I get weary, sometimes, as I look at something in the news and I see us failing to learn from the mistakes of the past – failing to learn anything, quite often. I’ve found myself discussing the idea of freedom of speech a couple of times recently. On both occasions, it’s been with some delight that I’ve found myself in the company of intelligent, liberal thinkers. It’s even more disappointing, then, to read that a man was arrested over an accusation of directing racist abuse at Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed yesterday, and to look at the internet ‘discussion’ sparked off by this incident and by other incidents of Internet abuse lately.
I wondered whether this story was what it appeared to be; it doesn’t take long to find a record of a Twitter trail left by someone (possibly the accused, possibly not) which is little more than a slew of witless bile. Like so much ‘hate posting’, it’s devoid of thought and intelligence. I can’t understand how anyone can defend this kind of thing under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’.
Yes, we have rights. Not granted inalienably or irrevocably, they are granted us by a societal consensus. If that is the basis on which the rights are conferred, then that is the basis on which they should be exercised. So why do we grant the right of free speech? It is so that any idea may be challenged, so that our thoughts and our ethos might evolve. The idea being that through the exercise of that right, society might become better.
I’m not in favour of censorship and I don’t think that any idea is above being challenged. I don’t believe that any word or term can be deemed to be intrinsically offensive. Humour, in particular, has long been a means of testing and examining a society’s beliefs and should continue to do so. But such challenges have to be made with wit and insight and a sincere desire to challenge the status quo for the better, not simply to make someone miserable. Even if humour has a target, ultimately, there should come a possibility of the butt of the joke finding it funny in the long run. A comedian should have the courage of conviction to stand by the joke, believing it to be for the good in some way. Anonymous abuse on the web does no such thing, it is not well intended.
So if we are to exercise our right to free speech, it much be exercised with the responsibility that comes with wanting to make the world a better place. We don’t give guns to children because we don’t think that they are able to exercise sufficient responsibility. Words can cause harm too. Those who can’t wield them responsibly should not be allowed to.
Is that rocket science? Anyone who can’t understand this argument well enough to either mount a reasoned rebuttal, or to agree with it, shouldn’t be heard. Sense or censorship? I await any responses with interest.
Footnote. I was impressed with the dignity and compassion with which the public face of football treated Fabrice Muamba’s collapse. I too hope that his recovery is swift and complete.