In light of a variety of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about the term ‘freedom of speech’ and what this actually means to us.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, people in Paris and around the world have united in solidarity against terrorism and in defence of the human right to freedom of expression. There seems to be a unanimous surge to protect this liberty, the first of France’s three values (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité), focused more specifically on the freedom to express any view one will without restriction. A woman interviewed on the news asked, ‘If you take liberty of expression, what else is left?’

Coinciding with this, the release of ‘the Interview’ caused abrupt (and unsurprising) backlash from North Korea, resulting in the hacking of Sony and the removal of the film from all but a few cinemas and online access. There is debate about whether this move was made partially as a publicity stunt, but if not, perhaps North Korea could be said to have succeeded in ever so slightly denting America’s creative license. Theo Kingma’s speech at the Golden Globes referenced both of these incidents in further defiance against acts that attempt to stifle our freedom to create or say what we want, controversial or not.

On the other hand, this perception of absolute freedom of speech is perhaps a little unsubstantiated. Even in Western society, where freedom generally seems to be a given, censorship is still a part of our culture. Assertions of racism or hatred towards individuals or groups because of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc, known as hate speech, is a crime punishable by law, and is certainly considered unacceptable by the vast majority of people in this country. Of course I agree with the concept of ‘freedom of expression’. I am lucky to live in a country where I am free to write blogs and assert my opinion without serious ramifications- up to a point.

Given that Ken Morley has been kicked off Big Brother due to a slew of offensive comments with wide support from the general public, it is clear that freedom of speech has limitations that most of us are happy to accept.

Katie Hopkins, who seems to make a living out of offending people, was subject to a police investigation after posting a foul-mouthed tweet about a Glaswegian nurse who had contracted ebola whilst volunteering in Sierra Leone.

Another belter:

Though she hasn’t physically abused anyone, these statements, charged with malice, are surely an example of hate speech specifically targeted at individuals and groups. Is this cause for prosecution, or should we even bother to dignify her vitriolic word vomit with a response? Social media has a large role to play in these sorts of attacks and their subsequent reactions too; now that people can offend and bully others from the safety of their computers, it seems there is little constraint left on the lengths some people are willing to go to terrorize others. Often this is a reaction to these sorts of hateful comments (I’m sure Katie Hopkins has received enough death threats to expect assassination every day for the rest of her contemptible life), but the vast majority are trolls seemingly provoked by anyone and everyone who offers up an opinion online- feminists seem to be of particular interest to these people.

However, the removal of that Dapper Laughs show from ITV could be seen as a small victory that condemned the celebration of modern day sexism and lad culture, and though some people rushed to the defence of that guy on the ground of freedom of speech, I don’t think they were too well received. Though this article does make some good points about freedom of expression- ‘your right to protest should not impact another person’s freedom of thought and speech’- I don’t agree with the notion that protests shouldn’t try to make an impact. ITV didn’t have to axe the show because of the pressure put on them by the public, but they did, and frankly, I agree with the underlying argument that a man should not be paid to be overtly sexist on television. Dapper is still in possession of his social media accounts and personal voice and opinions, but his show was deemed too inappropriate to be continued.

My understanding of freedom of speech is something that I’m struggling with, as clearly the answer is not as black and white as many would like to portray it. This reminds me of a heated discussion I had a while ago with a facebook acquaintance over a debate that got shut down at Christ Church, Oxford. The venue for the proposed debate, entitled ‘Abortion Culture Harms Us All’, was withdrawn after student protests and the Oxford Students for Life society decided not to seek an alternative so the debate did not take place. Here is one of the panellist’s retorts, and a response from the President of the Cambridge Union.

This is a pretty murky topic, but while I now have a better understanding about the importance of freedom of expression, I ultimately think that it is unfeasible and unreasonable to defend your position by proclaiming that all ideas and opinions, no matter how controversial, should be given a platform to be asserted on a campus, even if it is strongly opposed by the students living and working there.

Brendan O’Neill, the panellist referenced previously, ruthlessly ridiculed students for their supposed censoring of his voice (as he writes in an online article with a far wider reaching audience…) when really, freedom of speech is not the technical issue here. Freedom of expression includes the right to protest but not the right to be listened to, yet in this instance the college thought it inappropriate to host the debate on their grounds- it could have easily been moved elsewhere, but the host society decided not to reschedule.

