Free speech and why it matters to the furry fandom
What is free speech?
Of the many rights which are available to us, none is as important as free speech. However, a combination of factors including the high-profile activities of the alt-right in the US, resurgence of right-wing parties across Europe, emergence of various special interest and rights groups and the ease and speed at which news, ideas and, especially, outrage can spread over the internet have led some to question its necessity.
The most concerning statements that I've seen in the furry fandom have been those saying that certain people should not be allowed to speak and should be banned from websites and conventions for holding their views and the idea that it is okay to assault people who hold certain views. In the light of this, I feel it is necessary to explain what free speech is and isn't, why it is important and try to highlight some of the ways in which it directly impacts the furry fandom.
I will start with the Wikipedia article on free speech which describes it thus:
Freedom of speech is the right to articulate one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship, or societal sanction.
Further down in the article it breaks freedom of speech into three discrete aspects.
1. the right to seek information and ideas;
2. the right to receive information and ideas;
3. the right to impart information and ideas
In some cases these will be limited due to laws regarding privacy or similar rules but such cases will not be considered here as those limitations generally do not affect free speech in the way that it applies to the furry fandom vis-à-vis the expression of alt-right ideas.
As can be seen with the definition above, this right is not only meant to limit government interference with the free flow of ideas and opinions although it is often and wrongly interpreted that way. For example within the furry fandom we see freedom of speech misunderstood by Dogpatch Press who tweeted about free speech.
He can have fun in concept-land, the rest of us are on earth (and the US, in this specific topic.)
— Dogpatch Press (@DogpatchPress) August 21, 2017
Or even really smart people, like at XKCD, who put out this misguided cartoon about free speech.
Comics such as that fail to distinguish between free speech, which is a universal human right, and the first amendment, which is specifically limited to government interference but also only applies to the US. While many furry sites are hosted in the US and fall under US law, that does not apply to all of them and country-specific law is of limited use when discussing the broader implications of free speech for an international community such as the furry fandom.
Furthermore although government interference in free speech is something to guard against so are the chilling effects of societal sanctions. In fact, in his 1859 work On Liberty, which is the major work defining and defending free speech, John Stuart Mill expressed great concern about the threat to free speech from society as well as from government.
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
When furs like @fluffigator say:
Freedom of speech is NOT FREEDOM FROM CONSEQUENCE
— Mombra @ Dragoncon (@fluffigator) August 22, 2017
One has to wonder how they conceive of free speech. The point of free speech is to provide protection from consequences in the interest of expanding ideas and opinions available for public consumption. If you decouple free speech from whether or not there are consequences— well, down that path madness lies. I would contend that a country where the consequences of criticising the government are imprisonment or execution does not have free speech in any meaningful way. And whether the consequences of free speech are dealt out by government or by society at large is irrelevant if the effects are the same.
Having said that, I will also acknowledge that there are some consequences which can occur despite free speech. If you exercise your free speech then there may be societal consequences such as lowering people's opinion of you and perhaps limiting future opportunities. However, such consequences should not be as a result of society trying to punish that person for their speech, excepting in cases where such speech were to violate specific rules of a particular site, to use an example most relevant for the furry fandom.
Such consequences could likely only occur after the fact and should be relevant to that case. For example, banning a white supremacist from using a dating site is just wrong and misguided if he did not violate their terms of service. As an administrator on a furry forum, I can say that we do not punish users for what they do off the forum; although such information may be valuable when deciding on the severity of a punishment or assessing the probability of them re-offending. It is also incorrect to pre-emptively ban furs from attending a furry convention a la Furrydelphia. This is essentially the equivalent of arresting someone because you think they might rob your shop.
These issues gain importance because, while in the past many artists and writers had their own small websites, the furry fandom today is concentrated primarily on a small number of much larger websites. While many artists do maintain profiles on several different sites, many others are only available on one. This raises the further complication that when a large website takes a decision to ban a user they can severely restrict that user's ability to interact with the furry community. This is perhaps an issue which has not been given as much attention as it would deserve and parallels with the real world suggest that it is something which administrations of larger websites should spend time ruminating on. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that convicted sex offenders could not be barred from joining social media sites even if those sites contained children. Part of the reasoning was that many politicians use social media and that people "structure their civil community life" around social media sites. This is perhaps even more true for the furry fandom and would suggests that self-moderation policies, such as those promoted by Inkbunny, are the best course of action.
