Is freedom of speech as simple as it seems?Photo Source: The Daily Times
Fionnbharr Rodgers, Contributor.
Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson announced last week that the government will seek to fine universities which do not do enough to put a halt to the illiberal practices of ‘no-platforming’ and ‘safe spaces.’ Johnson said that young people and students “need to accept the legitimacy of healthy and vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another,”(The Telegraph) rather helpfully providing a definition of the word ‘debate’ for anyone who was unsure.
There is an assumption which has passed into certain circles of our discourse that there is a generation of university students today who are averse to the principles of freedom of speech and of oppression, however that is by no reasonable means unique to this generation: Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light campaigned vehemently against what they termed the ‘permissive society’ of the 1970’s. The legacy of those Whitehouse wanted off the screen- Monty Python, Peter Cook, and Dave Allen in particular- is why audiences in Ireland and the UK do not shock as easily today.
Johnson’s criticisms are also ironic as universities are, by their very nature, safe spaces: go into your second year Philosophy or Politics module and you are perfectly free to make an argument in favour of the divine right of kings, so long as you have the wit and knowledge to craft such an argument and sustain it through objections; try the same in The Phoenix Bar in Newry and measure the difference in the reactions you reap (you might have more luck in The Bridge.) Academia is not the real world, but a place where someone’s legitimate profession can be to acquire as much knowledge as possible about the migratory habits of Irish Dolphins in 1997 compared to 2012.
Additionally, it was Johnson’s own cabinet colleague, Michael Gove who famously announced that the British public are “sick of experts,” which is a sentiment which provides some notion of why academia and the Conservative Party are at odds with each other. Loosely translated, what Gove asserted is that there are a lot of people who have very strong views, based upon no evidence at all, but will not allow an estranged relationship with reality to stop them from rambling on to their fellow patrons down the pub, in between swigs of ale, mouthfuls of peanuts, and casual sexism. We see this disease of illiteracy infecting modern journalism, through the production line of pundits and commentators who will be rolled out to fill the 24-hour news cycle.
This is not a problem which is confined to any particular demographic, but is found across the spectrum and even the World; there has been a breakdown in dialogue where it is nearly a point of pride for people to not engage with ‘the other side.’ This is seen in the merchandise at Labour Party events which bear the slogan ‘Never Kissed a Tory,’ or the equivalent line in the US, ‘Friends don’t let friends date –insert opposing party here-.’ If a person has never kissed a Tory then I suggest they need to get out more.
We seem today to be far too concerned with our rights, and not nearly concerned enough with our responsibilities, and this is a problem as the two go hand-in-hand, vis-à-vis the social contract. Freedom of speech and the right to an opinion are far too often used a safety blanket by people who have created an industry based on vindicating an instinctual public anger, rather than contextualising it and bringing to light complexities of whatever issue is at hand.
Freedom of speech comes with it the responsibility, not only to be respectful of other people and allow them their say, but also to not be an eejit yourself. If one doesn’t know what they are talking about then everyone else is well within their own rights to stop paying attention; I could argue that Katie Hopkins infringes my own personal liberty by her constant visibility. Freedom of speech cannot be used as an alibi for unchecked ignorance, any more than the freedoms of movement and expression can be used to justify murder.
In the media today there is an obsession with balance, which is good and proper as any academic worth a shilling will tell you; however it can also take the form of the pretence that all opinions are of equal worth, which is just not true. As the comedian Dara Ó Briain remarked, the opinion of ”a man who has studied Denistry for forty years is not equal to that of a some ejjit who removes teeth with string and a door.”
The duty of the media, and all those with a platform, is not to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but to raise it; we can all to a better job of allowing out ignorance to temper our indignation, so that we may reflect a little longer and imagine each other complexly a little more.
There is also the fact that to be given respect, one first has to prove that they are due it.