June 20, 2024 opinion

Harrison Butker's speech feels like a scene fromThe Handmaid’s Tale

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Helena Bruździak in Warsaw, Poland

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August 17, 2023. Chiefs Military Appreciation Day. Technical Sgt. Cody Sellers, 161st Intel Group Fusion Analyst meets with Harrison Butker, Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Picture by: William Lunn | DVIDS

American star football player Harrison Butker is standing by his controversial commencement speech made at a private Catholic university in Kansas on May 11.

In the speech he made many misogynistic and hateful comments, such as claiming women should focus on being a “homemaker” rather than their careers, and also criticising abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

In the speech at Benedictine College, the Kansas City Chiefs kicker described women’s career ambitions as the “most diabolical lies” and suggested that most of the graduating women present are “most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world”.

He went on: “I can tell you that my beautiful wife, Isabelle, would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother,” speaking, ironically enough, for his own wife.

He also made a sneering reference to the pop star Taylor Swift by quoting her lyrics but without naming her; instead, he described her merely as “my teammate’s girlfriend” – Swift is currently in a relationship with Chiefs player Travis Kelce. This caused huge media attention, as most things related to Swift do, with some comparing Butker’s net worth ($5mn) to those of Taylor Swift’s cats, one of which is apparently worth $97mn.

The NFL star did more than criticise women’s rights. Feeling compelled to make a reference to transgender rights, the 28 year-old, who is a committed Catholic, also criticised President Biden, a Catholic, and other unnamed Catholic leaders for “pushing dangerous gender ideologies onto the youth of America”.

Why growing up as a young woman is scary: A teen’s perspective from Poland

The speech was met with widespread criticism.My first thoughts were how shocking and unacceptable his claims are – although, sadly, only too familiar. His words are deeply rooted in far-right religious Catholic values.

As a teenage girl in Poland, a very religious country where a 2020 constitutional court rulingeffectively bans abortion, I occasionally hear opinions during Mass in church that are similar to Harrison Butker’s, condemning women’s or LGBTQ+ rights. This integration of religion and state policy supports certain ideologies while marginalising basic rights, radicalising people against them.

I wondered, how Butker’s speech was approved? How can it be allowed at a graduation ceremony? These questions lead me to a broader consideration about freedom of speech in the US, and the point where freedom of speech crosses the blurry line into hate speech

Free speech is a fundamental right enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It allows individuals to express their opinions without fear of government reprisal. However, the principle of free speech also raises issues, particularly if it borders on hate speech or contributes to societal harm.

While hate speech is shielded from governmental intrusion by the First Amendment, it could be criminalised if it falls under a speech category that isn’t protected by the law.

Hate speech can be defined as ‘any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin colour, sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability or national origin’.

This is something Harrison Butker does continuously throughout his speech. By calling Pride Month a “deadly sin” he is inciting hatred against a group of people. Telling a room full of young women, who worked extremely hard for four years, that their biggest accomplishment will be motherhood and marriage is a misogynist rhetoric that is dangerous and goes against what women fought so hard to accomplish over centuries.

Unfortunately, there is no definition of hate speech under US law and, according to the United Nations, no universally recognised definition of hate speech under international human rights law.

This in an era in which misinformation and divisive, polarising claims are gaining popularity at an alarming rate.

Free speech as an absolute right can be debated. A cornerstone of democratic societies is the right for people to speak their views freely – but at what price? The recent misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and the prevalence of extremist views on social media show how radical speech can impact today’s world.

Nuns affiliated to Benedictine College released a statement on Facebook disagreeing with Butker. It said they do not believe that his ‘commencement address represents the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested’, and that women aren’t made to just be homemakers.

Many others also criticised the footballer. A common reaction online was to compare Butker’s speech to The Handmaid’s Tale – the famous novel by Margaret Atwood (and a long-running TV series) set in an oppressive totalitarian regime, which highlights the dangers of extremist religious beliefs.

What does that reaction say about the speech? What does that say about the severity of it?

Written by:

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Helena Bruździak

Contributor

Warsaw, Poland

Helena Bruździak was born in 2009, in Warsaw, Poland. She enjoys history and English at school, is passionate about writing, and wants to study law in the future. She enjoys listening to music, playing the piano and reading poetry.

Helena speaks English and Polish and is learning French.

Edited by:

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Maria Mitko

Women’s Desk editor

Warsaw, Poland

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