Since the slaughter of nine cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo a huge amount of pious nonsense has been said and written about defending free speech and the right to offend. Indeed, many of the West’s leaders, including the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, marched arm-in-arm with France’s François Hollande and over three million French people to pledge and show their commitment to free speech and the right to ‘offend’.
Yet out in the real world ‘offending’ against Western societies new politically correct totems of racial inclusivity, sexual tolerance, religious cohesion and all the other ‘isms’ so beloved of our multicultural nirvana is increasingly difficult, or indeed, an ‘offence’ in itself. Western society, and the UK in particular, may pay lip-service to the concept of free speech but has over the last two decades become so inured to protecting minorities from possible ‘offence’ that any dissent in the form of criticism is regarded as either extremist or criminal.
Now our post Charlie Hebdo world is already extending its talk of ‘extremism’ beyond the kalashnikov wielding jihadists and their head-hacking disciples to include the far-right and anyone else who criticises Islam too much. Many establishment people are, having perhaps looked at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons for the first time, characterising their arabic caricatures as both racist and as ’going too far’ and thus are slowly becoming apologists for their creators murderers.
Free speech should mean just that, the right to say and offend anyone regardless of their religion, race, sexual orientation, disability, and physical appearance. People’s feelings should be open to attack but the introduction of the concept of ‘hate’ speech’, ‘incitement’, ‘extremism’ and of course the catch-all, ‘causing offence’ mean that virtually any dissent, whether verbal or written, can be censured or prosecuted, or both, and our ‘Free Speech’ championing governments are to blame.
The relentless pursuit of inclusivity and tolerance have instead created a society that is both intolerant of dissent and which fears and avoids virtually anything that may cause ‘offence’. Schools and universities are increasingly encouraged to preface literary and artworks with ’Trigger Warnings’ in case the content upsets or emotionally disturbs a reader unprepared for such ghastliness. Lectures are can be stopped or elicit protests on the grounds that the words or subject that are intended to be discussed, abortion or non abortion for instance, may be too offensive for some to hear, or even consider as a concept.
Yet ironically it is at one of our centres of learning and of free speech, The Oxford Union, that our post Charlie Hebdo love of ‘Free Speech’ is about to be truly tested. The Oxford Union has a history and reputation for inviting people from all walks of life and opinion to speak and that list includes many controversial figures from all sides of the political spectrum including politicians like Tony Blair, Tony Benn, US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, the Reverend Ian Paisley, the current Home Secretary Theresa May, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Yasser Arafat as well as quirkier figures like Pamela Anderson, Russell Brand, Salman Rushdie and Tracy Emon. All have spoken and demonstrated the value of ‘free speech’ at its most basic, the freedom to speak ones view and for the listener to hear them. So it is ironic that less that ten days after the Charlie Hebdo slaughter that there are calls for the Oxford Union’s latest guest speaker, Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, to be banned from speaking on the grounds that her words would promote division and Islamophobia.
There is also a good chance that Marie Le Pen may become the President of France in two years time so hearing her speak and debating with her may have some validity… The move to ban her is
also systemic of the UK’s growing victim culture. Marie Le Pen’s words may offend so rather than let her speak she should be banned. Silenced. Any words, spoken or written, that challenge our new totems of inclusivity and tolerance, are now silenced by cries of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia sexism, and fattism (the victim du jour,).
If it offends, or hurts or hates then whole armies of bureaucrats and the ‘offended’ are now on hand to prosecute and to hound the ‘offender’ and silence them. A great victimhood waiting to be outraged or offended, their fingers forever poised over their Twitter App, ready to wail and demand retribution. For them free speech is only about the power to say NO and never about the right to say YES.
Of course uncensored bigotry is offensive and upsetting. Words, despite the schoolyard rhyme, can and do hurt. Hatred causes fear and alarm, and so can cartoons. Yet in the US, the Ku Klux Klan can say what they want protected by the First Amendment as can pornographers, racists and fascists alongside communists, anarchists and Islamists for that is the essence of free speech. Hate speech is as valid as nice speech, it is the darkside of the same coin and by prosecuting and silencing all that offends we risk creating a world of bland soundbites and inane platitudes and that would be the greatest offence of all.
© Nigel Wingrove 2015