Why do we need free speech?
We should all now understand what I mean when I say free speech but the question then becomes "why do we need it?" Or, more specifically given the current issues dominating the American political landscape and which are driving the issues, "why should we allow the alt-right or Nazis free speech?" The necessity of free speech falls broadly main reasons; the theoretical benefit that is gained from a diversity of opinions and the practical benefit of protecting our own future right to free speech.
These days we live in a pluralistic and multicultural society made up of people from different countries, cultures, religions and more. The fact is that these groups differ in what they believe and value and, at times, these beliefs will conflict with one another. Obviously, we consider our own beliefs to be true; if not we would not hold those beliefs. But this is a subjective position and it is very difficult to say which beliefs and world views are objectively correct and indeed it may be impossible. If people follow different philosophies based on different values it may not be clear why one thing should be valued over another. If it were clear then presumably everyone would follow the same philosophy. As we can not be sure who is objectively correct, we cannot justify giving preferential treatment to one group, hence the need for all people to have an opportunity to present their own case and try to convince society that their way is best.
Even if one view were demonstrably better than another, when there is no challenge to that view, the reasons that people hold that view will be lost and it will become dogma rather than a reasoned position. By allowing different thoughts and opinions, we ensure that those views will be challenged and people have to continually reflect on what they believe and why they believe it. It is not enough to say that all races are equal. You need to understand why all races are equal and you need to be able to articulate that. Shutting down opposing speech does not inspire confidence; it looks as though either the censor does not know why the opposing view is wrong or it suggests that they doubt that their own arguments are convincing. And, if their own arguments are not convincing, then perhaps whatever belief they hold is not true and should be revised.
On the more practical side, we need to protect the right of free speech even for those detested views as this is necessary to protect our own right to free speech. Free speech is usually under fire by those who seek to suppress others to secure their own position. This is misguided as it cannot be guaranteed that your own views will always be the ones that are favoured. With time, society and laws change and, if you found yourself the holder of a minority view which was despised by the rest of society yet which you held to be true, you would no doubt want protection to say your part.
Global warming and climate change is of concern around the globe and is supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus. We need to be able to discuss this issue in order to try and mitigate its effects. In the US, this has been made more difficult under the Trump administration which has banned the use of those terms. Luckily this does not affect the entirety of the country but it should be cause for concern. Without the ability to talk about a topic, we make it far more difficult to find solutions to those problems and to affect social change. One of the achievements of the US that liberals, and the vast majority of the furry fandom, would have celebrated was the eventual legalisation of gay marriage throughout the US two years ago. This represents a major shift in society's opinion of what is and is not acceptable. Such a shift would've been much more difficult, if not impossible, without free speech if promotion of gay marriage had been deemed illegal as it is in Russia or if the terms had been banned as for climate change.
Now one might object and say that even if it were the case that we need dissenting opinions to further understand our own position or that we should protect speech that we disagree with, the Nazis are spreading hate speech and there we must draw the line. Indeed, many countries do, wrongly, draw a line at hate speech. However hate speech is not clear cut, it is subjective. What is, to one person, an expression of hatred is, to another, just a plain statement of fact.
Let us take homosexuality as one example. Much homophobia, as with many prejudices including the anti-Semitism that is distinctive about Nazism, is motivated by religion. If one were to say, "god hates gays" or "gays will burn in hell" that would be considered hate speech by some. To others, this is totally correct, depending on your religious beliefs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a piece meant to summarise the beliefs which every Catholic holds is clear that homosexuality is "contrary to the natural law," "do[es] not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity" and "[u]nder no circumstances can [it] be approved." Is merely stating your religious beliefs hate speech? Probably but we should not prevent people from stating their religious beliefs if it does not directly harm someone.
Furthermore there is an interesting phenomenon that hate speech only applies to speech that the person describing it as hate speech disapproves of. Seldom do we hear people complaining about hate speech directed at various criminals, in fact it is more likely that we will see such speech being hailed. Even in the conversations around Nazis and hate speech, there is no shortage of people directing hate in that direction. Whether that hate is deserved or not will again depend on your belief system and is the problematic aspect of forbidding hate speech.
