Thursday, 5 November 2015

Freedom of speech, identity and offence

In a 'news analysis' article for Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph, I examined the tensions which can exist between identity politics and free speech.  It focussed mostly on arguments around gender identity, and speakers being banned from university debates, but it also touched upon the issue of same-sex marriage, which is so topical and incendiary in Northern Ireland.

Maybe the timing of the piece was unfortunate, because there was a lot of anger around on Tuesday morning and justifiably so. 

On Monday, in spite of a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly backing a motion to introduce same-sex marriage here, it was defeated, because the DUP tabled a ‘petition of concern’.   This mechanism requires a majority from both designations in the Assembly to vote in favour of a measure, if it’s to pass.  Petitions of concern were intended to protect minority rights, but they have been used instead as vetoes on any matters which cause disagreement.  

My article got caught up in the ensuing crossfire on social media.  Some commenters thought it apologised for the DUP, a few interpreted it as an endorsement of arguments against same-sex marriage and others reckoned it attacked transgender people.  I got accused of being a ‘fundamentalist’, ‘in hoc to the DUP’ and, most strangely of all, ‘a tool of Zionists’.  All good fun.   

These reactions prompted me to have some rather sniffy and unnecessary thoughts about falling standards of English comprehension.  They also made me want to add some reflections on the nature of freedom of speech and associated modern attitudes.   After all, this ‘right’ is usually still thought to underpin our democracy. 

So here they are:

The right to freedom of speech is not absolute.   I touched upon this in my article, but what does it mean in practice?  Our right to speak freely is curtailed by things like defamation law and ‘hate speech’ legislation.  There are also laws around decency, broadcasting regulations, copyright and a host of other limitations, depending on your preferred mode of expression.  There are all sorts of contentious arguments about the balance between free speech and the law.  However, the point is that restrictions are generally pretty specific.  Yet, the words ‘hate speech’ are often bandied around to criticise a contentious argument, without reference to laws drafted in statute or their interpretation in courts.

      Freedom of speech doesn’t depend upon you agreeing with the argument.  It’s easy to champion free speech for people with whom you agree.  It’s harder to stick up for the principle when you think that the person speaking is wrong, sometimes grievously so.  Or, to turn that around, supporting someone’s freedom to speak certainly does not mean that you endorse their argument.  It doesn’t even mean that you don’t find it ridiculous, hateful or repellent.
      Freedom of speech doesn’t depend upon your approval of the person who is speaking.  Disapproving of someone is not reason enough to deprive them of their right to speak.  So many arguments, about almost any controversial issue, seem to revolve around who is saying something rather than what they are saying.  “So and so shouldn’t get a platform because they are a ‘phobe’, an ‘evangelical’, a ‘fundamentalist’, a ‘bigot’”.  All these descriptions may (or may not) be true, but they are irrelevant to arguments around free speech.  Of course, there is a certain significance to giving someone a platform to speak.  It isn’t always appropriate.  But, at fora like universities and public debates, surely the presumption must be that, if someone isn’t breaking the law by expressing their opinion, then they can be heard and challenged?  And again, being prepared to listen to someone doesn’t imply any kind of approval.    

      Freedom of speech doesn’t mean all opinions are valid.  The concept of freedom of speech does not mean that everyone’s views are equal, or worthwhile, or that anyone is under an obligation to listen.  That’s the sort of misconception that pits doctors against homeopaths in debates about medicine, or scientists against Jeremy Clarkson, discussing climate change.  The flipside of people who want to silence anyone they don’t like, is the ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ brigade.  Yes, you are entitled to your opinion, but the rest of us are equally entitled to point out that it’s worthless, because you don’t know what you’re talking about.  We’re even entitled to point and laugh!

      There is no right not to be offended.  This actually might be the central point.  With more than 1,100 words to flesh out my thoughts and more time, it would’ve been nice to explain what I meant by ‘identity politics’ and the corrosive effect this notion can have.  To be really short: the idea seems to have taken hold that particular groups of people, or individuals within those groups, who define themselves by certain categories – gender, sex, race, nationality, religion, culture and more – get to decide what offends them and the rest of society then has a duty not to give offence.  There’s a very good article in The Times today, by the columnist David Aaronovitch, examining how this works practically.  On certain university campuses student unions are doing ‘risk assessments’ on all potential speakers, in case any students may feel “threatened or unsafe”.  Now, it’s absolutely right to take people’s sensitivities into account and to attempt, insofar as possible, not to cause offence.  However, we can't apply a completely subjective definition of 'offensiveness'.  It is not enough to say that someone has been offended, so therefore someone else has said something offensive.  If discussing ideas and debating issues cause our students to feel ‘threatened and unsafe’, then they should try to become more robust, or stay away from academia!                

Rantier than I’d expected, but it’s good to vent once in a while.  It is my right after all!  Not that anyone is obliged to listen.

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