Freedom of speech: A word too far?

Free Speech

On the 11th of March, 2009 I was very frustrated. The 2nd battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment had just returned home to a welcoming hero’s parade through the streets of Luton. All along the roads that the brave soldiers marched down, locals lined the pavements, applauding and shouting praise and welcome. It was a sight that awoke sentiments of pride and gratitude from most who were there, or who watched footage of the event on the local and national news. The country appeared to be proving what many had denied; that the British, whatever their opinion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were at the very least, fully behind the troops that fought.  However, in one corner there were different chants. A number of Islamists shouted that; far from being heroes, the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British forces were in fact murders and sadists! The returning troops were greeted on this stretch of road by vicious verbal attacks contradicting any words of support from other locals.

Watching this, I was at first very angry: This surely was freedom of speech, at its limits. Why had no one stopped them? Why were these men and women, in this corner of Luton, allowed to berate British servicemen only recently home from possibly the hardest service of their lives? Why were the police of all people, protecting them!?

On the other side of Britain, I again raised an eyebrow at a different slight. Channel 4 was airing a comedy show that took the usual, and now almost cliché punches at Catholicism. Yet this one in particular, seemed to go too far. A comedian stepped up and proclaimed that his own homosexuality had begun with his going to church? He stated unashamedly that having gone to mass every Sunday, he had seen ‘Jesus nailed to a cross, half naked’ and that all he could think, throughout the service was; “fit”! Surely this was freedom of speech, allowed to step too far. I, like many Catholics and much like many religious people of any denomination who find their beliefs used as the butt of corny and uninspired jokes was at first horrified.

Yet in both instances, it is important to view the wider picture. It is vital that we in Britain do not instantly see red when freedom to speak your mind, and chant your beliefs offends others. Instead we should be proud. We should be damn proud that those opposed to the wars in the Middle East are able to say so. We should be proud that those few men and women in Luton were able to recite their objection and their opinions. We should be proud that our police force surrounded this small group, not intent on silencing them, but instead intent on protecting them and their ‘voice.’

So too should we puff out our chests in the knowledge that anyone can criticise and belittle others beliefs. However much I disliked it, thought it distasteful and generally disagreed, I was still proud that in Britain, these things could be said. In Britain, women can chain themselves to fences to bring awareness to their inequality. Followers of Islam can protest, noisily about their opposition to the Middle Eastern wars; and Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even Jedi s can stand up, and feel free to state their opinions to the world, from a safe haven. Here, is a nation confident enough to allow her subjects to criticise and belittle her, and free enough to support them. Here is a ‘great’ Britain that outshines many countries; that does not impede on dress, beliefs or opinions, and for that I am very proud.

Daniel Cole


33 thoughts on “Freedom of speech: A word too far?

  1. Quite true and something that the British National Party among others, is keen to dissuade us of; freedom of speech and press works both ways.

    There is however a disturbing tendency to faun over the enshrined rights of minority groups while suppressing supposedly offensive actions or events by the majority.

    Britain cowers away from the interesting, the traditional-even the mundane, for fear of offending an all-too-often faceless, nameless “minority group.” The era of over-exaggerated political correctness must come to an end if we are to preserve the freedom of speech you so cherish. Without balance it becomes all too easy to listen to the weasel words of those like the BNP who would drive freedom of speech and the press into carefully managed penns.

  2. A fantastically well written article Dan. I too was appalled to see the scenes of radical islamists protesting at the homecoming parades. That said I for one feel that it is better to allow these radicals to do so because the media will certainly pick up on it and then the whole of Britain and indeed the wider world can see through their own eyes exactly what we are fighting against.

    That said I do feel that the commentor above has hit the nail on the head: political correctness has gone too far and has oppressed the majority in favour of the minority. You know the country has gone to far when a 20 something year old student’s private facebook is splashed over the national press, something which could seriously damage their career, for comments that were not even their own. ;)

    We also seem to rank some forms of discrimination as worse than others. Its ok to ridicule someone for being fat but not ok to ridicule someone for being black. If we dont start redressing the balance in Britain and categorise discrimination as discrimination rather than selectively prioritising one form of discrimination over another we will push the passive and tolerant majority in to the hands of extremists like the BNP. Its time we stood up for the oppressed majority.

