How ‘Free Speech’ Became The New ‘Your Mum’

When we were kids, 'your mum' was the go-to defence for anyone looking to be a bit of a twat. Now it's 'free speech'

How 'Free Speech' Became The New 'Your Mum'

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

We need to talk about free speech. It’s pretty urgent and I recommend you stop what you’re doing, take a few minutes out to sit down and have this chat with me. You see, I’m very worried about free speech. It’s having a really rough time. I’m worried it’s really misunderstood. I fear that if we don’t do something about free speech soon it might stop meaning anything at all.

Free speech has become the new ‘your mum’. Do you remember ‘your mum’? It’s not around so much these days because it stopped being meaningful, it became the preserve of obtuse, aggressive and unkind people who wanted to shut conversations down and insult others without reproach. ‘Your mum’ was always been the go to defence for people who know they’re being a bit of a twat, in the school canteen and on the playground but now ‘free speech’ has filled the void it left.

Today, when someone wants to be a twat all they have to do, is invoke ‘free speech’. Whether it’s laughing at someone on the bus because they look slightly different to you, mocking someone because of their sexual orientation or gender, being outright racist or glibly sexist you can now be absolved by ‘free speech’. It’s a bit like being the President of the United States and accusing reporters who criticise you on legitimate grounds of ‘fake news’.

Writing in the Times, Michael Gove further cemented his place in the ranks of Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Milo Yianoppolous by invoking free speech to defend the highly questionable. In The Times he writes that ‘silencing dissent will blight our universities’ and says that educational ‘institutions that suppress free speech in the name of left-wing orthodoxy undermine learning and the pursuit of truth.’

According to Gove, free speech is in danger because dissidents (like himself) are being silenced. He compares those currently defending the free speech of the right to ‘Socrates subverting Athens, Luther taking on Rome or Solzhenitsyn holding out against communism’ before invoking scientific rebels like Benjamin Franklin and Galileo one of whom, of course, proved that lightning is actually electricity while the other questioned the prevailing theory that everything revolves around the Earth when, in fact, in our solar system it revolves around the sun. What company to keep! Let’s not dwell too long on how problematic his comparing of defending diversity (which he sees as left-wing orthodoxy) to the communist Russia, where people were murdered, imprisoned and oppressed is…or the fact that he thinks university diversity officers at Oxford, a university with a serious diversity problem are an ‘Orwellian inversion’…

‘Even if an idea is wrong, or wicked, then it should not be silenced’ he writes, ‘it is only through constant challenge that the truth can stay strong and only through learning how to argue against error that successive generations can effectively defend what is right.’

And here we are again. I’m worried that Michael Gove has slightly misunderstood free speech. Let’s cut him a bit of slack. There’s a lot of confusion about itthese days. Earlier this year Breitbart had a banner across their website which encouraged people to buy branded t-shirts which read ‘Free Speech is Burning’, presumably because, in their view, political correctness is pouring fuel all over the funeral pyre of freedom of expression. Donald Trump then came out as a defender of free speech after Milo Yianoppolous didn’t speak at Berkley university in California because of protests. And then, Piers Morgan jumped on the free speech bandwagon by dismissing anyone who has marched against Trump is either a ‘snowflake’ or a ‘rabid feminist’ because...YOUR MUM.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that free speech should be subjective. It can’t be. We can’t pick and choose who does and doesn’t have a right to express themselves, that’s censorship. As Oscar Wilde once wrote the very essence of free speech is this: ‘I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.’ And, as the man of the moment, George Orwell, wrote ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’, and that applies to the left as much as it does to the right. In a world where so many of us are only seeing the views of people, we agree with because of social media, this is something that requires more careful thought than ever.

However, free speech shouldn’t be invoked to defend the following: racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism. Why? Because being racist, transphobic, homophobic or sexist isn’t a legitimate point of view to hold, if you express those views and cry ‘free speech’ you are, put simply, a proponent of divisive hate speech.

To be very honest I don’t think free speech is under attack. In fact, there are more ways to exercise it than ever. But, I’m also aware that not everyone thinks that. Not everybody feels that they are able to exercise their free speech, I’m not talking about those embattled souls on the right.

I’m talking about vulnerable people, I’m talking about people from low-income backgrounds (who unlike Gove don’t attend posh Oxbridge dinners on the reg), I’m talking about people from minorities, I’m talking about refugees.

There is a person attached to everybody. Words don’t cause physical damage but they can still wound us in ways that go unseen. You might believe in free speech but since when did that mean defending the indefensible? We need free speech but we also need ways of preventing people from saying things which are, without a doubt, not OK.

A prime example of this is that Milo Yiannopoulos was given a book deal by a huge global publishing house after he was banned from Twitter for inciting racist and misogynistic abuse against Star Wars actor Leslie Jones.

It’s telling that only the likes of Michael Gove, Yiannopoulos, Nigel Farage or Donald Trump do not get it. Why? Because they are all privileged, white and male. They have never inhabited the experience of being a minority, of being discriminated against and of not having a platform on which to exercise their ‘free speech.’ They are so entitled that they cannot see the other side of the argument, and despite professing to be about defending ‘healthy debate’ and 'the facts' they trade in flawed absolutes and hazy generalisations.

These guys are taking free speech in vain. As soon as you examine their arguments, you realise that it’s not about free speech at all. In fact, having read Gove carefully, having listened to Farage repeatedly, scrutinised Yiannopoulos and watched Trump speech after Trump speech I’m not sure they’re quite clear on what it is about beyond their amorphous ‘anti-political correctness’ narrative.

Is diversity the problem? Is political correctness really the enemy of progress? Is dissent really discouraged?

This isn’t about free speech. It’s about prejudice. It’s about discrimination. It’s about bias. It’s about intolerance. It’s about bigotry. It’s about what is and isn’t culturally acceptable. The likes of Gove, Farage and Trump don’t want to be champions of progress, they want to roll back the clock and maintain the status quo.

‘It is only when authority is challenged that progress is secured’ Gove says, on that he’s not necessarily wrong. But there’s a definitive line between critically engaging with facts and sparking a debate and having a go at things that make you uncomfortable or shutting down conversations because…you know…YOUR MUM. Sorry, I mean free speech…or is it fake news?

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Twitter Band Milo Yiannopolous Permanently

Milo Yiannopolous Has Lost Book Deal, But Why Did It Take So Long?

Does Donald Trump Actually Understand Free Speech?

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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