Freedom of Speech: A Discussion in Two Bits

October 14, 2010

(Originally posted here on 30/07/10)

(Note – there are a lot of links in this. I would advise people to follow them up, as this piece is only an introduction to my thoughts, and the links I include are to guide people to the thoughts of people with whom I strongly agree. Also, this is quite big).

Contents
Part 1: Freedom of Speech
Part 2: Idiots Getting it Wrong.

1:

As with most of my written-down head burblings, the following scribbles were brought about due to a smidgen of stimulating debate; Question Time, to be exact. The panel were discussing the Queen’s decision to cancel her garden party invite to Nick Griffin, fearing that he would use the occasion as a political football – and given that Her Majesty is not allowed to get involved in politics, it was best to keep him away (though, paradoxically, denying him an invite could also be read as a political statement, but that’s by the by).

During the ensuing discussion on said topic, union rep Bob Crow made use of a statement which made me seethe so much I briefly generated enough heat to leave a deep burn in the couch. His words ran something like “I agree with free speech, but once you start saying bad things about black people, I don’t think you should be allowed it”.

Erm…right. That sounds like the very worst kind of Orwellian doublethink; on the one hand, Crow wants to maintain his left-wing credentials by coming out in favour of “free speech” (the concept, incidentally, implying an unrestricted right to hilight and discuss whichever concepts, issues, opinions etc. we might wish, regardless of their impact), but at the same time needed to come out in favour of protecting multiculturalism, and thereby expressing a desire to place a cap on that same “free” speech. I think this has been one of the main head-scratching dichotomies in left-wing politics in the past twenty years, and people still aren’t sure how to approach it.

Anyway, like I’ve said in an earlier post, I disagree with all of what the BNP have to say, but nevertheless feel that they do have a right to say it – and in fact, their coming out into the open makes it easier to hold up their views for the dross they are. Do I agree with the verbal intimidation of minorities? Of course not. Do I feel that people have the right to do so? Well, unfortunately, yes. BUT – and this is the thing everyone keeps forgetting – we have the right to counter those insults with reasoned debate, freedom of speech being on our side as well. While free speech might allow for some venomous diatribes to get through, it also allows for the enlightened discourse which can scrutinise the mean bits. And as such, it ought to be protected.

Of course, some people make the rather odd mistake of thinking that we can get rid ofsome freedom of speech, while preserving all the nice bits. We can outlaw groups like the BNP, Islam4UK, the English Defense League etc. while allowing everyone else to go about their daily business. After all, those groups only use freedom of speech for their own ends, and would probably demolish it themselves if they had half a chance. Meanwhile, the common populace are debating subjects of decency, like cake recipes, talk shows, and how nice it is to be the denizen of a free democracy.

Unfortunately, this is politically – almost mathematically – impossible.

Labour’s ill-advised Racial and Religious Hatred Act was a good example of this argument being exercised. The intention of this wide-ranging act was to criminalise the “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief”, and largely came about due to types like the BNP, who were particularly vicious against Muslims. And yet as many critics of the act pointed out, this would make texts like the Bible and the Qur’an illegal, given all those verses which go on about smiting people of other religions or laying plagues upon non-believers etc. Plus, as comedians such as Rowan Atkinson pointed out, this would put a very broad ban on writers, comedians, artists etc doing anything which seemed even remotely like criticising religion – which is a pain, as many of them feel that religion is something worth criticising.

What can be learn from this example? Simple:that when you try to take freedom of speech away from radicals, you can easily end up taking it from the moderates, and by extention, everyone else.

The same applies, naturally, to freedom of artistic expression – and its dark oppositte, censorship.

I may not like what somebody paints, writes, records or broadcasts, but to call for the silencing of anything I find morally banrkupt or disturbing would be to shoot myself in the foot. After all, if you ask enough people, everyone usually objects to some sort of artistic work that they’ve seen or heard, and that is because art is largely about opinions and personal taste.

For example, a lot of Christians might have been apalled by Jerry Springer: The Operaand subsequently called for whoever allowed it to get on air to be fired; stop this sort of thing from happening again; cite silly arguments like “we pay their wages” etc.

But if they can do that, then they’ve got no right to stop me from asking for Songs of Praise to be taken off the air. After all, many of those hymns could be interpreted as offensive to an atheist such as myself, particularly the more militant ones such as “Onward Christian Soldiers”. And I could use the same arguments they used to censor the stuff with which they disagreed. They’d be completely incapable of arguing for their right to freedom of speech – because, after all, they’ve just denied that same right to someone else.

See? Start censoring the stuff you don’t like, and you will make it easy for others to censor the stuff you do like, or which you may be interested in producing yourself at some other point.

Just in case yo want some other examples, do look up:

Charlie Brooker’s response to the Sachsgate debacle, and how a cult of self-censorship among comedians would have, if employed earlier, cancelled out such luminaries as Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, Steptoe and Son, Not the Nine o’Clock News etc;

Neil Gaiman’s defense of freedom of artistic speech;

Frank Zappa’s battle with the Parents Music Resource Centre, in a bid to prevent those little “Parental Guidance” labels that are now on the cover of literally every album ever produced.

