action bronson, hate speech, and protest: rape culture vs. freedom of speech

As part of the NXNE concert series in Toronto, rapper Action Bronson was slated to perform a free concert in Dundas Square. Bronson is apparently known for lyrics and videos that degrade women and glorify rape. He has also bragged about assaulting a trans woman. Many people felt that this performer was inappropriate for a headliner act and a free event in the heart of Toronto.

A petition was circulated calling for NXNE to cancel the Dundas Square show. Eventually they did. Their statement says they will try re-book Action Bronson as a ticketed event in a different venue.

That seems like a good decision.

However, I was less disturbed by another misogynist shock act than by some of the reaction I read on Facebook, from friends and their contacts. It seems that many progressive people believe that what Action Bronson does should be illegal. Others believe that even speaking in support of such expression should be illegal. I find that deeply troubling.

The people in this discussion seemed not to distinguish between a hate crime and hate speech - or indeed between expression and act, at all.

Most were willing to concede that expression condoning and celebrating rape is not the same as rape itself. But because this expression contributes to rape culture, because it perpetuates and normalizes violence against women, it should be illegal.

I recognize rape culture. I resist it and I detest it. And that's one reason I believe we shouldn't criminalize speech.

Shutting down hate speech doesn't make hate go away. But it does shut down all possibility of education. It allows the speaker to play the victim. It may make our society more polite and pleasant - on the surface - but it does nothing to further a society where all women are valued as equals. And inevitably, it will be used against us.

Throughout history, laws banning or criminalizing expression have been used by the powerful against the less powerful, by the dominant culture against the minority. That's why gay literature was labelled as pornography and banned, while male-dominated, heterosexual porn flourished. It's why the Harper Government can call David Suzuki an extremist, and try to ban criticism of the state of Israel.

When speech and expression are curtailed, history shows us who suffers: radicals, dissidents, peace activists.

If we want to be free to protest and to express political views that are offensive to the powerful, we should be prepared to defend potentially offensive expression for everyone. Criminalizing any expression threatens all expression - and it threatens progressive activists most of all.

And what of fantasy? For many, erotica/porn includes bondage, simulated rape, and all manner of acts that would be criminal if nonconsensual. And of course these acts are depicted in literature, photography, video, and the like. Many people find it triggering and offensive. Shall we ban that, too? (Or is it only offensive if it subjugates women?) If we roll back that clock, all our rights are going with it.

Here is some of the Facebook conversation. Indented text is quoted from commenters. I'm quoting liberally in order to not quote out of context, with my own comments below.
If he wrote that song for an individual, and sent that video to them in the mail, it would be considered a hate crime. So what's the difference between that, and releasing his song to the public? The fact that it's not targeted to an individual? His hate is targeted towards the entire female gender. I think we're talking bullshit loopholes and technicalities here.
Protection of public expression is much more than a technicality. If an individual is targeted - threatened, harassed - that is a crime. (Although not rape. Still not rape.) But we distinguish between those private, targeted actions and public expressions - songs, movies, books, poetry, video. In my view, people must be allowed to express whatever they want in those forms, and not do so in fear of arrest.
Hate speech impedes on people's right to live a life free from worry of abuse. You can't be pro freedom of anything if you support hate speech because it prevents people from having certain freedoms - one of those freedoms is the right to feel safe. Bronson's lyrics are hate speech and add to the pre-existing rape culture problem that is plaguing our society. Bronson also publicly admitted to assaulting a trans woman and misgendering her. THIS IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE. He's a white man whose violent, misogynistic lyrics and music video imagery specifically target women of colour. . . . The KKK are still allowed to have their say, and operate under the guise of "freedom of speech" and look what's happening! You have cops who are KKK members on the Ferguson police force spreading their views and encouraging whites to shoot up innocent black kids by constantly portraying them as thugs. They get away with it because the media has done everything in its power to instil anti blackness into the minds of whites and non-black people of colour.

The freedom to protect hate speech under the guise of freedom of speech only benefits and serves the white rich cis straight able bodied man. They do not suffer from any forms of systematic oppression.
In the society described above, which I readily recognize as reality, which hate speech is more likely to be protected, "Women are bitches" or "Death to cops"? Once certain expression is illegal, who defines and decides what stays and what goes?

Commenters also noted that the expression in question is without artistic value. That may be true, but in my opinion that is (a) subjective and (b) irrelevant. One person's erotica is another person's smut, and to someone else, it's all garbage.

Other commenters noted that speech that promotes rape culture is as bad as rape. What can I say. It takes a luxury of ignorance to express such hyperbole, and it minimizes the trauma and suffering of every rape survivor.

