We’re talking a lot about freedom of speech and censorship. You’re all forcing me to engage my brain, and this needs to stop. We can’t escape the discussion. Whether we’re debating the rights and wrongs of no platforming, or whether we need to ban certain songs.
It seems odd that we only debate these issues in relation to bad things. The same liberal dudes who will line up to say ‘well, I don’t think it’s right to call for the eradication of all left-handed comedians, but I worry about the slippery slope of censorship,’ will insist that liberals shouldn’t refer to Nazis as ‘Nazis.’ And I think we can all agree that, while we want to play devil’s advocate on behalf of awfulness, Hilary Clinton was absolutely and completely wrong to refer to deplorable people as ‘deplorable.’
But I get it. I understand the arguments. We want to allow the idiots and the bigots to expose their idiocy and bigotry. We’re concerned about the precedent of giving anyone the power to ban words. We worry that refusing to platform people means we’re closing ourselves down to honest debate.
A word that has now become a homophobic slur, used in a beloved Christmas song, was once an Irish slang term for lazy. And, in the region I grew up in, the same word referred to a type of food. And even if the songwriter intended the word in the modern sense, rather that its original meaning, aren’t we crossing a dangerous line by censoring anything?
We can find proof of our argument, too. Nick Griffin of the BNP was fatally exposed by being given a national platform on the BBC’s Question Time. And the very idea of censorship, of deciding which ideas are allowed, and which aren’t, isn’t that what the bad guys do? Isn’t it all a bit too Orwellian?
On the other hand, not all bigots are idiots. Giving a platform to someone who is very good at expressing a bad idea does mean you’re giving a megaphone to the bad idea. The same BBC show that destroyed Nick Griffin helped to expand Nigel Farage’s influence, bringing his populist brand of racism to living rooms across the country on a weekly basis. And does ‘no platforming’ a transphobic activist mean we’re shutting down a debate? Yes, but why should we ask trans people to tolerate a debate about their very existence?
It seems that many of us will accept that free market is a flawed ideology when it comes to business, to human rights, and to laws, but still want to believe in the idea when it comes to speech and the marketplace of ideas.
For all my snark, I’m not here to trash the idea of freedom of speech. All of the arguments I made in favour of it are things I’ve said myself. For most of my adult life I’ve described myself as a freedom of speech absolutist. When I was campaigning for Scottish Independence, one of my many arguments was that a ‘new’ Scotland could have a ‘new’ constitution, including a guarantee of free speech.
But I can’t get past the idea that neither side of the argument really costs me anything. I’m very hard to offend. Straight white CIS man. Aside from the snowflakes of the alt right, and their cousins in gamergate, comicsgate, and getalifeyoumanbabiesgate, people in my category need to accept that we’re pretty much untouchable. The last thing I hear in life probably isn’t going to be a racial slur, as I’m strung up from a tree. I’m not going to hear taunts about my sexuality as I’m beaten into a coma. There’s never going to be a debate about whether I’m allowed into the correct toilet for my gender identity. I’m never going to have to worry whether the lyrics to a Christmas ditty, overheard in supermarkets across the land, are normalising a hatred that could kill me (Though Mr Blobby had a good go at it.)
And I think that’s where I come to. We all want to have a hard and fast, set-in-stone answer on this issue, and to never have to think of it again. But society is a conversation. A constant, evolving, conversation. We don’t need rules etched into stone tablets, we need empathy and nuance.
If we’ve reached a point in time where we’re asking conservatives, sexists, and racists to accept their views were framed by straight white men, don’t we also have to have the same conversation about liberal ideals? To all the people -including me- who have grown up accepting the idea that there are no bad words, that we need to allow idiots to expose themselves, and that every idea should be listened to, don’t we also have to think that maybe it was straight white men who came up with that logic? That maybe our very foundational beliefs about freedom of speech were created, and repeated, and enshrined, by people who never really had to worry about the weight of words?
Maybe it’s time we devalued devil’s advocate and started protecting people. Maybe it’s time we realised that free market economy is as corrupting for words as it is for money. And maybe it’s time we re-evaluate every idea argued for by white dudes, including the ones we’ve always thought were right.