Ultimately, much of this can be summed up by Martin Niemoller’s poem “They came first…“. When I first read this, I originally read it as pointing to the slightly more rose-tinted sentiment of “The Communists, Jews and left-wing German intellectuals could all have banded up against the Nazis, united despite their differences”. While I don’t think this is wrong, I now believe this poem to have a more pertinent message; if you ignore it when other groups have their freedom nicked from them, you’re making it decidedly easy for people to do the same to you. Either everyone gets freedom of speech, and it covers every subject, or no-one does, and it doesn’t.

2:

HOWEVER…

As outlined above, I don’t have a problem with freedom of speech being extended to everybody, even if I disagree with them. I’m not an elitist when it comes to people being allowed to speak their mind. Admittedly I used to be, but am now not, due to the above.

But something unfortunate has happened – something which has forced the learned, rational, experienced and ultimately nice folk of this world to have their views drowned out by baying hordes of plonktards. Hunt for a debate on any major issue – anything from immigration to healthcare to computer game violence – and you will find that while there are a few sane and sensible people having genuine debate, there will always be idiots waiting in the wings en masse.

What’s happened is this:

In order to make sure that everyone exercises their right to free speech (after all, more people using it and accessing it can only be a good thing, given its potential as a mechanism for scrutiny), a lot of people have been told that they have an equal right to express their opinion. Which is true.

But the problem comes when a rather bizarre logical leap is made: the idea that because everyone has an equal right to voice their opinion, then consequently, everyone’s opinion, or interpretation of the facts, is equally valid.

WRONG. BOLLOCKS. BALL-COCKS. ARSE-GRAVY. MERDE. OOH-ER.

This is not true, and its as damaging to free speech as censorship. Why? Because it transforms reasoned debate into populist mooing, forcing pundits to bring things to the lowest common denominator and appealing to mob mentality.

This is why that fewer people are less likely to look to experts and professionals when the debate comes forward, even if said experts and professionals are armed with facts, figures, quotes from leaders in the field, the results of long-conducted tests etc. They are more keen to go to celebrities and the red-top shit sheets instead. It’s Live from Studio Five over Radio 4, and The Daily Star over The Times or The Independent.

To make matters worse, this world of “Your opinion counts!” dross is often only an illusory trick, designed to make the consumer feel that they have some control over the product for which they are paying. It’s the world of: Paper or plastic?; have our new laptop in any colour you want; would you like to go large for 30p extra?; have your say on our Opinions section: if you want to evict LaShebaznay from the house, call..; if you think Fuckwit has the X-Factor, call…

If you think I’m being the nutter in the tinfoil helmet again, just stop and think about the ways in which you are told your opinion counts, when in fact if you scratch the surface, it doesn’t. I mean, Burger King’s slogan might be “Have it Your Way“, but if I went in to one and told them I wanted my MEGA TRIPLE XXL HEART ATTACK FUCKER BURGER presented to me on a plate made of Bose-Einstein condensate, and fed to me by Sasha Grey and Gianna Michaels in a big jacuzzi – and what’s more, I’d want to be paid eighty pounds for the privilege – they’d probably have me taken outside and shot for being such a sarky little twat.

As a result, everyone goes around thinking that their breadth of knowledge, though restricted, will serve the same purpose and have the same impact as that of pioneers, saints, poets, scientists, theologians, philosophers, sages, shamans and true artists. Despite the fact that they are a shit-for-brains, who think that Heat magazine provides searing social commentary, and that having read the entirety of the FuzzBuzz series by the age of thirty somehow makes them well-read (my entry on “People” discusses my hatred for such types in a bit more depth).

Unfortunately for the rest of us, it’s these idiots that rule the roost. Politicians and the mass media pander to them, and cunning bastards make use of them. While the rest of us might have our “ivory tower” where we can take the role of “so-called intellectuals”, they are stuck in nooks and crannies; and when we come out, we cannot expect to have our opinion taken more seriously than anyone else’s.

Hell, if you want an example of this, just look at this abhorrent affair where Alan Titchmarsh chaired a discussion on violence in computer games. Alan fucking Titchmarsh. Along with the editor of the Sun and some woman you’ve never heard of. Why? Because the program makers realised it’s better to placate idiots with shouty people who agree with them (despite vast bodies of evidence to the contrary, brought forward by a well-meaning seasoned expert), rather than upsetting them with the truth. And besides, the mob don’t want “boffins” (i.e. intelligent people) to discuss things with them – they just want a familiar face.

And while we’re on the subject, could people stop using the term “boffin” with such disdain? After all, all a “boffin” is is someone who’s partaken in a peer-reviewed system, based on the empirical method, to discern a series of properties or results (through experimentation or otherwise) which might improve our lives or further reveal our place in the universe. By this estimation, Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Patrick Moore etc. aren’t scientists who’ve spent their lives traversing that fine line between out-of-this-world wonder and keen rational scrutiny. They’re not pioneers enlightening the human experience, and keenly attempting to spread their enthusiasm to others. Nope; they’re just white lab coat, nerdy “boffins”. Quite frankly, fuck the boffin-bashers, says I.

(Also, see Dara o’Briain’s rant on this subject for stuff I would simply be repeating here, and in a far less enterataining and enlightening way).

Naturally, I believe that these people have a right to their carrion prolefeed. But I also believe that those of us who are left behind, and have genuine brains with all the working bits intact, have a right to stand up and argue the toss as well. After all, if we don’t, we might as well relegate planet earth to the dunderheads now.

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