Some commenters mentioned the general offensiveness of the Action Bronson act. Well, freedom of expression is easy if you're raising money for kids with cancer or posting cute puppy videos. Freedom of expression is tested when the expression is most offensive. A society that values freedom of expression allows space on the fringes. A society that values conformity and politeness more than free speech narrows the field.

That's when I realize that Canadians, as a society, do not really value freedom of expression. They value a quietly polite society, where hate is ignored and so said not to exist.
A few of my classmates were having a discussion about "Game of Thrones" One of the women said "I don't like the show, it glorifies rape." One of the men responded, "what is the big deal, rape is everywhere..." The fact that those words flowed so easily from his tongue..... I am an artist, a woman and someone who has been victimized. Free speech, like art, comes with responsibilities and to abuse that freedom is demonstrating a reckless disregard for others. THAT is a crime. It is no different, in MY opinion, than knowingly getting in a car and driving while drunk.
Criminalizing speech completely shuts down the possibility of education. If we arrest the man who said "What's the big deal about rape?" we lose all opportunity for dialogue, not just with that one man, but with every person who now must suppress his or her speech in order to avoid arrest.

These rape-culture thoughts don't go away, but they remain unchallenged. All the arrest teaches is forced conformity. As much as "what's the big deal about rape" pains me deeply, I would rather that thought be expressed openly - I would rather see an atmosphere cultivated where people are free to express any thought - so those thoughts can be challenged, examined, and potentially changed. Perhaps the person who expressed the thought would not be changed, but some listeners to the debate might be.

There is also the very huge issue of who decides what speech is criminal. In our society, it will usually be people like Stephen Harper.
but I think if enough people boycott and protest against his music, it will send the message that this type of hate speech is not tolerated.
Boycott and protest? Absolutely! We should, and we must. But if the expression is declared illegal and banned, we lose the opportunity to protest. We lose a huge opportunity for education. Plus the speaker becomes the victim. The only thing we gain is not having to hear something - but those thoughts are still in the person's brain and heart. The hate hasn't gone away.

* * * *

Update. Some of the people involved in one of the several conversations that led to this post feel they were misrepresented, even ambushed. I believe they think I participated in the Facebook conversation as research for my own writing. This is being characterized as deceptive and hypocritical, and contrary to my own principles of free speech.

The reality: after the discussion on Facebook, I had more to say, but - not wanting to use someone else's Facebook page as my own soapbox any more than I had already - I went to my own venue to continue writing.

This post reflects nothing more than my desire to express myself further. People often leave one venue to discuss ideas further elsewhere, both online and in person. It's not unusual, and certainly not duplicitous.

The opinions quoted and referred to in this post are culled from several different Facebook threads. The indented quotes were copied and pasted directly from one thread, but I found those opinions echoed many times over in many places.

I note, too, that one friend retracted her call for Action Bronson to be prosecuted for hate speech, and felt my blog post should reflect her changed opinion. I note that most people who I saw expressing this opinion did not similarly retract it.

I am inviting the parties who believe themselves misrepresented in this post to explain themselves further in comments. We'll put all their comments through moderation, and of course all wmtc readers will be free to respond.


James Redekop said...

JK Rowling made a similar point in her now-famous tweet exchange with the Westboro Baptists over the Irish referendum. When one follower told her she shouldn't feed the trolls, just ignore them, she replied:

I don't care about WBC. I think it's important that scared gay kids who aren't out yet see hate speech challenged.

laura k said...

Westboro is the perfect example. It's often used by Canadians as an example of how American-style free speech goes too far. I can only imagine the martydom if Westboro's spew was illegal.

laura k said...

Whoa, bunch of idiots going nuts on Twitter because I supposedly misquoted them, quoted them out of context, didn't ask permission. The whole nine yards: no one reads your blog anyway, the layout is so crappy, your writing sucks, blah blah blah.

Traffic insults, the last resorts of trolls everywhere.

Supposedly I said that one of the commenters is insulting and harming sexual assault survivors everywhere. Funny tho, when I ask her to quote where I said that, she said I should find it myself. Hmmm.

allan said...

It's awfully hard to misquote someone when you cut and paste their comments.

allan said...

Are you trending? :>)

James Redekop said...

Though Fred Phelps should have been up on child abuse chargers decades ago. Read Nate Phelps's account of leaving the family for examples of why.

Religious right opponents of marriage equality in the US love to rant about how martyred they are/will be thanks to hate-speech (which the US does not have). It's a bad idea to give them actual reason to pursue that line of argument...

