In 1968, a 19-year-old man was arrested for wearing a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” inside a Los Angeles Courthouse. He was ultimately found guilty of “maliciously and willfully disturbing the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person by offensive conduct.” This case was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the conviction was overturned, as the matter included “speech,” not “conduct.” It was in this moment that Justice John Marshall Harlan II shared the most profound words to be penned within the borders of the United States since “We the People.” Harlan wrote “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
When discussing free speech, and more specifically that which constitutes “offensive” speech, most people speak from a biased perspective, influenced by personal experience, ideology, religion, politics, and so much more. We, as people, are truly the sum of our parts. What is not accounted for, however, is that many do not share these experiences and characteristics, and thus interpret speech differently. Harlan, in all his profound wisdom, is responsible for one of the most important statements of our country’s history. Unfortunately, there are many who disagree with this sentiment these many years later.
In a recent article on Salon, for example, Tara Ison recounted an experience that troubled her “for days,” an experience that left her “disturbed.” An experience that she attributes to “the new normal of toxic male entitlement on campus.” She wrote: “I am startled, I feel a clutch in my gut, my face go hot.” What was this experience that left her so troubled?
Ison passed by a male student, whose manner she describes as casual and calm. “He was not impassioned, or enraged. Not at all. The heightened volume of his voice was more attributable to cellphone-speak, or the focus on hurrying home (girlfriend waiting?). There was no pain in his voice, no cry to the universe for understanding and support. He was casual, actually. Impersonal. These were casual, impersonal words to him, casual thoughts.” So what did this awful penis-haver say to make Ison so uncomfortable?
He said “cunts.” “Those fucking girls are too stupid to be bitches. They’re too fucking stupid to be cunts,” to be exact. Overhearing this single comment, directed towards someone else, in passing, was enough to disturb Ison “for days.” Ison thought about this, dwelled on it, and then wrote more than 1,500 words about it.
“His words were not directed at me, no, but that flicker in his eyes as he oh-so-casually disparaged women, girls, females, still felt assaultive,” Ison wrote. “And this young guy’s casual loathing of women is all the more dangerous due to its seeming detachment; that is what oils the frictionless shift from thought to speech to behavior, to what Toni Morrison might call a ‘disinterested violence.’ I’m angry to have been struck by the simmering threat of that, insidious as radiation. I’m angry it poisons and makes painful the very air.”
Assaultive. Dangerous. Violence. Threat. “It poisons and makes painful the very air.” It amazes me that so much melodrama can fit itself into a single paragraph. One of my Twitter followers brilliantly and succinctly summarized the article: When a person has never experienced the stick or the stone, words become their replacement. The idea that words are somehow akin to violence – or even more interestingly, that they are certain to pave a path towards violent action – is one of the current myths voiced by many social justice advocates in modern day America, and yet it is a myth that is gaining traction.
Gregory Alan Elliott is a Canadian man who was recently found not guilty after being accused of “criminal harassment” for non-threatening tweets to and about two feminist women, Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly. One complaint includes him using hashtags that the women “created.” This was an important ruling for free speech, as Elliott’s tweets contained no violent or threatening content – rather passionate disagreement and – gasp! – criticism. The judge in the case acknowledged that the women likely did feel harassed and frightened, but that such feelings were not reasonable. It was the right call. These women were merely offended, because someone dared to disagree with them in public. Not everyone thought it was the right call, however.
Amanda Hess of Slate wrote “If, in the eyes of the law, the harassment of Stephanie Guthrie is par for the course, then we can look forward to many more years of the status quo—women getting harassed, and everybody saying that it’s somebody else’s problem.” Vice chimed in with “The internet just became an even uglier place for Canadian women.” Jezebel tossed in its two cents, writing “No one should be stalked online and fearful because a stranger has an internet axe to grind. The Canadian justice system had a chance to send that message and set a precedent against online abuse with this case, but they whiffed on the opportunity.”
People were legitimately upset that Elliott was not punished for the crime of offending two women.
Women weren’t always equal in the United States. To say otherwise would be silly. Women were not always permitted to own, act, and exist in the same ways that men were. That is not the case today, nor has it been for many years. Women in America face no real matters of inequality. But there are people, a vocal group, attempting to take away one area in which we are equal to men, to limit our exposure to key parts of the world, in an attempt to portray women as less capable of handling criticism, disagreement, and unkindness. This is modern feminism, and they are attempting to make the world “safe” – aka, free from dissent and hurt feelings – for women, by defining appropriate and acceptable social discourse universally. This is not a power I am keen on handing over to a self-appointed morality watchdog group, but rather a decision that I should have the right – the RIGHT – to make for myself.
Equality means taking the good with the bad. I am just as capable as any man of handling a potentially troubling situation. Insults and profanity and cruelty are not a gender issue, nor are they an equality issue. They are a manners issue. An etiquette issue. One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. So let us sing our own songs. And let us make the decisions, for ourselves, as to whether or not we would like to change the station.
Liz Finnegan is a soulless ginger with no political leanings. Pun enthusiast. Self-proclaimed “World’s Okayest Person.” Retro gaming contributor for The Escapist.
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