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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Monday 3 December 2018

The Free Speech Fallacy

In the wake of the sudden and catastrophic announcement of Tumblr's new policy, I found myself startled by the collapse of something long-assumed in discussions of free speech. "Female-presenting nipples," "sex acts," and "depictions of genitalia" between consenting adults or adult characters are among those being banned, but erotica is still okay to write. Ostensibly, the purpose of all this is to protect the internet from child pornography - but as usual, the cure is almost worse than the crime. Plenty of artistic photos are getting annihilated in the purge. 

Obviously, child pornography is Bad, but banning all depictions of sexuality has sent Tumblr's stock plummeting and already devastated the community. But is it even working?

Predictably, since an automated ban system is being used, both hilarious and troubling results have been reported - on my dash, a building with three windows, a lumpy slime shape, and pictures of black men smiling were all flagged as containing "sensitive content." Obviously, this is ridiculous, but more nefarious and concerning is that posts about activism and LGBTQ+ issues were also immediately flagged. 

As we speak, the exodus from Tumblr to Newgrounds, which does protect NSFW content, has already begun. So have the floods of sarcastic (but very funny) memes.  The rest of the users are panicking or trying not to panic, and often staggering between the two emotions haphazardly.

I'll have more honest and cutting thoughts about this below, but for the time being, here's a visual pun about free speech.

Yes, I did create this silly, mediocre art just for the blog post. Learning to make art is hard. 

Censorship - like, actually

Hate speech and sexy speech - and art - are often thrown together, as if they were one and the same or shared the same traits. Anyone who wants to support pornographic or artistic works for their own sake - such as myself - is often forced to accept their nastier cousins, hate speech and violent speech, as part and parcel of the ban list. 

There's been some caterwauling about liability in lawsuits, revenge porn, and other such things, but the answer to that is not blanket banning. It's lazy, ineffective, and tars consensual and voluntary work with the same brush as harmful acts. If it's hard to understand why that's a problem, please watch this video about consent.

Lessons from the Exodus

However, this event shows that all forms of controversial speech are not, in fact, created equal. This has long been an argument, but - given that hate speech is surviving this purge easily enough and that nipples, of all the ridiculous things, are not - we can now officially divorce the two. The one is being attacked without any impact on the other. As much as they have often been companions in the penalty box, they are not the same issue, and we ought to be more honest about this, rather than letting Nazis take shelter behind our protection of sex workers and sexy content.

Hate speech, which I personally do not believe should be protected, is visual, verbal, and written expressions encouraging violence towards and harm of marginalised groups. The impact of hate speech and discrimination is directly dependent on how much harm they cause towards people. So for instance, a Muslim woman is subjected to far more prejudice than a white man on a regular basis, so she might be more in need of protection than the white guy. BUT - that does not mean that the white man doesn't need protection from individual acts of violence, such as a mugging or domestic assault (because men are abused, too, and our lack of men's shelters is criminal).

However, advocating for acts of hate using coded language, such as the ((( ))) technique used by alt-righters to distinguish Jewish people, or references to the Fourteen Words and that sort of thing, can be harder to pick up on. Do we silence those too?

On one hand, people should be allowed to exist freely. On the other hand, if those people decide their existence is predicated on harming others, the conflict that arises does not need to be defended. It does not materially benefit or even defend, for instance, the European cultures being talked about. If one demands that the existence of presence of others be punished merely at their whim, that person is wrong.

I can see someone saying, "BUT SJWs OR NPCs [Social Justice Warriors, or our new nickname, non-player characters] DON'T PERMIT THE EXISTENCE OF PEOPLE THEY DISAGREE WITH!"

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the position. What "we", broadly speaking, want, is to be tolerated and accepted as we are. We often have family members or friends who are or were centrists, right-wing, or even alt-right. It's their beliefs that are the problem. You might say, to put it in Christian terms, that we love the sinners and hate the sin.

But in all seriousness, "white pride" parades and groups have never done anything to actually preserve great works of art or literature. In fact, a lot of preservation work that's been done by various societies - such as by Muslims during the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire - was done in a spirit of tolerance and sharing. In addition to that, questioning something is not the same as destroying it. I've talked about this stuff before, and it's a huge topic, so let's get back to Tumblr specifically and the future of the arts and queer community on it.

Where do we go now? 

Well, Mastodon seems to be an option. I've heard Newgrounds, as mentioned, is a possible haven. 

At this point, I think it's time for businesses to be more honest about sexual content compared to other banned content. This purge is timed to match with December 17th, the day to end violence against sex workers. I have gone on record many times as being in support of sex workers, and have occasionally tried to talk about the difference between trafficking myths and trafficking facts, as well as other related issues. Sex workers and creators of sexual content (including writers, artists, cam girls, photographers, and etc) are all being harmed by this foolish and ill-judged, puritanical move - and nobody is being saved from actual hate speech, things that could, in fact harm adults.

Maybe we can talk Tumblr down from its terrible, foolish decision. Maybe not. But I'm making a profile elsewhere just in case, and I'll keep posting and sharing there - and on Tumblr - for as long as they let me.

Queer people are not a mistake, nor filthy.

"Filth" is not necessarily even harmful.

We don't deserve to be erased.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partners-in-crime and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

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