Diversity and Speech Part 32: Language Tensions of Speech and Social Justice  – by Carlos E. Cortés

Most public surveys about free speech and the First Amendment go something like this.

  • “Do you believe in the idea of free speech?” Overwhelmingly yes.
  • “Should group slurs be allowed?” Overwhelmingly no..
  • “Do you support the First Amendment?” Overwhelmingly yes.
  • “Should hate speech be permitted?” Overwhelmingly no.

What gives? Aren’t these positions inconsistent? Yes, in the abstract or in the arcane world of constitutional interpretation. No, in the walk-around world where most people reside. Turns out most people like the idea of being protected from government interference with their use of speech. But they also like it when governments and private entities step in to mute certain categories of speech, categories that they might consider harmful, divisive, offensive, or misleading. The problem is that people do not agree on which speech categories should be banned. One person’s sense of truth telling is another person’s sense of disinformation.

Speech-related surveys further this confusion by asking two different types of questions.

First, virtue signaling questions: do you support free speech and/or the First Amendment? Who doesn’t want to think of themselves as virtuous? Let’s hear a resoundingly virtuous yes for free speech.

Second, boots-on-the-ground questions: should certain kinds of speech be banned? Of course. Hate speech. Dehumanizing speech. Divisive speech. And the beat goes on.

Pundits tend to interpret these clashing public responses as evidence of confusion. I, however, find those disparate responses inevitable and consistent within a theory-of-everything paradigm. In the abstract, a loud yes for free speech. In the concrete, a comparably loud yes for restricting certain kinds of speech, including speech that harms or demeans, particularly marginalized people. As a result, free speech and social justice inevitably live in tension.

Take the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . .” Notice what that amendment doesn’t do. It doesn’t give individuals the right to free speech. It merely – albeit importantly – restricts government restraint of speech. Private entities, on the other hand, have enormous power to restrict or punish so-called “free” speech.

Over the years, courts and other government entities have carved out limits to the First Amendment. For example, slander, defamation, and invasion of privacy. Free speech enthusiasts proclaim these to be narrow exceptions. I consider them to be indicative of a broader recognition that unfettered speech simply doesn’t work and that guardrails on speech are necessary to maintain at least some semblance of civility and inclusivity. That’s where the diversity movement comes in.

In the pursuit of the fuzzy notion of social justice, diversity advocates have issued calls for fettering speech. Not that they agree on what speech should be fettered and how it should be fettered, particularly in light of the First Amendment. As a proponent of robust speech, I far prefer the encouragement of speech self restraint rather than the imposition of external restraints.

This is why I shake my head when I hear diversity advocates admonish people to avoid microaggressions, then join the virtue signaling circus by assuring others that they aren’t advocating self-censorship. Of course they are. So am I, although I prefer the less-abrasive term, self-editing.

One of the core principles of the diversity movement is to get people to use more inclusive speech. For many – maybe most – this requires modifying exclusionary speech habits, although diversity advocates may disagree about the best ways to modify those habits. (Trigger warning: in most cases I oppose spelling out speech guidelines before conducting discussions of potentially difficult diversity issues. Substantive equity-oriented learning occurs best through liberated conversations, not when people are looking over their shoulders in fear of breaking arbitrary speech rules.)

I am co-director of the Health Equity, Social Justice, and Anti-Racism curriculum for the School of Medicine at the University of California, Riverside. One of our required second-year modules is called Language Humility, in which we help students learn to work more collaboratively with language interpreters and to address speech-related equity issues raised in the 2022 American Medical Association/Association of American Medical Colleges report, “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.”

In short, diversity-speech tensions revealed by repeated public opinion surveys are existential and inevitable. They are part of a simple but perplexing paradigm: people simultaneously enjoy the opportunity to breezily signal their virtues, including support for free speech, while also supporting restraints that foster a speech environment that they favor, meaning limitations on speech.

These tensions cannot be eliminated by applying some simplistic problem solving framework. Nor through vain bumper sticker proclamations that free speech and diversity are compatible. Too many situations in which basic values clash. Too many nuances to be considered. Rather social justice advocates and robust (not free) speech supporters need to settle down to the challenge of continuously wrestling with this tension without any prospect of definitive conclusions.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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