It is a phrase I hear a lot from my white friends in response to awful white supremacist speech on and offline-—that you have to protect the worst of the free speech in order to protect free speech for everyone. Up until about 2012 it was a go to line for myself. It is easy to learn and repeat, and doesn’t require much scrutiny or thought. From within your narrow white bubble it seems logical, and you get to feel like you are doing something good for everyone—-at least you’ve convinced yourself of that. In reality, it demonstrates that you haven’t spent any time understanding the most normal everyday free speech issues for minorities and underrepresented people, and actually it is well designed to actually do that opposite of what you think, and is all about supporting the worst of the worst and about diminishing the rights of others.
Since around 2012 I have found myself living in more diverse neighborhoods than ever before, exposing myself to issues that face black, brown, indigenous, and immigrant folk in neighborhoods in Washington D.C., New York, Oakland and others. Over the time I have seen many of my white friends on Facebook defending the worst behavior online with this statement hundreds of times, stepping up to defend the worst of the worst we’ve seen emerge during the Trump administration and beyond. Everyone one of them truly believe what they are saying right and well meaning, and that they are somehow carving out space for marginalized folks with this behavior, when they spend zero time ever educating themselves around how the average everyday free speech of marginalized individuals are being trampled upon, or ever defending even the most well known free speech issues of our day. All of this has left me abolishing this phrase from my vocabulary, and looking at the people I know who do in a different light.
I’ve seen how this phrase is just one of many phrases we’ve been taught over the years to defend white supremacy and maintain our place in the order of things. All we are doing with this phrase is defending the worst of the worst. If you are truly interested in not just free speech, but also diverse free speech, you will spend more time reading up on the free speech challenges of people who don’t look like you. There are numerous average everyday free speech issues where black, brown, indigenous, LGBTQ and people with disabilities face each day–yet you choose to spend your activist cycles on defending people like Trump, Joe Rogan, and Elon Musk. Defending these people’s ability to say awful things does not equal magically free space for marginalized folks to speak their minds. It actually does the opposite. You defending space for white supremacists, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ is only about making the world a toxic place, and actually does very little for free speech. This all makes sense in your white bubble, but once you begin seeing the world through a different lens you will begin to see things a little differently, and sadly begin seeing the real reason we use this statement.
Whenever I used to get push back from people around me about saying this I’d get all puffy and respond how important it is. This behavior is something I’ve long since identified as a red flag, not just with responding to free speech issues, but anything that challenges my programming as a white male. Anytime I feel like responding in this way I see it as a signal that A) I should keep my mouth shut, and B) I need more education around whatever subject is being discussed. I wish I could help more of my friends in their own journey along these lines, which is why I guess I write these posts. First and foremost this post is for me to process my own programming and put this one to rest, allowing me to move on to other areas I am programmed by the world around me. Second, I guess I hope that someone else might read and see the same behavior in themselves, and begin thinking a little more deeply about who we are and how we fit into the world. In this moment, I am just trying to better understand the issues that people face in the world around me, and since so many of them do not look like me, and come from very different backgrounds, I have a lot of learning and listening to do before I actually understand the challenges they face with free speech.