Who’d listen to an apparently ‘recidivist’, feminist academic and some right-wing lite writer of semi erotic literature?
Me. I happily listen to, read and respect (though not feverishly) the positions of both Germaine Greer and Jilly Cooper for exactly the same reason that I read Barbara Ellen, Naomi Woolf and Kathy Acker.
Do I always like what they say? No. Do I find some of it a bit one dimensional? Yup. Do I sometimes react like an overly defensive bloke? I’m certain I do. But do I find a lot of what they say illuminating, transformative and inspirational. All day long. Do their perspectives improve me? Without question.
I read and engage with them for exactly the same reason I like P. Funk, Christopher Hitchens, Family Guy, the Antiques Roadshow, Gogglebox and Byron: for the human colour and texture delivered by opposing narratives and the frictions held within them. They often fundamentally contradict each other – and throw spanners in each other’s engines and excreta at each other’s windows. That’s good. That’s one of the greatest upsides of enjoying Freedom of Speech.
Where would the joy be if we weren’t free to mock Donald J? That’s satire. That’s a healthy reaction. A massive baby Donald is a perfectly acceptable scale of riposte to a man who holds the attention of the world in his twitter-like hand, and shakes his status like a plastic rattle.
As long as it is done openly, in the light of day, spoken with the courage of one’s convictions, in a peer reviewed, open-sided environment with some basic rules of engagement – that’s all good.
But recently, as the darker corners of the #metoo, clean food and transgender campaigns have demonstrated, it can get ugly our there even when you begin with the best intentions in the world. Boisterous debate, informed discourse and heated discussion can quickly be replaced by something far more insidious and, to me, more dangerous.
I am talking about our provisional transition from open debate and respect for free speech (and the accompanying chimpanzee-like pooh flinging) to a narrow, closed form of cod-intellectual ‘social shout-down’ and the deafening absence of the Right of Reply.
There needs to be a tension, a friction in our evolutions – that’s human – and some subjects need to be approached with a degree of disruptive vigour.
There needs to be some punkish and raw fire blown into some social constructs and mores, mostly because they have become sclerotic. And Free Speech is about giving the fire the oxygen it needs.
But for some, Free Speech is seen as a Trojan horse for self-interest, bullying, dogma, schism, proselytising and propaganda. Well, no shit Sherlock. The openness of Free Speech means that, at some point, some very twisted and odd individuals will abuse the ability and opportunity to state their case.
But Free Speech’s defence mechanism against the twisted idiots and cruelty mongers prevailing lies in its very openness – and an environment rooted in an open Right of Reply on a mass scale. In each person resides the right to say No, I disagree, or ‘that is bad’, or ‘this could be better.’ Free Speech is a human block chain system by which we manage the security and integrity of our social, cultural, ethical and moral codes
It requires us all to be open to a reciprocal respect in the exchange. And it requires us to accept that the outpourings of Free Speech may very well make us feel very aggrieved or uncomfortable, and often so.
That’s its point. It is meant to be the valve in the pressure cooker; the thing that mostly helps to stop large swathes of people feeling they have no voice and reaching boiling point.
Free Speech is a good thing. But it does come with rules of engagement, and with responsibilities and accountabilities that we need to accept.
Free Speech has consequences. And we need to accept these in the brutal cold light of day. Framed in human, living terms, – not just in its philosophical and notional or legal and constitutional terms.
What do I mean by human living terms? Just the random and chaotic emotional truths of how people respond to stuff they are wound up about. Feelings can be uncomfortable. Insights can seem loaded. Emotions can be raw. Thoughts can be dangerous. Beliefs can be murderous. Never more so when they are voiced into the world with seemingly little attention or consideration for how they may be received.
But this is Free Speech is it not?
Freedom of Speech also means that we have the freedom to respond or not to statements and polemics however hateful with greater wit, charm intellect or persuasion than that with which they were served to us.
But sometimes the response is brutal, mindless or violent with little opportunity for debate or discourse.
The French satirists of Charlie Hebdo making cartoons of the Prophet can be viewed as either extraordinarily disrespectful smart arses who misread their right to mock with dreadful consequence or brave defenders of Free Speech. Regardless, most would accept that they knew what the extremity of the response might be. That is where courage or recklessness must step up and accept that the consequence of its actions though inhuman or horrific or criminal are none the less potential consequences. Je suis Charlie.
