Celebrating the Temporary Destruction of a Message

LAST EDITED AUG 28, 2013 · AUG 27

Freedom of speech means latitude of speech, not frictionless speech.

After an August Saturday afternoon spent roleplaying in a basement, I emerged into the light of campus, Garneau, Belgravia, Whyte Ave, and Strathcona to discover my favourite game of all: tearing down Men’s Rights posters.

MRAs must have put them up that day, and judging from the radius covered, they were out in force. In a way, tearing down their posters so soon after they put them up plays into their grievance that feminism silences them. Feminists: thought police!

You come at the feminist heart of Edmonton, you best not miss.

Most people get that private action like this is not akin to state censorship. In truth, most of us doing the action would oppose the meddling of those who run the infrastructure through which we speak and organize. State censorship might silence MRAs, but it would probably silence radical feminists first.

Rather, this action represents a simple struggle for power.

Speech doesn’t regulate itself. Communities of speakers regulate it. They regulate the creation of meaning through rules of sign, morphology, syntax, and semantics, which are under constant construction. They regulate the transmission of meaning through the politics of social grouping. They regulate the storage of meaning through access to surfaces, both common and private. There is no society with free speech but no free association, because speech is predicated on association in every case. Nowhere except maybe in one’s mind is speech unregulated by others.

Freedom of speech, then, is really shorthand for self-determination of groups of speakers, combined with latitude for the members of those groups.

Speech needs latitude to succeed or fail as speech. Latitude of speech is infringed when a nonviolent expression isn’t allowed to move sideways when it meets resistance.

That “nonviolent” bit is crucial and fraught. Because they deal in generalities, I would let all of the images above into the nonviolent category. I wish no prior restraint against them. Yet I tore them down.

I used to be an idea exceptionalist. I would insist that ideas, even awful ones, rest on a higher foundation than other expressions. Defamation, harassment, inciting a crowd: these are targeted actions that happen to take sign systems as their conduit. Aaron Bady explored how this principle applies to creepshots:

Freedom of speech only protects the kinds of speech that some version of the social “we” has determined not to be violent. And by saying that what he did was protected, we are determining that those forms of violence against women are not, in fact, violent. And this matters because something so insubstantial as “culture” has a powerful impact on the actual practice of the law. The more we value a man’s right to violate the integrity of women’s bodies, the more stand behind that as merely “speech,” the less we will understand the violation that such acts always imply and propagate. And the more we think this way, the more invisible these forms of violence become. The more we understand creepshots not to be a violation – and circulating them to be a morally neutral act – the less we will be able to understand women to be people who can be violated, since the mere act of occupying a body that can be photographed becomes the consent required to do so.

But ideas? They’re what give rise to sign systems in the first place. Regulating ideas narrows the span of human thought.

Now my defense of free speech is more tepid, with the fallibility of both speaker and listener held up as a human shield against oppressive regulation of ideas.

See, these signs threaten women. But the threat as such is plausibly deniable. The ample middle ground between MRA constituencies – men drawing the wrong lessons from relationship trauma, men insulated from their privilege, rape apologists, rapists – produces a subset of ideas that benefit them in different ways, and with different degrees of malice or delusion attached. The posters take caricatures of women and hint at a deserved violence that is several veils removed from actually striking or confining or raping them. It’s a tactic as old as patriarchy. The one about consent and one-night stands in particular distills its poison from the surrounding culture’s murky rationalizations of rape.

I still believe the prescription for bad speech is more speech, but this does not narrowly mean accepting someone’s play at a discursive space and waiting for your turn. “More speech” often means refusing dialogue; means shaming bigots; means taking back a corner of the commons; means tearing shit down; means celebrating the temporary destruction of a message.

The hardest ones for me were at big intersections lined with pickups on jacked wheels, right turners nudging into crosswalks, and other proxies of (mostly male) aggression. Prying glued posters from traffic poles felt conspicuous: it felt like acting out of turn, a thing I can’t normally convince my body to do.

Then I saw others across the road doing it too. Some alone, some in groups. A silent, spontaneous teardown party in a place I walk so often and love so much I sometimes forget to notice it.

Who governs the surface of a traffic pole? Everyone that goes past. The surfaces we contested that afternoon belong to feminists and MRAs and others still. It’s as loosely knit as a group can be, and from the looks of things, feminists have some lasting power in it. But the negotiation for power happens across every surface that mediates speech, and there are billions of surfaces to contest.