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When Did 'Freedom of Speech' Become a Cover for Bigotry?

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Observe, if you will, the controversy surrounding Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill's transphobic comments on Twitter and in the Observer respectively. Why it is that so many supposed feminists - Janet Street Porter, Julie Bindel and the aforementioned two for example - seem to have such a problem with transsexuals is an issue for another time. Suzanne Moore on Twitter had an argument with a number of transgendered people which resulted in the charming tweet: "People can just f**k off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me." Now, let's not be coy here - regardless of the nature of the conflict, this is an inexcusable slur; no-one would defend someone throwing "n*gger" around just because they were arguing with a black person. It is not acceptable and Suzanne rightly received criticism for this. What else did she expect? In the Observer, her friend Julie Burchill lept to her defence - by basically extending what was a throw away transphobic comment into a tirade of hateful abuse against a minority group. Including such endearing phrases as "a bunch of dicks in chicks' clothing" and "a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs" it was a quite clear piece of abuse which instantly provoked complaints.

Suzanne Moore, seemingly not aware of the concept of digging oneself a deeper hole, then wrote an article for the Guardian titled "This growing culture of outrage doesn't extend free speech - it limits it." Apparently she takes umbrage with the fact that "Suddenly, anyone, anywhere, is offended by everything. Where do these permanently aroused delicate flowers live?" On the Thursday of that same week I also attended a debate at Conway Hall ostensibly about the Leveson Report, but it ended up being a rather farcical mish-mash in which Suzanne Moore and fellow Grauniad columnist Nick Cohen leap to their feet expectorating about the need for "free speech" and the right for the government to stay out of their reporting (yeah, the same Nick Cohen whose support for the illegal Iraq War was based on evidence garnered from a cozy relationship between Alistair Campbell and the Observer's then political editor Kamal Ahmed). What worried me more was that Moore's snide asides about her supposed inability to express her opinions anymore was being greeted by applause from the audience.

Let's check all this out. Firstly, I'll just bypass Moore's blatant hypocrisy - a columnist whose very job is to be (rightly) offended and outraged and then comment on the sexism and injustice that she perceives in our society telling others to stop being offended by because we're not too hot on transphobia is a bit rich. The fact that she also threatened to sue PinkNews for referencing the controversy in an article about a murdered Brazilian transsexual is just too ironic to even comment on. What really worries me here is that a self-confessed feminist is actually resorting to the same tactics used by the likes of Ann Coulter and Nick Griffin to justify her hateful beliefs. It has been a staple of the far-right for a long time - the ultra-conservative radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger was fired from her radio show in 2010 for repeatedly using the N-word; commenting on her resignation, she said "I have made the decision not to do radio anymore. I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what is on my mind." When the aforementioned Nick Griffin was dropped from a debate on immigration at Trinity College Dublin in 2011 he tweeted "Trinity College Dublin surrenders to PC fascism and far-left intimidation. Debate cancelled!" His rights had again been oppressed. Or take Paul Nuttall, the deputy leader of Ukip, who warns of "Cultural Marxism" at play in society, saying "Freedom of speech is sacred. Indeed millions of Britons died to defend it in two world wars during the last century, so we must protect it against the Cultural Marxists at all costs." Another known opponent of "Cultural Marxism" was, of course, the extreme-right mass murderer Anders Breivik. For Nutall, freedom of speech is stifled when "if you question immigration figures you are labelled a racist; question all women shortlists then you are sexist; question whether homosexuality should be promoted in our schools means you are a homophobe." All these people would presumably be condemned in the harshest terms by a left-wing feminist like Moore and yet she has resorted to the same tactics to defend her and Burchill's remarks.

Well, look, Suzanne, let me point this out to you - you have absolute freedom of speech if you want go and stand on a box in Hyde Park Corner and be as abusive as you like towards trans people. I simply won't go and listen to you. Similarly, I don't follow you on Twitter (nor Nick Griffin) and so I don't care what you write there. But I pay money to buy the Observer and the Guardian because I enjoy their political stance and the journalism they provide. I don't buy Ukip newsletters because I assume they will be full of the kind of gruesome stuff I quoted above. Similarly, I don't buy the Mail for the same reason - conversely, it would hardly be fair for me to buy it and then complain about their positions. All the Guardian's readers have the right to refuse to purchase the paper or complain about the content therein. That's us espousing our freedom of speech - we have the absolute right to condemn and complain about bigotry and ignorance, which is exactly what you purport to do in your column. Essentially what you want is a monopoly on your right to expression without having to endure any of the blowback. When you are provided a platform you are bound by that platform and those who provide it.

It's cheap and sad when Nick Griffin and his ilk do it and its cheap and sad when you do it.