There is a particularly good lecture by Christopher Hitchens on free speech that he gave at the University of Toronto in 2006. You can read the full transcript here but I will also provide the video itself as he is an excellent speaker and it is 20 minutes that is well worth of your attention. On the topic of hate speech and censorship, this the question that he posed for the audience and which is relevant now when reflecting on the situation in the US and our response to it.
Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else, in potencia, you’re making a rod for own back. Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is simply this: who’s going to decide?
To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be, that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor?
Think carefully because it will not be easy to change in the future and once you provide allow the justification that ideas you dislike can be banned then the question who has the power becomes very important. Maybe you are happy to see Nazi's speech being shut down, possibly you were also happy when Australia denied a visa to an anti-vaxer and maybe you didn't even care when the UK police arrested a man for burning a poppy. But you probably do care about the Russian law against gay propaganda, the fact that Saudi princes who are critical of the regime tend to disappear or the fact that Indonesia only recognises six official religions. But those are different countries; at least if you were living in the United States you could be sure that you would never have a president who might support racial bigotry or act out of spite.
Restrictions on free speech
At this point one might get the idea that there are no restrictions at all on free speech. There are. Some of these restrictions will be created by people through agreements – like non-disclosure agreements, terms of services and so forth – and others will come on into being due to privacy or other legal obligations but these are generally limited and specific to certain situations. The restrictions I will talk about here are more general; they are cases where, in principle, free speech does not apply and are generally where, to my mind, the actions themselves would serve to undermine free speech.
Free speech does not protect incitement to violence. The second principle at Oxford University's Free Speech Debate project, currently supported by 81% of voters, states:
We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.
Violence and the use of force to shut down discussion or to force one's view on others is completely antithetical to the concept of free speech and we should find any promotion of it incredibly troubling. People then say that Nazi speech should not be protected because they believe that violence against certain groups is acceptable or even should be encouraged. However, the restriction on violence is toward incitement to violence or the risk of imminent violence, not to arguing that violence is acceptable in certain cases.
For example, in the majority of developed countries there is no death penalty for crimes. There are groups within such countries who believe that the death penalty should be reinstated. Free speech protects such a view just the same as it would protect a Nazi arguing that certain groups are valid targets of violence but such protection does not equal endorsement. Free speech would not protect people promoting the death penalty if they encourage vigilante justice as this is a direct incitement to violence.
This is of particular importance because many otherwise reasonable people, both in the furry fandom and beyond, think that violence against facism, often in the guise of the loosely grouped Antifa movement, is acceptable. It is not and that promotion of violence against non-violent speech, even racist and fascistic violent speech, is making it harder to fight against the alt-right for two reasons.
Firstly, the violence against fascists is not going to convince anyone that the alt-right is wrong. Now I can agree that one side has a much nicer end goal than the other but if you look at the alt-right and you look at Antifa, you just see violence. And I don't think you can say that the ends justify the means. We are talking about the kind of world we want to create and if we're going to abandon our principles to create it, then what the hell are we fighting for? And if Antifa is not abandoning their principles, if they truly believe that violence is an acceptable way of promoting their ideas, then I must stand opposed to them. Two sections from Give me the good news, a famous South African song from the 80's seem applicable here to whoever is considering violence.
You can't use guns to build a nation
A bullet never was creation
You can't use force to sell a promise
Dictatorship was never honest
I am certainly not the only one to have realised this and those that support Antifa's tactics would be well-advised to realise it before making the situation worse. I know people will argue that you can't reason with the alt-right and that is probably true for the leaders but who you do need to reason with and convince are those that are closer to the political middle who will currently be pushed away from the left by Antifa. This is recognised by some journalists, philosophers and academics, with Noam Chomsky calling Antifa a "major gift to the right." The Daily Show also points out the way that Antifa is going to drive more and more people away from their cause if they continue with their current tactics.
Second, the use of violence, whether equivalent or not, is now explicitly stating that violence is acceptable against those with whom you disagree. When you eschew violence, it is easy to condemn it from the alt-right. When you fail to condemn punching Nazis and actively support the use of force in political debates you set yourself up for trouble. If it's acceptable for one side to use violence then it must be acceptable for the other side to use violence. This is not a situation that we should create; we must oppose all violence, no matter who it is by.
