Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: August 2015

(A quick rumination) on the First Amendment

I’m sure this has been said many times before, but not by me, so here goes nothing:

There is a terrifying trend in the United States to equate the First Amendment (which prevents state censorship) with the right to be listened to. I have been “called out” on social media countless times as a “social justice warrior” by those who see my condemnation of racist or fascist speech as somehow in conflict with my advocacy of free expression. Rest assured, there is no contradiction; rather, in condemning hateful speech, I am exercising counter speech and my own First Amendment rights.

Similarly, I sometimes encounter Europeans who think the First Amendment is too broad, that there is some speech that is beyond the pale. To them, I ask: Who, exactly, would you put in charge of deciding which speech is acceptable? Who would implement such a regulation? While (unlike Americans) they rarely refer to private companies as good arbiters of speech, their trust in the state to appropriately and evenly regulate the speech of individuals also scares me.

There is no perfect answer, and the First Amendment (or equivalent) does not guarantee that the state will treat all speech equally. We’ve seen that in the way that the United States government has treated Muslims, whistleblowers, and others. But this inequality of implementation is also no justification to flip the tables and ban hate speech either: What makes anyone think that a state authority would suddenly apply such a ruling evenly and correctly?

Counter speech is powerful, but not always enough. To victims of harassment, censorious solutions can be tempting, and I am not unsympathetic. But as someone who has experienced harassment aplenty on the Internet, I remain unconvinced that the game of whack-a-mole that is most social media’s strategy of dealing with harassers is ineffective. I remain convinced that censorship doesn’t solve society’s ills.

To those in the movement, fighting fascism, racism, authoritarianism, and imperialism, the idea of censoring hateful speech can also be tempting. Again, I am not unsympathetic, but I fear that driving such speech underground does little to rid us of these scum. Watching what’s happening on US college campuses has also led me to fear that when certain lefts come to power, they will be quick to censor criticism of their lot. History happens to back that up.

Lest this become a rant and not a quick rumination, I shall conclude with this: For each person, there is a line past which certain speech is unacceptable. For each person, that line differs. We will never as a society agree on what should or should not be acceptable speech, making the only just line no line at all. Let us deal with our problems as a society and not rely on authority to “solve” our problems for us.




On my first year in Berlin

Ten days from now marks the close of my first year in Berlin. I arrived on August 30th at about 8am and sat outside the airport for two hours, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, before I could go pick up the keys to what was meant to be a 6-month sublet (I still occupy it).  That first week was magical: Sitting in the park drinking beers with fellow émigrés, discovering the bio section of the supermarket, and breathing in the early fresh autumn air, I knew I’d arrived.

I guess I never wrote about why or how I got here in the first place. It is not a complicated tale, but it is personal. In short, San Francisco was eating at my soul. In short, I was burning out.

One year later and certain changes are tangible. I’m physically healthier, thanks to better and cheaper food and a culture that lends itself to physical activity, be it the stairs up from the U-bahn or grand strolls around beautiful lakes. The bags under my eyes have all but disappeared. My friend circles here are diverse and inclusive and my social lifestyle is thus a whole lot different than it was in SF.

But there’s something deeper here that I’m working my way through. I’m not sure if it’s because of the people I’ve surrounded myself with, the distance from the office and the US, or something else entirely, but I’ve let go.  Of so much. The anxiety and stress that plagued me at night for so many years seems so distant, as does the impostor syndrome I felt for so long. But also faraway is the relentless ambition I forced myself into for so long. I’ve learned how to say no to things, finally, and I’ve never felt better.

I don’t know how much of this is related to Berlin. It certainly has its perks: it’s inexpensive, diverse, and frankly, easy to live here, but it’s still a metropolis far bigger than any other city I’ve lived in. I just know I’m happier here. So happy anniversary to me.



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