Speech impediment

Free speech defenders are the ones shutting down debate

1st February 2018

In recent weeks, barely a day has gone by without a bitter row about freedom of speech. Whether it’s Jo Marney’s racist comments about Meghan Markle, Toby Young’s misogyny or Donald Trump’s tweets about “shithole countries”, it’s hard to escape that phrase. Abhorrent and offensive remarks pollute social media and comment threads, but people who criticise or complain about them are regularly accused of curbing free speech. They’re labelled elitist lefties or delicate snowflakes.

To be clear, everyone — no matter their background, occupation or political leanings – is entitled to freedom of speech.

This fundamental right is often misconstrued as a right to say anything without consequence

Unfortunately though, this fundamental right is often misconstrued as a right to say anything without consequence or without allowing anyone the right to reply. That’s not how free speech works.

So much of the recent debate around free speech centres on the right of privileged, mostly male commentators being allowed to express themselves. The debate rarely extends to the right of marginalised people to stand up against dehumanising behaviour, damaging stereotypes, threats and bigotry. Instead, they are harassed by trolls who denounce them as social justice warriors and enemies of free speech. These agitators are gleeful when their target is hounded off social media or relentlessly attacked for daring to speak out. The result? The free speech defenders have effectively committed the same sin they accuse their opponents of: silencing critics. Meanwhile, right-wing (and sometimes left-wing) publications dedicate huge amounts of column inches to publishing and re-publishing the offensive comments, ensuring the writer’s freedom of speech is not inhibited in any way.

It’s easy to denounce individuals — particularly women, people of colour and LGBT people — as “snowflakes” on the assumption that they can’t deal with opinions different to their own, but the reality is that we’ve had a lifetime of dealing with them. And even if it pains me, I’d rather know about the racist opinions of my favourite actor or see the “man of the people” politician I admire unmasked as a bigot, than remain in blissful ignorance.

However, rather than passively accept these views, I believe it’s crucial to challenge them. Questioning whether something is a fair, decent or justified viewpoint isn’t a threat to free speech. Nor is pointing out flaws in an argument or highlighting factually incorrect information.

So how do we fix the increasingly toxic debate around free speech?

Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that free speech works both ways. You are entitled to your view, no matter how repugnant, and I am entitled to express my disgust with it.

If users breach the site’s terms and conditions through hate speech or other forms of abuse, banning them is entirely justified

This does not mean, however, that social media sites are obliged to accommodate everyone with something controversial to say. If users breach the site’s terms and conditions through hate speech or other forms of abuse, banning them is entirely justified.

Equally, a publication may have any number of legitimate reasons for refusing to publish an article, none of which have anything to do with censorship.

Secondly, politely agreeing to disagree when it’s clear neither side is going to back down is a sensible compromise. If you genuinely feel you’ve been wronged no one should deny you a brief, truthful complaint.

However, a 30-tweet thread castigating your opponents is not only a waste of energy, but may encourage your less reasonable followers to harass and abuse those opponents.

Call me idealistic, but these two simple actions could go a long way in ensuring that the right to free speech is enjoyed by everyone and not just those of privilege.

1st February 2018