Besides, I'd rather be able to hear them coming.

laura k said...

My writing is boring, I have no followers, I am worse than Wikipedia... I forgot how predictable these people are.

James Redekop said...

Well, when one doesn't have any way to rebut the actual points being made, that's all there is left...

allan said...

Yet they came out, read your writing, and were moved enough to comment on it. Seems to run counter to what they are claiming.

James Redekop said...

It boils down to, "Do you want people like Stephen Harper to be able to decide what you're allowed to say?"

laura k said...


johngoldfine said...

As the Quakers say, "That Friend speaks my mind." You speak it perfectly.

johngoldfine said...

In free speech discussions, I always come back to Learned Hand's remark: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women…."

laura k said...

Thanks John :)

laura k said...

Please note that I've updated the post.

If the two people in question decide to come here and comment:

I apologize for referring to you as "idiots" in the comment above. I hope you can see that many of your tweets were immature and unhelpful, but we all act like idiots sometimes. You are still welcome to comment here.

I also apologize for making fun of your spelling. I hope you will be able to accept that and move on with actual discussion.

laura k said...

Response from one commenter:

@wmtcblog I don't really care to waste any more time talking about your silly blog.
1:16 PM - 31 May 2015

OK then!

allan said...

Umm, that's "silly, award-winning blog" to you!

laura k said...

And the second person:

@wmtcblog no, your initial post was violent and triggering and I don't care to look at your blog.
1:55 PM - 31 May 2015

Sounds good to me! See you never!

laura k said...

These people were so annoying, I broke one of my own rules. When she said my blog "barley had any traffic" I asked her if that was barley with mushrooms.

She obsessed on that for another 6 or 7 tweets.

allan said...

Hearing about the concept of free speech is triggering?

johngoldfine said...

Ugh, don't get me started ranting about trigger warnings.

Faux-psychology the new handmaiden of censorship.

johngoldfine said...

Hearing about the R-d S-x is triggering to me today, which is why I'm here and not listening to WEEI. I don't want to be spun any further down the whirlpool of despair, rage, helplessness....

laura k said...

....And that's what I get for having an argument on Twitter. I should know better!

laura k said...

Ugh, don't get me started ranting about trigger warnings.

Faux-psychology the new handmaiden of censorship.

So true. And yet another word that is used divorced from its meaning. Add it to the list with hero, tragedy, traumatize (not just something that you didn't enjoy!), literally... etc.

laura k said...

I added the addendum to this post and invited the two tweeters/commenters to chat here because the owner of one of the threads where this convo took place is a friend and comrade. I thought in the spirit of dialogue and openness, I would extend an olive branch.

Now can someone please show me WHERE on this post I accuse one of the commenters of harming sexual assault survivors more than the rapper in question...???

Olivia said...

Most of the people on the thread were actually against him being banned or silenced. People just wanted a venue change. Everyone on the thread on Facebook agrees that you went about writing this article the wrong way. No one on here defending you can speak to it, because they weren't there.

You are not an activist. Activists don't use ableist language like "stupid". You call us immature? We never called you any names. We're at least in our early 20's, you should know better then to behave that way. Your immature reaction to my spelling "barely" as "barley" shows you are just an activist when it suits you. You assume I do not have a learning disability which might lead to me making spelling mistakes. Which I do! It's also classist because you assume I was privileged enough to have the same education as you. You're also assuming I am not an immigrant to this country and that english is my first language. I suggest you be a little bit more mindful before attacking someone for a spelling mistake. We all make spelling mistakes - it's not a hard thing to do in the age of auto correct. It reveals how superior you feel yourself to be over others. Like, you never made a spelling mistake in your life? *rolls eyes* Are you really that full of yourself?
Get over it.

Olivia said...

Did Laura copy and paste comments from the thread? Yes! But it does not show previous comments. Context is key. It is very easy to have your readers misinterpret arguments when you chop things up in a way that suits your point of view. This was a thread of 66 COMMENTS - out of which, you posted 3. I never once said that Bronson should be banned from speaking. NOT ONCE! And yet your article ties my comment into the point of banning him altogether.

