There’s this funny idea people have about free speech.
See, here’s how it actually works. You can say whatever you like, so long as what you say doesn’t harm anyone. If you can find a platform for yourself, even more power to you. Start a blog, make a Twitter account (make ten Twitter accounts!), post on Reddit, find your happy place and go for it. Free speech, whilst not constitutionally protected the world over, is a basic human right.
Here’s what’s not a human right: an assurance that anyone will listen.
Yeah. This is where it gets funny.
I get cat-called a lot. I mean, I get cat-called a lot. And before you rush to say something snarky about my outfit choices or the height of my heels (I see you in the wings, slut-shamers – you’re not as subtle as you think), I’ve been cat-called in my daggiest jeans and my oldest t-shirt and my rattiest sneakers and no makeup. I’ve been cat-called by old men and young men and men with their young sons in the passenger seat next to them. And the one thing all those men have had in common is the idea that they have the right to make me listen to their opinions. It’s not enough for them to have the opinions; it’s not enough for them to voice those opinions to their friends (or, I suppose, their young children – seriously, dude who did that, I will never stop judging you); they have to voice them to me. They have to make sure I hear them. They think they have the right to make me listen.
And the thing is – and like I said, here’s where it gets a bit funny – the thing is, they don’t have that right at all.
One afternoon, a guy tried talking to me for the entirety of my bus journey home. I had earphones in and I was doing a sudoku puzzle on my phone and I very, very purposefully ignored him – I even had my back turned. He tried talking to me anyway. “Hey, love,” he whined from a seat behind me after I refused to make eye contact and took a seat far in front, “hey – I’m talking to you.” He kept it up as I got off the bus, too. I loudly thanked the driver and waited until the bus had departed before walking to my gate, lest the guy figure out which house was mine by watching through the window.
Recently, I was sitting near a bus stop waiting for an evening bus into town, earphones in, when a man came up to me. I didn’t notice that he was trying to talk to me, so he walked right up and started waving his hands in my face. Thinking something had fallen from my purse, I took an earphone out, looked up and asked what was wrong.
He wanted to tell me I “looked cute”. I gave him my best “not in your wettest, wildest dreams” stare and responded with a, “move along, dude,” in the kind of voice one uses for pronouncements such as oh, look, the new puppy isn’t house-trained yet. I mean, seriously? He waved his hands centimetres away from my face for that? I own a mirror, and even if I didn’t, I don’t think strangers on the street would be my go-to resource for fashion critiques.
He broke into an expletive-laden tirade about what an uptight bitch I was. I put my earphones back in, turned the volume up and waited until he was gone.
(I was lucky – it was a crowded area and he was pretty small. I doubt I’d have been brave enough to reject unwanted advances so brazenly otherwise. Even surrounded by people, it took a fair amount of chutzpah to pretend I was unruffled by the spittle flying from my harasser’s lips as he screamed epithets at me. Guess those public speaking classes paid off.)
I recently noted that the threats directed at Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, were born of the idea that violence against women, particularly women of colour, is an appropriate “punishment” for non-conformity. It’s the oddest thing – people don’t seem to like it when we express our right to free speech. As though to prove my point, I was inundated with replies verging from the nonsensical (“you’re racist against white people!”) to the sickening (“I hope you die, you ugly bitch!”) to the simply tiresome (“but why are you trying to oppress our freedoms?”). I merely made an observation – that white “progressives”, when forced to choose between allyship and protecting their own, will invariably protect their own. When I refused to engage in “debate” on whether or not racism against white people exists (it doesn’t), I was met with more vitriol still. I was silencing people (by…letting them talk without responding to them?); I was a white-hater (because…I pointed out that if white people don’t want to be seen as racist, they should probably stop doing racist things?); I was unwilling to “defend my arguments” (you might just as well ask me to “defend” my belief in the existence of gravity).
At first, I amused myself by inventing colourful ways of telling the trolls to fuck themselves (my favourite is still “go fellate yourself with a chainsaw”), but after a while, responding to the barrage of internet word-vomit grew tiring. I blocked any new troll accounts, made an announcement that I would not be engaging further, and went to bed.
That was when the real hate began.
I won’t sicken you with the details. Suffice it to say that waking up to threats of murder and sexual abuse was something of an object lesson in my original point. Exercise free speech to criticise white progressives and watch the mask of liberalism crack and shatter. Freedom, it would seem, is a one-way street.
With privilege comes an overweening sense of entitlement – entitlement to our spaces, entitlement to our stories, to our culture, to our voices, to our resources, to our time. When I tell men I’m not interested in talking to them, they treat it like a personal affront. How dare I, a woman, refuse to pander to them? How dare I refuse to warp my universe until they are at its centre? How dare I – and this is what really underlies it all – say no?
But you see – and I said, didn’t I, that it’s funny how this works – you see, while they might have the right to speak, I have the right not to listen and a mandate handed to me by the good citizens of the Republic of Myself to take advantage of that right whenever I like.
I’m not obliged to listen to your cat-calls. I’m not obliged to make uncomfortable small talk with you at bus stops. Online, I’m not obliged to indulge your desire for a “debate” when you interrupt me mid-story to derail the conversation and re-centre it around your own experiences. I’m not obliged to pander. I’m not obliged to serve you in any way at all. “Republic of Myself” is a bit of a misnomer. My space is not a democracy. I make the rules and enforce them as I wish. And what I’ve decided after years of politely acquiescing to men in positions of authority, after years of submitting to men who knew what was best for me even when they didn’t, after years of being told that men have the right to my personhood is that…well, no, they really, really don’t.
Make your troll accounts; inundate me with abuse and threats; scream until you lose your voice. I will tell you to fuck off in a delightfully colourful fashion and then I will block you or walk away or slam the door in your face because you are not entitled to any more of me than I am willing to give. Not my time, not my energy, not my resources, not my voice, not my personhood, not my anything. Scream into the void, though I think you’ll find the echoes cold comfort and poor company. I’m not obliged to let you scream at me.
Enjoy your freedom of speech. I’m putting my earphones back in.