This really brings us back to the point of who makes decisions. From an individual's perspective, their view is correct but other people are viewing the situation from different perspectives and acting accordingly. If you now say it is acceptable to use violence to suppress the free speech of those with whom you disagree, are you prepared to accept the consequences? It hasn't even been three years since the majority of the world stood up to protest the murder of 12 people affiliated with the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo! Once you open the door to violence to fulfill political ends, you can't easily close it again. And you won't be able to dictate which causes may use violence to promote their ends.
Free speech does not protect deliberate falsehoods or lies. Free speech is there to allow the exchange of ideas and deliberately putting out incorrect information undermines the goal of those discussion. It is very important for the falsehood to be deliberate though. This is partially due to the possibility of having many different but valid views of the same thing, depending on what you value and how you weigh different types of evidence (although that does not mean that there are not incorrect views) but also because a falsehood due to ignorance is not the same as a malicious falsehood.
This shouldn't be controversial, no one says that a child lied when they give the wrong answer on a test. The child simply did not know and gave what they believed to be correct with no bad faith. Answers can even change as we learn more about the world. This also illustrates one problem with shutting down discussions. If we view those with detestable views the same way as we view the child, we can recognise that, just as banning the child from answering or kicking them out of the class, the only way to get a better answer is through engagement and education.
A further complication is that we do not always view lying to people as wrong. Some people think it is good to lie to children about the existence of Father Christmas or Santa Claus and it is necessary to lie to prepare a surprise party. In those cases you could maintain that there is no malicious intent so those lies are acceptable but that would still leave the door open for the classic "doing the wrong thing for the right reasons" paternalism. I am not going to try and follow those thoughts to a conclusion at this point but merely reiterate that as long as there is no deliberate deception, even speech which is objectively wrong at that point in time would still be protected as free speech.
Free speech does not protect harassment. It provides the freedom to discuss ideas but harassment is not about discussion, it is about targeting an individual and making their life unbearable. But we also shouldn't confuse saying things which upset certain people with harassment. It is possible to ignore, move away from, or block people that are saying things that upset one but harassment would include people trying to circumvent such blocks.
The public vs private sphere
Finally, our attention must fall on the question of public vs private arenas. Free speech applies to the public arena and within private spaces it is perfectly legitimate for the owner of said space to add their own restrictions, provided those restrictions do not contravene the law. The majority of furry activities happen within such private spaces; whether it be on various furry websites or at conventions.
Sometimes these restrictions are due to legal reasons in the country of hosting or ownership; for example in October 2016 SoFurry changed its AUP to forbid Nazi symbolism in any context for legal reasons. Sometimes the restrictions are for more pragmatic reasons, such as when Fur Affinity banned cub work in 2010 over funding concerns. Others are due to the nature of the website itself; furry sites are not the place to post all your football fan art unless your team is made of furry players. While people can debate the logic or relevance of those decisions, no one is denying that the sites are within their rights to restrict content for whatever reason.
However, as was mentioned before, online social media is essentially the modern day public space. This is even more the case for the furry fandom which is predominantly online. There are no public spaces online in the same sense that there are public spaces offline but there are spaces where groups of furs can come together. Essentially there is a blurring of public and private which necessitates that any decisions made, even in the private space of furry websites, which impacts on the pseudo-public nature of those spaces needs to be given the appropriate amount of thought.
This essentially mixed space where a private site stands in for a public space means that more restrictions are possible there but also that people who do not normally have to consider wider implications of their actions now need to view a bigger picture. And this comes to the fore with the aforementioned content bans and the calls to remove furs that support the alt-right. While such actions may have the effect of creating less friction on that site they also split the furry community, reduce the diversity and tolerance that is one of the best aspects of the furry community and create echo chambers which limit societal change.
There is some evidence that, outside of the furry community, this might already be happening. Slate reported about alt-right attempts to "build their own internet." The furry fandom had small scale segregation when cub artists migrated from Fur Affinity to Inkbunny but many still maintained a presence on both sites. But, without contact, we have no way to convince people that our way is better. The alt-right will be able to flourish and recruit others with no dissenting voices to challenge them at any point. Some have said that you cannot convince Nazis through reason and this may be true but you can convince those that the Nazis might otherwise convince and many people get pulled into white supremacist and alt-right thinking due to feeling excluded. Actively excluding people is not going to help but contact and communication with them will. This is one of the things that Daryle Jenkins does and we see the same message in Angela King's story, a woman who was a white supremacist until prison forced her to live with other races and she fell in love with a black woman. Without exposure to different people and different ideas there can be no change.
