Friday, 17 October 2014

The Thought Police

Do you believe in free speech? Do you really believe in it? Are you of the 'I hate what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it' brigade or do you feel there are some things that should be left unsaid?

Next question; what about thoughts? Are there some ideas which - were there the technology to intercept them (and it will happen, one day) - should be regarded as wrong? How about feelings? Perhaps there are some things that are so bad we just shouldn't be allowed to feel them?

I hope you can see where this is leading.

Because it leads somewhere very dark and depressing.

Three people this week have hit the headlines thanks to saying things that others found unacceptable. Judy Finnigan said something about whether rapist Ched Evans should be allowed to play football again; John Grisham expressed the view that a friend of his was treated harshly for viewing child pornography; and Welfare Minister Lord Freud speculated about whether paying disabled people the minimum wage might be keeping them out of employment.

All three have since apologised, grovelingly. All three have retracted their statements, claiming that they were misconstrued or misreported or that they didn't really mean what they had said in the first place. All three only did so after howls of protest and a rising tide of outrage from people who seem to be saying things like, 'your thoughts are wrong therefore you have no right to hold them, still less to speak them. Either think like me or shut up!'

Now as it happens I don't agree with any of the above views. But I passionately feel that they should be spoken and that the right to say anything - yes, anything - is fundamental among human freedoms. Yes I know there are laws outlawing certain words and it is an offence to use racist, sexist and inflammatory language. I don't happen to think it ought to be, but that's my opinion. And that doesn't mean I approve either of the language or the sentiments. But I approve of the freedom to say them. And I think any denial of that freedom is a dangerous erosion of our fundamental civil liberties.

And it's not just about saying them. It's getting dangerously close now to becoming unacceptable just to think certain things. Because it seems you can't say what you really think if it's going to be unpopular or upset someone or if it's political or sexually incorrect.

Judy Finnigan clearly had a view: a rather stupid view and not a view I share but... I really don't want to get to a situation where we're all afraid of opening our mouths in case howls of outrage and social media storms (and worse - threats to rape your children) should follow what we say.

John Grisham expressed an ignorant opinion but one which nevertheless raised an important point: should those who view child porn online be treated more harshly than those who do physical and sexual harm to children? Lord Freud didn't even express an opinion, more an off-the-cuff speculation.

Had none of them said a word, of course, then we'd be none the wiser. There are many people whose opinions and ideas I detest and whom I wish would refrain from broadcasting them but... I don't have to listen. And if I do, I can argue. I can attempt to point out to them the error of their ways. I can explain to them why I think they're wrong. I can attempt to make them understand how offensive their views are. I can try to persuade them to change.

And I can do all that because they're free to offend me and I'm free to fight back.

At least, for the time being...

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