Matt Gillow argues that free speech is more than just a human right; it’s an essential part of democracy.
People get offended. It’s a fact of life. People get offended about politics, people get offended about sex and people get offended about history. Some people may even get offended by reading this article. Ultimately, people get offended when you don’t agree with them.
The point is we live in a democracy. If I was to be offended every time somebody disagreed with me, I’d live a very wearisome, unsuccessful and unhappy life. In a democracy, people have different ideas; that’s the whole point. As individuals, we have a right to free speech and our own opinion – to say what we really believe; whether it’s the idea that immigration is essentially a regressive economic and social force, or that you believe that the monarchy merely represents an old-fashioned societal divide. It is an inefficient and stifling country we live in, if the unofficial, unspoken mantra of the masses is “everybody is entitled to their opinion, as long as it’s the same as mine.”
Arguably one of the most poignant issues in politics is that nobody really listens – to quote Fight Club – “we’re only waiting for our turn to speak.” Westminster politicians are so devout in their beliefs that they develop acute selective attention: they hear what they want to hear and immediately attack opponents as wrong, without weighing up any kind of evidence. This is no personal endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, but when he rose to prominence in the Labour leadership election, his opponents became offended by words Corbyn had never spoken, or indeed never in certain contexts. Corbyn was brutally labelled anti-Semite and a threat to Britain’s global security by the right-wing press because people didn’t like that he was merely speaking his own mind.
It is a testament to the choking nature of the media and the nature of “being offended” that Jeremy Corbyn has made certain U-turns during his tenure as Labour leader. Previously strong republican feelings have taken a back seat, as well as unflinching opinions on Trident and nuclear power. David Cameron, similarly, despite consistent campaigning for “alternative ways” to tackle drug use and drug law reform in his early career, entirely ignored 2014’s debate on drug policy, and has skirted around the issue since rising to the leadership of his party. This is surely, almost entirely, due to traditional Conservative views on drug use, and a deep seated desire not to rock the boat. In what democratic society is it healthy for politicians to only voice their views which line up with the masses? How can we have genuine progress on key issues such as immigration, drug laws, and healthcare if we do not voice genuine opinion, but merely pander to the press and electorate?
Campaign group 38 Degrees have, at the time of writing, started an online campaign against the Jack the Ripper museum, claiming that allowing tourists to take selfies with fake replicas of “Jack the Ripper’s mutilated murder victims” is sexist and offensive. Sure, the idea is a bit dark, but to try and shut down an honest attempt at improving tourism and commerce? Ridiculous and over sensitive.
Of course, there must be a line. Genuine discrimination or hate crimes cannot be treated lightly, but if we continually tighten measures, or narrow our perceptions, society will become increasingly monotonous and single-dimensional. It is the shifting of the aforementioned line which is so choking to the principle of free speech – when Tony Blair attempted to reform hate laws, giving all other religions the same protection as Sikhs and Jews, there was a huge backlash, with opponents of the bill purporting that it would outlaw any kind of religious jokes, and to an even more dire extent, criminalise any opposition or debate over religious ideas or opinions. The very notion of this is ridiculous; debate and open questioning of ideas is not only healthy, but essential for the survival of a progressive society. It’s an insult to human rights which dates back to the era of Philip II – burning any books which disputed Catholicism or presented other ideas in order to prevent any opposition to his beloved faith. Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti summed it up best by saying “in a democracy there is no right not to be offended. Religion relates to a body of ideas and people have the right to debate… other people’s ideas.” To legally enforce the idea of “political correctness” when it comes to religion or sexuality is in its own subtle way, censorship.
I believe in freedom of speech and in human rights. I believe in LGBT rights, and gender equality. I believe that drug use should be decriminalised and cannabis legalised. I believe that Britain is fundamentally stronger as a progressive force in Europe, and if you’re offended by any of that; then you really do need to grow up.