I receive it, try to process it, and believe them.

Free speech for me, in a nutshell: speak truth to power, be aware, think critically, share your work, and amplify others who are doing the same—without hate.

If my site supported footnotes, this would be a footnote. What made me comfortable actually hitting publish? I help to build the software that powers 35.9% of the web. A piece of software with a loosely described mission of “democratize publishing” that we are all able to assign our own version of meaning to. I’m low-key irritated the software I help make showed an argument for a hat in the dashboard on millions of sites across the world and that irritation made me feel the need to add my voice the greater discussion.

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