I finally got around to reading Frankie Boyle's take on offence culture and free speech this morning. Upon finishing, I instantaneously posted the article on various different social media platforms, sharing alongside it my thoughts on his thoughts about thoughts on thoughts.
Ouch. My head.
Free speech is a wonderful institution. I exercised it when I passed comment on Frankie Boyle's piece. I'm exercising it right now, as I expand on those comments in my own article. I exercised it this morning, at around 10am, when I walked by a cloaked religious man on the streets of Brighton, and asked him for some holy water with which to cleanse my sinful hangover.
Free speech, however, is not surrounded by the shining light of liberation we have imagined it to be. Entering into a debate armed with freedom of speech as a weapon often becomes transgressive and is little more than a more sophisticated version of "well, that's just my opinion" or "political correctness has gone mad!" - both typical methods of defence used critically by idiots who once accidentally read some propaganda in a dentist's waiting room and use it tirelessly as a core argument for their ignorant views.
"That's just my opinion, tho." - Adolf Hitler, 1933.
The problem with the freedom of speech debate is not only that those who advocate it co-opt it for negative use, or that those who use it think that exercising freedom of speech and being deserving of being listened to are mutually exclusive, but is that invective and hateful language is moulded into common vernacular with the play of society's very own Get Out of Jail Free card.
Any attempt to dissect free speech as being offensive or destructive is almost instantly decried as censorship. The sad truth about living in a society that allows platforms on which people can say whatever the fuck they want, is that as soon as someone challenges free but toxic speech, those people fear their rights are being throttled out of them.
When used correctly, of course, free speech becomes a pinnacle of democracy. The fluidity to express sociological and political viewpoints without fear is the very essence of a well balanced politic, one that we are lucky enough to see being exercised by young (virgin) voters on university campuses across the UK.
But this is not without governmental resistance. As we may well know, the government's counter-terrorism bill aims to make universities responsible if their students are drawn into terrorism. Diplomatic, anti-terrorist rhetoric, or a deterrent for radical discussion on campus? Besides this - there have been claims of internal censorship taking place on campus, ranging from the banning of media and publications from sale or distribution: notably The Sun newspaper and the (awful, abhorrent) song Blurred Lines.
The denial of platforms for activists with fascist or racist agendas on university campuses is also being debated as a blockade for the free speech movement.
As someone who has always taken great pleasure in telling people that their opinions are wrong (yes, opinions can be wrong), the latter two of this chronicle of movements seem to me to be the most bizarre. Should we, in a progressive society of free thinkers that are faced with more social dogmas to absorb and the freedom to explore them than any generation has had before them, allow the nature of hateful and counter-productive principles bleed into our discussions?
Is it fair, I am asking, to remove the things we see that are clearly, well, wrong, from the debate?
I guess one of the other problems that arises when discussing the nature of free speech, is that it walks hands in hand with the freedom to offend. Offence is not a crime, should it not blend in to actual law breaking. We don't reserve the right as humans for our pet peeves and general annoyances - however academic, or well informed - to be "censored" (fuck, I hate that word) from social or media limelight. That's just not how it works. It doesn't matter whether we're discussing open policies on university campuses or material used by stand up comedians, no one is bestowed with the duty to give a shit if there is something published in the media that we happen to dislike.
But what happens when offence does blend into law breaking?
If the murders in Paris and Copenhagen are to frighten us into silence, then the perpetrators of the attacks will have achieved their goal. But if we continue to talk (despite how closely we are also listening) knowing that speakings also run the risk of being marked for death, is it beside sensible logic to be careful with what we say?
Terrorism is a problem that requires sensitivity in order to be tackled. Incitement to violence is something that should limit free speech. In an ideal world, the free speech would be advocated by rationally-thinking, well-educated individuals in a lecture hall, all whom speak softly but passionately, and listen to opposition with such grace.
However, in the same sentence we are able to say that there are parts of the developing, and non-developing world in which men and women are chucked from the tops of buildings on the basis of sexual preference, and bloggers are flogged for utilising freedom of expression (#FreeRaif). As tenacious a hold as free speech has on developing societies, it is ignorant at best to not explore the fact that it is as dangerous as it is wonderful.
Whilst we see through the optimisation of petition, protest, rallying, and proper, intelligent use of media platforms to gain public interest and trust in meaningful, worthwhile social causes, are we able to accept human lives as collateral damage in a fight for freedom.
Are freedom of speech and freedom mutually exclusive? Or is it a two-way flowing whirlpool that will pull those who attempt to swim it into the depths?