The Right to Speak

I’m reading Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty, and thinking about what it means to be able to speak one’s mind; to have the right to speak it, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable others may find your views. I’m also thinking about the perverse misapprehension that’s developed in our society, whereby defending a fundamental human right – to free speech, a fair trial, political expression – is too often characterised as an endorsement of the views or actions of unsavoury persons whose rights we uphold. And I’m thinking too about how much of that wilful misperception is tied up with what seems to me a pernicious, widespread and interestingly apolitical conviction: that we somehow have the ‘right’ not to be offended – not to have to see, hear, think about or respond to that which we find repugnant. It’s intrinsic to the belief that those of whom we disapprove should not have access to the same platforms that we do. It’s the notion that equality of access should be contingent on whatever is currently deemed to be socially acceptable by whichever faction is currently ascendant.

Even with all the other crises which beset us, I find this among the most worrying of social trends – not least because it appears to be becoming ever more prevalent on both the left and the right, among the young and the aged, the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheist, the conservative and the progressive. It is the idea that whatever offends is inherently illegitimate, on the grounds that it causes offence. It is intellectual and moral laziness of the highest order: it eschews the opportunity, and responsibility, of unpacking and refuting the offensive proposition on its merits. Under the guise of being high-minded, it ducks the argument.

I’ve been turning this problem over in my head for a while, trying to decide where – if anywhere – the line should be drawn on free speech. Incitement to violence is clearly unacceptable, but expression of opinion is a subtler matter, even if the opinions themselves are not. I am deeply offended by Germaine Greer’s assertions about trans people. I am deeply offended by Donald Trump’s views on Muslims (and just about everything else he has to say). I am deeply offended by Ken Livingstone’s use of mental illness as a slur and a moral value judgement (I’d expected better of him). I don’t doubt that my views on those subjects, and indeed on those individuals’ moral and intellectual probity, might prove deeply offensive to them. Should they have the right to silence me? I think not.

I’m increasingly frustrated by the insularity of public discourse; by the willingness of politicians, pundits, priests and regular folks down the pub to elevate their sense of outrage over every other consideration. By their unwillingness to have unpleasant conversations, unpack contentious issues. To use the right which we, unlike so many others around the world, possess: the right to have the argument.

Here’s my argument against silencing those who offend us. It’s simple, unashamedly self-interested, and so obvious that it doesn’t actually get said out loud nearly enough. If I want to retain the right to hold opinions others may find objectionable, it follows, ipso facto, that I have to grant them the right to hold opinions I may find appalling. I must acknowledge that they have the right to speak, just as I do. I must be able to uphold that truth, alongside my own responsibility to tell them, loudly and vigorously, that they are wrong.

This is the challenge of social democracy – to believe as strongly in the rights of others as we do our own. To imagine that we could be them, and they could be us. It’s an excruciatingly difficult thought experiment – until you consider the cost of not doing it. Until you look at the lives of those who have no voice, and realise just how much the rest of us have to lose.

It’s the challenge of liberty, and the reward. It’s worth the effort.

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  • Stephanie Saulter

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