As the final week of the UK election descends into yet more name calling and 'fake news', all under the patronage of free speech, one group of people is actively seeking to stop this muddy and ugly form of debate: parents! All over the world they are undermining our precious notion of free speech by actively opposing it.
Imagine the oldest child in a family decides that today is the day to grind their younger sibling down by pointing out that they are an idiot, useless and have no friends. Tame insults compared to some that public figures exchange, but insults which cut deep nonetheless. Tears, door slams and returned barbs are the result, many delivered with a venom and precision our politicians would envy!
Now imagine that the parent steps into this sea of 'free speech' and simply tells the offended party, "Darling, we live in a free society. Free speech is a pillar of our advanced societal structures, so you must allow your elder sibling to speak their mind." Such behaviour on the part of the parent would be far worse than anything the elder sibling had done! Instead, the parent repeats to that sibling, something like the words of Thumper the rabbit in Bambi: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say nothing at all!"
In a society which proudly uses free speech to justify the combining of childhood spitefulness with adult understanding, we continue to sow intentional division. Division which is not aimed at improving society or speaking the voice of the marginalized but at childish and immature political point scoring. As a society, it's time for us to celebrate the parental example of teaching our children to speak in ways that help us understand the other person and to listen in ways that allow us to be heard.
Clearly, I'm not going to argue we change our free speech laws, but in a maturing society surely 'free' speech should be become 'considered' speech. Speech which considers what it does for the whole of society as well as how it helps move debate. It means speaking our mind with passion and honesty, while at the same time remembering the listener and what will encourage them to engage in the debate even when their opinions differ to ours. But it's not just politicians... As parents, we are often guilty of saying to our children 'say things nicely and listen', only for our children to then see us speaking of people in ways we are quick to challenge in them!
Our society needs changing. Parents and politicians should be modelling to children that free speech is not an excuse to cause hurt. Children who have the self-esteem and self-confidence to listen, think about others and express themselves powerfully, will change the world. They will not need name calling and spiteful statements to make their way in the world!
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