There has been a lot written about freedom of speech over these past few weeks. Many people have talked about it being a key and important principle but do any of us really believe in absolute freedom of speech?
Look at this screenshot from the BBC news website taken from a few days ago. Can you notice the contradiction (the big red circles are a bit of a clue!)
The Prime Minister stresses the importance of free speech as he says that we have the right to offend. At the same time the Home Secretary is saying that we shouldn’t be anti-Semitic. You could translate this mixed message from the government as saying that it is we have the right to offend as long as it is not racial. My understanding of what the government is actually saying is that we have the right to offend unless we are inciting hatred against people or groups. This seems really clever and is something we should hopefully all agree with but is it as simple as that? Isn’t there a lot beyond this that most of us might find unacceptable?
How about the Wigan Athletic Chairman Dave Whelan. Was he exercising his freedom of speech and the right to offend when he said it was acceptable to call a Chinese person a ‘chink’ or when he said that ‘Jewish people chase money more than anyone else’? He wasn’t inciting hatred with his comments but at the same time it’s clear that most of us would agree that his comments are not acceptable.
Racism in any shape or form is evil and it has no place in our society but where do we draw the line? A lot of us grew up with there was an Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman jokes. Are those sort of jokes acceptable or not? Are they racist? Do we have the right to portray the Irish as being stupid? Is it okay if people know we are joking? Comedians do appear to get away a lot but even they can’t get away with anything. In 2011 Ricky Gervais was criticised by disability groups for using the word ‘mong’ as they felt he was speaking in a derogative way about people with Down’s Syndrome. Gervais made it clear that he hadn’t been using the word in that way and that he felt that the meaning of the word had changed to just mean stupid. The really bizarre thing about his explanation is that Gervais used the word of Susan Boyle in one of his shows and so by his own admission he is publicly calling her stupid. He agrees that it is unacceptable to ridicule people with Down’s Syndrome whilst affirming his right to ridicule Susan Boyle. Does he, or any of us, really have the right to offend someone by publicly calling them stupid? Do we really have the right to offend people in such hurtful ways even if it is clear we are joking?
The UK has grown more and more politically correct over the past few years. It feels to me that so much has been moving towards an over the top clampdown on anything that might be offensive.
- I was once told that staffing is a more appropriate term than manpower for volunteers.
- One council agreed that there shouldn’t be prayer in its meetings because it might offend people of other or no religions.
- There was the suggestion that we could call Christmas a Winter Festival because not everyone wants to celebrate Christ’s birth.
Have these things now changed with the Prime Minister saying that we have the right to offend? I doubt it.
Does anyone really believe in absolute free speech? If we have really thought it through I don’t see how we can. The thing that has really frustrated me over these past few weeks is the implication that freedom of speech is a really simple and straightforward issue. I don’t think that the real question is whether free speech is acceptable, I consider that the real issue is under what circumstances is it acceptable or not?
I would suggest that there isn’t a simple answer to this but I do think that;
If you think that you can use free speech to incite hatred or to attack and humiliate people then you are wrong.
If you think that people shouldn’t be able to speak freely against your preferences such as the team you support then you are wrong too.
Between these two opposites, there is a huge grey area.
Is it really okay to publish a picture of the prophet Muhammad holding a sign saying ‘Je suis Charlie?’ The millions of people who have bought the latest Charlie Hebdo magazine appear to think so.
Is it really okay for people to riot and set buildings on fire because they find an image offensive? The many Muslims who have done this in the past few days appear to think so.
Christians are offended every day by the way people use the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as a swear word. We don’t rampage and riot because we believe that there is a better way and you can read more about what I believe our response should be here.
Whilst there are no simple answers as to when and under what circumstances free speech is acceptable even when it causes offence, I think that the spirit of tolerance is a good guiding principle. I believe that Jesus Christ is God and that he was born as a human being in order to save us and I believe in my right to declare that this is my belief. I also believe that people should have the right to hold a different view to mine and that they should have the right to state their beliefs as well. If we can disagree honestly whilst being tolerant of each other than we are likely to be using free speech in an appropriate and responsible way.
Do we have the right to offend?
I think that we do under certain circumstances but our aim should never be to be offensive for the sake of it, we should value one another as fellow members of humanity too much for that.