“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” ~ Frederick Douglass
Freedom of speech is one of the most if not the most important right in a democracy. It is the melancholy history of human experience that the suppression of thought and communication makes human beings servile, unfulfilled, and without a capacity to realize fully their innate human capacity to experience dignity and human creativity in its most appropriate manner. Propaganda is a perfect example of a process of communication through words and actions that reinforces the psychological sense of who is included in the “self-other” and who is not and which therefore, enables the division and abuse of power, and consequently over the channels of communication and the messages transmitted. The negative use of propaganda is a strong example of the role of signs, symbols, and actions in reinforcing negative sentiment and in the management of emotions that essentially generate negative and destructive consequences for the victims of such sentiment. One of the most historic and at the same time modern victims of speech suppression is the LGBT community, which has being attacked not only by words, but by actions that in some occasions speak a lot louder than any spoken word.
Since February 2012, Washington, DC’s two prominent LGBT publications, Metro Weekly and the Washington Blade, have been targeted with vandalism. Distribution boxes for their free print versions have been filled with human and animal waste and garbage, and copies removed and thrown out in nearby garbage cans. These hateful actions are not only suppressing these magazines’ freedom of speech while putting everyone’s health at risk, but are also depriving the magazines’ audience of their right to seek and receive the information they want or need. In the same way, after one year of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal, transgender military members are still forced to serve secretly. This practice not only suppresses a specific group’s freedom of speech within the LGBT community, but it also creates tension and division within the members of this community and therefore more discrimination and conflict. One advocate estimates that it could be more than a decade before the military changes its policy on transgender troops because some advocates are reluctant to raise awareness of the issue for fear that that Congress could step in and impose a ban where none existed before.
Thankfully, not every action that is happening is bad news for the LGBT community. Since July, 2012, when the Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed its policy of excluding gays, the Scouts, as well as organizations that give support to it, have come under steady pressure from gay rights organizations that are outraged over the policy. Thanks to this pressure, this week, Intel, which was recently identified as the Scouts’ largest corporate funder, announced that it is no longer giving to the youth organization. This will cost the Scouts more than $700,000. In the same direction, a Chicago-based LGBT advocacy group reported this week that the restaurant Chick-Fil-A, which recently confirmed its anti-gay stance, has agreed to cease donations to right-wing groups that oppose same-sex marriage and declared in an internal document that the company “will treat every person equally, regardless of sexual orientation.”
There is no doubt that freedom of speech includes the right to not speak. However, even when no words are spoken, our actions sometimes say more than words and therefore become speech. Actions as words carry messages, and these messages can be misunderstood or distorted. All communication is not law, but law, which begins with the individual as a communicative being and it is therefore a product of human interaction, which inevitably reflects patterns that are characteristic of the group and the participants who constitute it, is a product of human exchange and therefore human communications. In this sense, all communication processes must be viewed and analyzed in terms of the contexts associated with the interpreting authority at stake, and with what is at risk. It is through the interpretation of signs through symbols that the individual as an “I” is able to identify with the “other” to then become part of the “we” or the “self-other.” However, this process can become a powerful tool of control and exploitation to demonized the “non-self other” and have control over the division of power.
Human rights law is supposed to be rooted on the individual and not be a by-product of the government because communications is a central component of what it is being a human being that is part of a social unit or community and that is therefore the basic unit and originator of what is known as “living law.” In this basic process of communication, race, gender, and other symbols of identity are constantly influencing and determining the characteristics of all human encounters. We should be more aware that regardless of the brevity or length of these encounters, these encounters are always significant in the sense that they produce outcomes in the collective that, if well understood, could help to alleviate some of the dysfunctions of society. Society should be governed by prescriptive norms that respond to society’s claims and needs and by the legal and moral experiences that are rooted in the fact that as participants of the social unit we are still human beings, and as human beings, we are all entitled of having not only our voices and our actions heard, but most importantly, of having our dignities respected.