Laura Kaminker, you wrote an article misquoting me (all of us, really) by not properly showing the full argument. You presented my argument as if I was saying Bronson should be jailed for what he said in his lyrics, which I never stated once. You didn't show any context for the reader. I said he should be moved to a ticketed event, but you wrote it as if I said he should not be able to talk at all. I said that words CAN hurt us, as words can be used as propaganda-words can brainwash people into behaving a certain way towards someone. You said I was insensitive to sexual assault victims...you are assuming I am not a sexual assault victim because I didn't make a declaration like you did. NEVER ASSUME THIS. There are sexual assault victims that believe that the power of words can hurt you because words can cause people to think a certain way that can lead to your oppression. You can even look at the comments on the petition against Bronson where sexual assault victims talk about how words like his fuel a narrative that is pre-existing - that encourages rape and violence against women.

This is terrible, exploitative journalism. I understand you have less than 50 followers on Twitter, and that number is so low that you are so desperate to write an article to take advantage of a topic that is trending on twitter. How dare you state that I am harming sexual assault victims/survivors more by stating that hate speech can lead to some people getting hurt or oppressed? Especially when Action Bronson raps about raping and murdering women, and assaulted a trans woman! You really think that I am harming sexual assault survivors more than someone who raps about gang-raping and murdering women, AND who has also assaulted a trans woman? You barely even talk about how violent he is in your post and you target my comments more. Here is your quote: "Other commenters noted that speech that promotes rape culture is as bad as rape. What can I say. It takes a luxury of ignorance to express such hyperbole, and it minimizes the trauma and suffering of every rape survivor." Your post is extremely triggering for me, someone who has gone through experiences that you think I haven't just because I didn't explicitly state. Please, grow up! You should've at least given a warning. I was not referring to discussing "free speech" as triggering. SEE! This is why context is KEY. You think I'm triggered by the mere discussion of free speech, when I had a specific reaction to an abusive part of your article that completely misinterprets what I said.

I would really like to know what awards this blog has won that would even merit putting on your resume. Awards that are actually RELEVANT.

How do you not know what a trigger warning is? It's not censorship. Maybe you need to learn what that word means. Yes, a sexual assault victim can be triggered by someone accusing them of being more oppressive towards sexual assault victims by merely stating their opinion that words can hurt. Are you that disconnected from today's younger generation? Trigger warnings merely warn a reader about the content they are about to be viewing. HELLO! TV and movies have been doing that for decades. Get over it.

laura k said...

Hee hee. Great stuff. Got to love that "HELLO!" on the trigger warning stuff. Confusing triggers with the content warnings on TV shows!

Guess my whole blog needs a giant disclaimer. Warning: this blog contains complex ideas, reader intelligence is advised. Uh-oh, I'm being elitist. However could a working class girl make such an assumption!

Wmtc readers curious about the Twitter convo in which I was supposedly not called names is welcome to check it out. I'm @wmtcblog, check out convos with @johnhagley and @theoliviavidal.

Still waiting for someone to show me where... well, you know. :)

laura k said...

Olivia, I didn't assume you were not a sexual assault survivor. I know far too much to do that. I have no idea why you insist I made this assumption, but I did not.

I also didn't assume any of those other things - education, learning disability, English not first language, etc. I simply did this: lost my cool after being provoked, and did something I shouldn't have: made fun of a spelling error. Nothing more, nothing less. I have apologized for it and I hope you will be able to move on with your life.

You spent tweet after tweet insulting me, my blog, my writing, "desperate for attention", etc. etc. Yet here you deny that, and have not apologized in return. That's your choice, of course, but this heavy-handed victim act is a bit much.

I hope you bothered to read and think about the update I posted at the end of the blog post. Most of the blog post does not refer to you, your comments, or your friends' comments. I quoted 3 of the 66 comments? I also referred to 10 or 12 people not even on that thread. Believe it or not, your friends weren't the only people talking about this subject on the internet.

If you needed a trigger warning for this post, I wonder how you manage to live in the world. Best regards and have a good life.

allan said...

She posted 35 tweets to you in only 52 minutes! Jeez.

johngoldfine said...

I thought at first you had a genius of a parodist posting here under the name 'Olivia.' All those intimidating buzzwords, that aggrieved tone, the projection.

Amy said...

Wow, I read your post while in Europe, but couldn't respond (data usage being so expensive, etc.). I had no idea what a tempest it stirred up. All I wanted to say was that I agreed with you completely on the need to protect speech even if we hate what the speaker says. Sort of an interesting twist to see how people responded to your exercise of free speech! I did wonder how those quoted would respond to being quoted without their permission, but never anticipated so much venom.

laura k said...

The thing is, people quote each other constantly online without permission. Dozens of people have quoted wmtc without asking. If you write stuff online, it can be copied and quoted anywhere, and often is.

And these folks were quoted anonymously, so there's absolutely nothing linking these words to the people who said them. It's a non-issue, in my view.

(Welcome back!)