A few days ago, Julie Burchill, newspaper columnist and troll extraordinaire, wrote an article for the Observer that was quickly identified as a completely vile tirade of abuse and intolerance towards transgender people. Burchill’s article was taken down, but later republished by Toby Young, fellow bastion of the commentariat, sub-bridge dweller at The Telegraph, in a show of support for – you’ve guessed it – Burchill’s “freedom of speech”.
Incidentally, this week also saw the legalisation of public insults, in an amendment to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 – you’re now free to legally insult each other. Congratulations, you may kiss the Crown Prosecution Service.
Now this interests me because, here at York, we love a good fight over freedom of speech. If I had a cookie for every time somebody has barked that Voltaire quote at me during my time at university, I’d be in a diabetic coma. Our excitement over this issue flared up again recently, with the argument over the now infamous ‘Spotted: University of York Library’ page.
The page’s creators stopped posting in response to accusations of sexual harassment. The ensuing furore involved a lot of shouting about people’s right to freedom of speech having been violated, as well as some hilarious suggestions that we might be living in some kind of totalitarian state.
I would like to assure all the wannabe Bradley Mannings that our freedoms are perfectly intact, which I am actually demonstrating by writing a comment for a student newspaper.
What I would like to ask, however, is what exactly you intend to do with those freedoms that you fight so valiantly to preserve. Because, last time I checked, the right to freedom of speech is a valuable tool for calling authority into check and for ensuring that we are all free and able to live the way we want, so long as we don’t pose harm to others. That seems to me like a pretty important right, and that’s what I want to fight for. That’s what Voltaire was willing to die for.
Fighting for the right to offend, insult, marginalise, and outrightly scare people who are less privileged than you is a somewhat less noble calling. George Orwell didn’t write Winston Smith into existence to demonstrate the perils of being prevented from telling your opponent to get back in the kitchen, or whatever is the misogynist joke du jour.
It is often observed that the people who screech about their freedoms being taken away when they are challenged on the internet are conspicuous by their absence at Amnesty International Meetings, campaigning against the incarceration of Pussy Riot, or the fact that far too often in everyday life we are still asked to define as either men or women, preventing many people from properly expressing their identities. These are freedom of speech issues and they are worth challenging.
So yes, freedom-of-speechers, you do have the right to do those other things. You do have the right to call someone a “tranny”, or to publicly humiliate someone on a social network. But why would you want to? It’s a cheap shot, it’s not funny, and it doesn’t make the world a better place.
Freedom of speech is a human right, but rights bring with them responsibilities. It’s a right predicated on an equal platform for all voices – if you already have a significant platform because of, say, your gender, your ethnicity, your class status, or even your access to a column in a national newspaper, then using that platform to attack minorities is not a use of this freedom, it’s an abuse of it.
Perhaps we should treat freedom of expression like the infra-red helicopter I got my dad for Christmas – it’s brilliant, and everyone wants to use it, but it only works if it’s used properly. Repeatedly fly in into Grandma, and you’ll probably break it. And Grandma. If you care about your freedom of expression, the only way to preserve that freedom is to use it properly. Anyone wishing to defend their right to scare, upset or silence others is standing against the values of universal freedom of expression.
By silencing others like this, by ensuring that our university is not a safe place to express oneself, you are not supporting that freedom. You’re only acting out of self-interest, ensuring freedom of speech for yourself, and those with the same privileges as you. You are devaluing, damaging and curtailing the value you claim to uphold. If we really find these freedoms to be as important as we say, why denigrate them by using them to mock the weak rather than challenge injustice?