Free Speech is, in itself, open and equal – but that comes at a price.
Firstly, that we have to also listen to preachers and proselytisers of all kinds of shite wanging on endlessly with their propaganda or their misshapen and offensive views. And secondly we must accept that Free Speech is there to defend our right to have a voice, not to protect us against violent, harmful of hateful riposte. That is the role of the laws and systems of our democratic constitutions to uphold that side of the Suffrage bargain – that I am free to state my views and beliefs openly without fear of violent or harmful response. But in real, raw human everyday terms, might a psychotic or a fundamentalist or worse still a foreign government actor ‘get’ to me before the police man or woman (or howsoever they might identify) placed there to protect my Human Right to Free Speech. Yup. Jo Cox paid the greatest price for the freedom to voice our beliefs and politics in an all too human realm of ignorant response.
Silencing voices we do not like the sound and metre of is not democratic. Suppressing opposition is not how an open society operates. But we do it anyway. And sometimes the most successful way to hide something slightly dodgy is in plain sight, in this instance dressed up as a digital pillar of freedom of expression.
Here we return to the issue of No Voice or No Right to Reply and the socio-cultural twitter smack-down of Free Speech
The Oxford Union’s persistent need to silence hate mongers, sexists and racists disguised as authors, politicians, artists, academics or celebrity speakers, citing them as evil, is, I believe, a childish response from what is supposed to be a bastion of enlightenment, intelligence and wannabe stalwarts of the freedom to practice and speak freely.
I expect them to be at the forefront of this issue. Not on the back-foot.
That the Oxford Union cannot a) manage just 1 hour of ‘discomfort’ (the discomforting effect of listening to some twisted manipulator of reason and belief) in a seat in one of the most socially comfortable and privileged environments in the world and b) find the wherewithal to illuminate the insanity and misguided-ness of those people beggars belief.
If the intellectual bastions of a democratic society are too fragile or easily damaged by the turgid minds of the extremist, then we have a problem.
If you believe someone is citing or excusing violence, suppression or prejudice against the person either emotionally, physically, philosophically, spiritually or politically; make your case. Take the podium and illuminate the insanity of their bullshit through reasoned and sometimes unreasonable discourse.
But perhaps therein lies the point. Charlie Hebddo has demonstrated that you have to do this in the full knowledge that the boisterous but ultimately harmless debating society approach to conflict and problem resolution is a luxury that few people have and even fewer respect.
The world does not always respond in the measured, monochromatic mid-tones of a Mid-Western Psychologist.
Maybe that’s the issue for our delicate intelligentia?
You need to be prepared for what humans throw at you. And its messy.
We resort to chimp like shit flinging at the drop of a hat. And if we can beat our chests and rally a crowd of the intellectually lazy, spiritually misguided or emotionally stunted to our cause, chances are, we will, regardless of the veracity of our arguments or the quality of their support.
When we close down or silence those voices (instead of hearing them out and then deconstructing them at scale) we create a vacuum; an absence of natural tension. And history has shown that the smallest, pettiest, most vicious personal human agendas can rise up freely inside a vacuum.
If we don’t like the language or the statements of the likes of Donald J Trump or Germaine Greer, we need to use our own to rebuff them. Not just close them down.
But if we do that in the belief that everyone will play fair, we are ignoring the bestial creature truth of humanity.
Hopefully we are learning to understand that free speech, shaped as it is by the human psyche, is often going to be incendiary, disgraceful, unpleasant or, mostly, disagreeable, (unless I happen to be the person freeing my speech of course).
Free Speech has consequences, for the listener, and for the speaker. In the basest human terms those consequences can be hostile, violent, diminishing, degrading and sometimes criminal. This is the cause and effect of being human. Our beliefs whether communicated through speech, action or gesture will be both proselytised in a raw human manner and received in the same. Often an extreme response cannot be claimed to be truly surprising. Shocking perhaps. But not surprising.
If I am a man (or, more likely in this example, a sexually retarded fantasist game designer ‘child’ of a man running the upgrade on Grand Theft Auto), who has spouted the twisted belief that every rape ‘wants it’, and, subsequently, I get violently anally pegged by a troubled-turned-violent rape victim in some act of vengeance against my publically spouted beliefs, so be it.
