Tuesday 5 September 2023

The free speech debate as a freedom from consequence

We listen, be ready to hear

Attending a function yesterday that in a presentation relayed distribution and diversity, it was interesting to note how though there seemed to be a broad spectrum, the predominance of particular identity groups in the age and race category suggested there was still a lot of work to be done even if our cohort represented the most diverse in the sector.

At the end of the presentation, I seized on a passing point to ask questions and suggest an enhancement of service for the people we encounter to ensure they are catered for. There was a perspective that demand should drive production whereas I thought broad consideration should drive availability. A balance of sorts could be achieved.

Moving to lunch, this occasioned the opportunity to have a chat at our table of 4, two men, both retired and born within 20 miles of the venue, a lady and academic from the Far East, and I, straddling the Global South and where were we.

The freedom to be nasty?

One of the men intoned, “We do not have free speech as we used to the UK anymore?” To which the lady suggested, we have luxuries in terms of expression and effective action beyond protest, that they from her part of the world have not enjoyed for almost a decade.

The other man then said, “If I were to say something like…”, the like of which was suffused with stereotype, prejudice, or disparagement, he might be prosecuted. It left me wondering why free speech is usually defined in terms of needing to say something that does not engender neighbourliness, good relationships, and the better of people around you.

The point I made was that free speech does exist and the ones who make the most noise about the absence of free expression are those with the loudest voices and the largest platforms to project their views and suffer no consequences for whatever they say.

The fear of consequences

The issue is not so much the absence of free speech but one of people annoyed or frustrated that their nastiness will now not be ignored, and they might really be held responsible and accountable for whatever they have said.

It is unlikely that if anyone has given thought and expression to the good things of our humanity and fellow human beings to acknowledge and embrace the beauty in others, they would have incurred any opprobrium, I would think there would be much praise and support for their viewpoints from fair-minded people. Then again, all opinions can draw the support of the similar-minded.

The quest for a suitable soapbox

However, I can agree that the traditional Speakers’ Corner of which the one in Hyde Park is the most popular and probably the last surviving, has disappeared in many other marketplaces, street corners, and public squares around the country. [Wikipedia: Speakers’ Corner]

The open-air soapbox and public oratory open the speaker to a general agreement or heckling whilst allowing you to present your viewpoint without any fear of retribution. Yet, any freedom comes with responsibility and the opportunity for free expression should not become a licence of irresponsible public address towards anti-social behaviour or negative persuasion. Social media now offers a global platform for expression. The Speakers' Corner is now your social media status.

Then, the men felt comfortable expressing those views because they found some sort of safety borne of the conversations we were already having and they probably thought their opinions would hold sway without a counterpoint, I guess they did not expect us to be as articulate with ideas that would suggest they should have reflected a bit more on their audience before trying to give their myopia a broader range of view.

It might well be old dogs cannot be taught new tricks, their worldview is set in RAAC*, none of which will stand the test of time.

* Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), is in the news, it was a type of concrete used in many government buildings, especially schools from the 1950s to the 1990s, durable for about 30 years and presently presents the risk of failing and endangerment to life. [Local Government Association: Information on RAAC]

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