The idea of redemption arcs is a large part of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic franchise, particularly from season 5 where Starlight Glimmer, the main villain all season, is finally convinced that she is wrong and, over the next two seasons, whose forgiveness and redemption we watch. Similar ideas come with Trixie who appears in an antagonistic role twice, needing to be given new chances before she is, mostly, reformed and later becomes Starlight's friend. Since almost 1/4 of furries identify as bronies it only seems natural that we take those messages and actually put them into practice.
Why free speech is particularly important for the furry fandom
I have already brought up several examples where I think we can learn something from the intersection of free speech and the furry fandom but I think we can go further. The furry fandom is a primarily online community and it is a community that is built around ideas, fantasies, art and literature. It is a community to whom free speech is particularly important and it has been since the beginning.
In 1978, between the first publication of the APA Vootie and the NorEasCon II World Science Fiction convention where Steve Gallacci's submission of an Erma Felna painting started the discussions that would lead to the modern furry fandom, we had the publication of Omaha The Cat Dancer. This was an erotic anthropomorphic comic, still sold at furry conventions today, which, along with several other comics, caused one comic book store owner to be charged with distributing obscenity. This directly lead to the formation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to protect the First Amendment rights of those involved with comic books. From the start, the furry fandom has been involved in matters of free speech.
The controversial subject of cub art also faces legal issues in various parts of the world and, while many are not doubt pleased about that, that fantasy images are subject to such restrictions should have the furry fandom concerned about furry art in general. The idea of obscenity is not only limited to cub and some people would find furries' tolerance of many diverse sexualities and sexual acts to be problematic. This can, and has affected furries financially. Paypal has been known to freeze accounts that are used for commissioning yiff which leads to uncertainty in the fandom. This is not just a furry problem but it's a general issue that payment processors do not like adult material regardless of whether it is legal or not and which we should oppose.
Those issues revolve around adult material but even the non-adult material is not always appreciated and furs are not always treated well online. This should remind that when we talk about suppressing the speech of others that furries are also a likely target and many of the things that we don't bat an eyelid towards would be considered very strange and perhaps perverse to outsiders. But the major strength of the furry community is its acceptance and tolerance. Those are the values that society needs and needs to promote and the furry fandom must make the choices which give us the opportunity to do so. If we are not in contact with those who disagree and do not speak with those that disagree then we have no chance of changing their minds and building a better society.
Free speech is not the easy path but it is the right path. It doesn't mean that we just let bad ideas spread unopposed but we oppose them in a way that will protect us as well. Follow the advice of Carol Christ, chancellor of UC Berkley where the free speech movement in the 60's began.
Nonetheless, defending the right of free speech for those whose ideas we find offensive is not easy. It often conflicts with the values we hold as a community — tolerance, inclusion, reason and diversity. Some constitutionally protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful. However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call platform denial. Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech. Respond to hate speech with more speech.
We should be thankful that we have leaders like her and organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union who will defend the free speech rights of every person and every perspective. Because, as legal director David Cole explains:
If we defended speech only when we agreed with it, on what ground would we ask others to tolerate speech they oppose?
As furries, we should have learnt about the political use of fear from Zootopia. To quote mayor Bellweather, “Fear always works.” We must do better. We can not give in to fear of the alt-right and make rash decisions that impede our liberty. President Bush used fear after 9/11 to increase surveillance and introduce the Patriot Act to the US which reduced the rights of American and foreign citizens and remains law twelve years after it was supposed to expire. And, to remain with the theme of Nazism and fear, Hitler used the fear and confusion of the Reichstag fire to enact emergency provisions and take complete control of government from 1933 to 1945.
We know what happened in the past, we know that we have limits and we do not know who will write the laws of the future. We need to think clearly, logically and dispassionately. Free speech is the only human right which allows the discussion and formation of others and the progress of society. We should not throw it away lightly in fear of a vocal minority and abandon the principles which we believe in.