Now that may sound a little extreme but is it wholly unexpected? How could it be? We know that trauma scars people physically and emotionally. A victim of extreme physical abuse can sometimes be driven to consider undertaking vengeful actions. Fact. This is not some movie fantasy of revenge. It would be naive to pretend it was.
So, if I voice an opinion, even as an ignorant provocation, I know what I am saying and my intention in saying it. Does that deserve a criminal or life disfiguring act against me? Or even a murderous one? Possibly not. And there are laws to dissuade someone from thinking otherwise.
BUT it IS a possibility I must consider when I open my mouth and speak, especially on incendiary topics. Because I live in a raw and human world, democratic or otherwise.
We are creatures with a genetic lineage that was shaped across hundreds of thousands of generations before we even thought to set up one camp together, let alone a civilised society. The complexity of what runs beneath the surface of us – what systems we’re running behind the interface of our conscious self – is only just beginning to be revealed by science and psychology.
We are ancient creatures with a modern veneer of civility. We are, in phone terms, a Nokia 100 with a state of the art Android interface. And Freedom of Speech and people’s responses to it are the raw proof of that.
The language we use when we spout anything – from the sublime and enlightening to the ridiculous and disagreeable – is a powerful technology that we’ve been honing for a while. It has impact and reach. Wrap an opinion or a belief in it and we in effect light blue touch paper. It can be devastating. In some instances Sticks and stones would be the kinder option.
The learned experiences, beliefs and strategies that we use language to communicate are not always positive or palatable ones and they are not always done with a view to the common good (unless in some weird moment you think that the common good might be served by all-white sections of the UK, a transgender ban, and men-only golf clubs!). It goes with the territory.
Human language is a sharp tool that can both help and harm. And like all sharp tools, we need to tread cautiously in how when and where we use it; and to whom. And take responsibility for what happens when we do.
Regardless of the nature or capability of your exercising your right to use language freely to make your point, the main thing again is that it is undertaken with openness and the Right to Reply.
Tyrannical smack downs of someone who says something we don’t like are an unsurprising emotional reaction. Humans don’t like being wrong but, more importantly, are truly dreadful when they are feeling ‘really’ right.
This is less about the mitigation of the wrongness that sometimes occurs in environments of free speech, and more about the application of Righteousness in those events.
Righteousness is a wonderful word for a dreadful human nature. It brings together the spirit of divine complicity (support from on high) in your cause or belief, with a big slather of super conservative institutional rigour and supposed socio-cultural substance (regardless of whether ‘the party’ is of a left wing or right wing disposition).
And righteousnessis the only thing I could call the cultural shift that now has us banning dickheads from publically spouting their dickheadedness in environments like the Oxford Union where they can at least be dis-assembled publically – and the twisted logic that led a large number of smart intelligent people to not only take Margaret Atwood to task on her watch outs for #metoo but to damn her outright with no Right of Reply. Smackdown!
If the ‘Snowflake generation,’ as Millennials are so called, are at the forefront of these shifts, then we simply need to be conscious of that old cause and effect paradigm and be aware that the effect may be equally distasteful .
The Snowflake generation are called as much because they are seen by some as insufferably fragile – children in the world, bred to be easily damaged, hurt or offended by even the slightest harshness in tone, content, belief, polemic or politic. In this world view, everything becomes viewed through the filter of a threat to be shut or shot down.
The proof given is that when people cite something that doesn’t suit their world view, it’s damned or dismissed as recidivist or self-serving. (That it might just be a well founded and timeless piece of wisdom, or intelligently arrived at point of view worthy of consideration seems to be irrelevant.)
And therein lies the cliché. The Smackdown is simply another tyranny to replace other tyrannies. I had hoped we were less obvious but we’re not. The seemingly weak being in fact aggressors in the exercise and application of their fears in the world is a reoccurring human truth.
Tyrants do not like Free Speech. Especially the real kind. Hence the Fake News campaign of one Donald J. Am I comparing #metoo and Donald J’s Fake News? Yes – but only in the fact that they both have used social networks, especially that of the unsophisticated, stunted responses of twitter (AKA Troll heaven) to silence and shame their detractors.
I am not for one moment venturing that their politics or ethics are similar. Just their tools and the spirit in which they apply them.
They have both adopted the same mechanism – of scolding and damnation – by which to quash what they don’t want to hear.
So my hope is that Free Speech, the real version will a) be recognised for the powerful and democratic tool it is b) respected as something that has consequences for both the speaker and the listener. Both good and bad.