WORD: ‘talk smack get whacked’ has never been a denial of free speech. While arguably intimidating, it has only provided a disclaimer that the freedom of speech is not a freedom from responsibility.
I mean, sure, coming from the product of Singapore’s semi-vague, semi-threatening censorship laws, this sounds like a rhetoric used in the brainwashing of our generations: be careful with your words lest you land yourself in trouble for anything that goes against those in power. Conspiracies in point: Big Brother is busy taking care of people, from local shutdowns of news sites like The Real Singapore to regional, mysterious disappearances of bookstore owners in Hong Kong. What these show is a tyrannical, often governmental, persecution against free speech bolstered by the intolerance of alternate views.
The surfacing of such events through clicktivism quickly polarises the issue of free speech into two sides: the house of sticks-in-mud, and the house of all things free.
This is where I stand: I do not disagree that the freedom of speech, especially the freedom to offend, should be defended and upheld - search up “quotes about freedom of speech” and you will find many a credible source arguing the point that the freedom of speech liberates ideas and promotes progress in thought through active discussion. The case is simple: freedom of speech keeps tabs on those in power when people are allowed to question authority. This prevents stagnation of ideas and allows people to pursue better changes to their way of life. Step three: profit!
However, if progress is the end goal of the freedom of speech, then what does not intend for progress cannot be considered an effort to exercise the right. Mindless insults and the use of slurs do not belong; instead of proposing an argument critiquing an ideology, insults are hurtful, dismissive, and offer no room for counterarguments. More often than not, they are built upon a history of systematic oppression. For example, the use of “chink” as a derogatory slur against Chinese people has its roots in actual discriminatory laws against Chinese laborers migrating to the United States in the 19th century. Even now, the prejudice has not ebbed away - workplace discrimination by race and ethnicity still remains.
Referencing such slurs when you are not a part of the marginalised community is disrespectful by virtue of the fact that you have not had to face the same discrimination they face. See, feeling flamboyant and dramatic is not the same as being ‘gay’ - not the same as facing the possibility of rejection from society to the point where suicide is a preferable option. Call it a joke if you will, or express your heartfelt regret that people are not ‘open-minded’ enough to accept your regrettable sense of humour; you still cannot deny that your ‘freedom to offend’ is unfounded:
The freedom of expression and freedom to offend was never meant to perpetuate systems of oppression; these freedoms were created to protect the marginalised from being persecuted politically for their opinions. To pretend that one’s speech is free from all criticism because everyone is entitled to their sentiments is to escape the burden of proof that is required for exchange, and ultimately, progress of thought.
Just as language is inherently social, it is political. Its circulation shapes what we perceive as accepted, and in turn, writes its attitudes into law. When we embrace words that have been used against communities, we are not freeing ourselves from deeply-entrenched prejudice. Instead, we continue to uphold stagnating ideas by engaging in pointless disrespect among ourselves. If you are free to offend, why slur your speech?