By Aimee Wild
I find articles describing freedom of speech irritating, because they come from a place of privilege that most people do not have.
Freedom of speech means owning or possessing the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. Having the ability to verbalise one’s thoughts is a key component of being human. Having the power to speak freely, and be heard, or better still, to affect change is a different matter.
Freedom of speech does not guarantee the right to be heard.
Speaking out does not always result in the change needed. Speaking out can feel scary, especially if speaking directly to people in positions of power. Other times, it can feel like a necessity even when you know it will make very little difference. You will know this if you have ever taken time to protest enforced culls of wild animals. There are thousands of Badgers killed every year in the UK to ‘protect’ cattle from TB. Even though it is an ineffective method of protecting the cattle, it happens every year. Still, it is important to persist in protesting and resist against the culling and the destruction.
Speaking out does not always get results. Silence does not protect you, as Audre Lorde so clearly put it. You’ll know this if you have ever joined a campaign to halt a development that cuts through natural land. You’ll know how hard it is to have your voice heard if you have ever been in family courts. If you’ve ever supported a child, woman or girl to access the protection of the law, their supposed legal right to safety. The ‘justice’ system is not set up to prioritise the safety of women.
There are many factors that make women’s voices less likely to be heard. We can face violent opposition if our views challenge the status quo. The more intersections on the oppression matrix (poverty, colour, sex, disability, etc.) the less likely a woman is to be heard. People who most need freedom of speech, who most need to have their voices heard, are not listened to. If women’s voices, indigenous voices, and poor people’s voices were held in high regard, the destruction of the earth would halt. Violence towards women would halt. Killing black people for no reason would halt.
My views and analysis on the global pandemic (of violence, not CoViD-19) are not reflected in mainstream media. There is nobody who looks or sounds like me in politics. Nor is there anyone who shares a background like mine with power enough to halt the harm caused to women. Many women struggle to overcome the trauma of childhood, of poverty. Finding a voice as a woman and planting seeds of change can be powerful. Education can help on this journey. So too can the love and support of other women, access to nature, books and feminist texts, the ability to travel freely and access to birth control.
Are women really “free” to speak?
To feel empowered enough to speak out, women and girls tend to have to navigate obstacles. Many must navigate an inadequate (or harmful) education system that does not speak to your lived experience if you are poor or female. This makes it harder to connect with your history, yourself and the land you live on.
Patriarchy is a system that prioritises the history and needs of boys. The system punishes girls if they are non-conforming. Patriarchal conditioning (e.g. pressure to look, act, speak, be amenable in a certain way to conform to expected gender roles) has an enormous effect on the emotional and social wellbeing and development of girls. It can be difficult to envisage how to survive with resilience intact let alone the ability to articulate a strong view.
But women do. They speak up. They speak out about psychological and physical abuse, of themselves and Mother Earth. The sheer volume of adverse factors can generate so much self-doubt it can feel impossible, if not pointless, to speak out. Imagine the power and wisdom open to women if, from birth, our insights and questions were validated. Imagine if our knowledge, skills, and our ability to perceive and analyse were praised and rewarded from childhood. Imagine if we told boys never to hurt girls. If we said, ‘girls mature quicker than boys, so look to them for examples’. If we said, ‘trust yourself’ ‘you are strong’. Imagine if we prioritised her right to be safe, to voice her upset. It would create strong intuition and self-confidence.
When women internalise patriarchal speech.
It is common for women to be told in implicit and open ways that they/we are too much, wrong, misguided, judgemental. To survive this girls and women conform. I have heard people say many times, that women are bitchy, unkind, snide. This is not my experience of women. I have met women from different backgrounds, rich, poor, black, white, Asian, marathon runners, mamas with 5 kids, gay women, butch women, lawyers, hippies, and dreamers. In the main they have been kind, insightful and trusting. We (women) must stop believing the tropes fed to us about who we are.
Freedom of speech can be conflated with the idea that everyone is entitled to an opinion. Having a right to an opinion does not mean you have a right to insist others to listen especially if they don’t respect your opinion. Entitlement (privilege) often creates a blind spot that is so difficult for the owner to see. It’s almost as if it is fixed to that spot in between your shoulder blades, you cannot see it without special effort. The more entitlement one has the more likely you are to believe your opinions are fact; people like Dominic Cummings, Piers Morgan, or Katie Hopkins demonstrate this point beautifully. We may value the concept of everybody being entitled to opinion, but it is worth remembering that opinion does not equate to truth or fact. In a culture of neoliberal hyper individualism most remain stock sure of their rightness regardless of fact.
Freedom of speech is not a right, it’s a privilege.
In practice the ‘everyone’ in ‘everyone is entitled to an opinion’, and the ‘freedom’ in ‘freedom of speech’ relates to the privileged few. An opinion, without a voice, without a platform, usually holds no power. Examples of this look are everywhere; indigenous people fighting for clean water, women advocating for liberation. First Nations people trying to stop Oil pipelines going through sacred lands. People resisting harmful fracking practices. De-platforming Planet of the Humans is an example of how freedom of speech can be revoked when those in power are displeased. We (the global we) are in a position where an opinion of a privileged few is far more powerful than our voices. The need to maintain profit outweighs the physical evidence that industrial civilization is destroying the planet. Even if offered evidence (of violence and destruction), the right to maximise profit is prioritised over the health of people and planet. This system is maintained by centuries of colonial law.
There is a sense of overwhelming entitlement in this, a confidence in the right to an opinion. This is why we have research about the way rape is ignored. It is why the murder of women, child sexual abuse, climate collapse, species extinction, ocean acidification, and food scarcity is ignored. It is why we are in a position personally, culturally, and globally when opinion is preferred and respected, over scientifically validated evidence and robustly presented fact.
The arrogant mindset of this implicit prejudice is why policy makers are blind to violence against women and girls. It is why laws are passed that maintain the destruction of the planet. Those in positions of power hold entitlement to pass judgement. If challenged we are reminded (forcefully if needs be) to respect the law. Positions are used, alongside freedom of speech, to justify the greed, profit, extraction of mother Earth’s wealth. The same mentality it used to justify ownership of woman’s bodies. These decisions are not deserving of respect.
When freedom of speech is used to empower, not silence, the powerless.
I want to reach a point where women’s boundaries are perceived and respected. I want to reach a point where it is understood that we are all interconnected. All life. This concept if applied to human life and the natural world, to the salmon, the badgers, the prairie dogs, the birds, the insects, the trees, the Coral, to every living thing in the biosphere, we might then be able to create laws, behaviours, and communication that is ethical and deeply respectful. We might be able to stop the destruction and ecocide before it is too late. The concept ‘where your rights end, mine begin’ is deep and much needed.
The liberals and law makers do not understand the implications of what they are doing. They refuse to consider other views, including the rights of the natural world. We have no option in the face of so much destruction. We must become more organised and form effective resistance movements. We must create an alternative infrastructure.
We must become more prepared, more able to resist, to look for opportunities to support Earth in reclaiming her health.
We must not rest. We must not be silent while there is so much violence against Mother Earth, women and girls, so much destruction.
Aimee Wild is an educator, activist and DGR organizer in the UK.
Featured image: via Flickr