The real issues here were sensitivity- the title of the debate is loaded and doesn’t imply a balanced framework- and gender: no matter how many times Brendan will cry ‘it’s not about your uteruses, it’s about my intelligent critical mind doing contrarian controversy-fuelled thinks that I need you to care about!!!!!’, it is simply remarkable to suggest that the issue of gender can possibly be bypassed in this situation. The power gap between speaker and audience is too vast not to include someone who represents the actual subject of the debate on the panel. Most debates would ensure that the panellists extended further than two middle aged, middle class white men regardless of the theme, let alone one discussing abortion.

In this instance I don’t think that any freedom of speech was breached, but as my facebook argument confirmed, both viewpoints on this scenario were hotly contested. Perhaps my opinion was also swayed by the fact that I am a woman, and so have a better understanding about what it’s like to be a woman in a patriarchal society that tries its hardest to suppress the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, in which many men like to call the shots and throw a tantrum when they are overruled.

Perhaps it was also swayed by my knowledge of Brendan O’Neill as a man who opposed Japan’s whaling ban on the basis that Australia shouldn’t be able to put pressure on another country to stop unnecessary ecological destruction (does this mean you also despise WWF, or maybe Amnesty International, Brendan? Does this view extend to human rights violations too?), and doesn’t think interns deserve pay. I might add that the acquaintance I clashed with over this issue cited Brendan O’Neill’s journalism as intelligent and thoughtful, so there you go.

My point is, lines have been drawn to determine what does and doesn’t violate the tenuous concept of freedom of expression, and I don’t think anyone is really sure where they are. Let’s look back at Charlie Hebdo. Though the magazine prides itself on the defence of unreserved and controversial free speech, the events following the tragic shooting are harbouring a few hypocrisies.

Though Charlie Hebdo’s satire did cover a whole plethora of groups and individuals, a cartoonist was fired from Charlie Hebdo in 2009 for making anti-Semitic comments in a column. Can freedom of speech be applied to one ideology but not another? As mentioned in this article, while over one million people marched in unity under the banner of ‘Je Suis Charlie’, would they have accepted the satire presented in a cartoon mocking the murdered journalists, carried by an individual in the name of free speech? It is an interesting thought that begs the question as to whether freedom of speech is only accepted as a right when the majority are in favour of it. Indeed, many people with unfavourable opinions find themselves defending them against challenges with the limp argument that they are allowed to say it.

To emphasise this, at the same time as the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement celebrates freedom of speech, comments made by French comedian Dieudonné that could be viewed as anti-Semitic have provoked an onslaught of abuse as well as a formal investigation.

Perhaps the most repulsive hypocrisy was the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu at the rally, the Prime Minister of Israel, a country that has quashed all manner of freedoms for Palestinian people through illegal occupation, literal walls and checkpoints, embargos and ongoing war. Israel is also responsible for the murder of a number of journalists in Gaza in 2014. 

It seems there are double standards here. I have never read Charlie Hebdo but I am aware that much of there content was racist, and most of it deeply offensive to whomever the satire was aimed at. That being said, I am able to support their right to freedom of expression without embracing what it stands for.

This article is very interesting, and notes that there is a prevalent marginalisation that occurs when minority groups are targeted with offensive views, more damaging than when reversed to the wider society. Why is it that attitudes of tolerance and respect have been undermined by the dire need to be able to freely offend whoever we want?

I think this brings me to my final point. Though I am completely in support of people being able to exercise freedom of expression, I think that the fervent reclamation of this notion in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks has perhaps overshadowed the sincere tragedy of it. A lot of emphasis has been put on the idea that freedom of expression is something that should not and will not be oppressed by any means. Of course, freedom should be celebrated, and is also something that we shouldn’t take for granted.

However, the case may be argued that the illegality of hate speech is a move to more respectable communication with one another. Are the lines being drawn over freedom of speech a way to somehow balance values of liberty and respect? Satire is great, but maybe acts of mockery that may seek to marginalise communities can be balanced by actions that promote tolerance and peace. Perhaps, as well as our freedom, we should also be uniting in solidarity for respect, tolerance and love- things that the Charlie Hebdo attackers also sought to threaten by harbouring hate and trying to divide us. These are the most important values that we need to protect.

As always, lots of love,

Megsy x

ps. Russell Brand is very good to watch on this


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