  3. “There is however a disturbing tendency to faun over the enshrined rights of minority groups while suppressing supposedly offensive actions or events by the majority”

    theprior, you are so right;(and Dan, as are you.) and that is certainly half of my argument. If we are to have full freedom of speech, minority and majority views should be spoken, without the fear of repercussions. I do think however, that there should be a clear separation between freedom of speech and freedom of action. The latter cannot be totally free. Terrorists cannot set bombs, church leaders cannot force their views on others and paedophiles cannot look at indecent images or mess with children. The difference between speech and action is often a tough line to distinguish.

  4. Excellent post, I completely support others right to free expression. It is important to allow everyone to speak their mind, but society must also act to condemn behaviour such as you highlight.

    I find the attitude that says we should avoid criticising those whose beliefs are not only at odds with society and the tolerant culture we have developed but extremely ‘regressive’ in there own right more worrying than anything said that day in Luton.

    No matter how high minded such an attitude may be intended to appear and whether it be motivated out of cultural guilt, moral relativism, an over developed sense of political correctness or just a desire to ‘be nice’ we either protect our values through our own free of speech, or we loose them.

  5. Dan (Cowdrill) weve had this discussion a number of times and each time weve disagreed lol. I believe that most of the country feel as though they are treading on politically correct eggshells. They watch every word they say for fear of being branded racist (or some other discriminatary vice) even though they know damn well that they aren’t racist.

    I think Dan Cole is spot on in his assessment that we need to differentiate between words and actions. Many a good politician has had to resign their post because of a slip of the tongue. Words are cheap, its actions that matter and where a politician acts in a racist, sexist, homophobic or other similar discriminatary way they should of course resign. But more often than not their ‘crimes’ are minor and a result of a slip of the tongue.

    This has made the public (the majority)paranoid about what they ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ say. What we need to do is say ‘Look its ok if you make the odd ‘offensive’ comment, its human nature… and besides some people are just too damn sensitive” but when their ‘slip ups’ become repeated and when their words become actions then we need to reprimand them.

    So in sum I fully endorse Dan’s (Cole) argument: differentiate between words and actions.

    • Words can’t be cleanly separated from actions. A ‘slip of the tongue’ can be instructive. As Jack says, if the same words are used repeatedly people ‘join the dots’. Words, far from being empty, have social meaning that society interprets. They imply a certain disposition and future behaviour.

      People ‘tread on eggshells’ because racial language can be a sign of deeper racist tendencies and future racist actions. When it comes to it, people don’t want to give the impression that they’re racist.

      This is not ‘oppression’, this is common sense. It is how society works out which actions and words are undesirable.

  6. I’m afraid that the distinction between words and actions is very thin indeed. When dealing with difficult issues, ill chosen words can make people rightly concerned about people’s hidden agendas.Nick Griffin suggested that the holocaust never happened. He hasn’t killed a single person in his life, but that does nothing to diminish the signoficance of what he has said. People here are saying ‘differentitae between words and actions’. Under which category would they file racist abuse,the declaration of independence or libel in a major national newspaper which publishes humiliating lies about your private life?

    There are very few polititians who have resigned jsut because of a slip of the tongue. In most cases the problem has been that the gaffe has confirmed what people have already suspected. That explains why biden’s racist gaffes have been rorgiven while George Allen’s have been remembered. People join the dots.

    Now I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a problem. Off the cuff remarks are often blown out of proportion. But people do correct for the fact that politicians are careful over what they say. When people heard those arguably racist comments from George Allen, they suspected that it was just the tip of the ice berg. 9/10 of things that polititians say are pre-scripted. People are forever trying to understand what makes ‘the real John McCain/George Galloway/George Allen tick. So they look for clues; and people’s unscripted comments often provide those clues.

    In politics, the vast majority of politicains and parties have little or no power to do anything; but are seeking that power. Even if a clear distinction can be made between words and actions(and I don’t think there can) words can often preceed actions by many years. Ignoring them would be foolish.

  7. One classic example comes to mind: Patrick Mercer. He made very accurate comments about his experience in the armed forces. Yet it was the politicians, politicians who for the large part had absolutely no idea what they were talking about when it came to army life, took the decision to suspend this honorable man for what was purely a statement of fact. Thats the problem facts are inconvenient for some people and instead of dealing with them the powers that be act as if they don’t exist in the hope they will go away.

    I for one am sick of people tip toeing around each other. If we want genuine freedom and equality in this country we are going to have to stop ranking discrimination and putting people in little categories which only serve to remind us all that we are different. Its time common sense came back to politics and society sadly I don’t think its ever going to happen.

  8. I wouln’t call it tip-toeing, I’d call it being sensitive to others.

    Mercer’s comments were atrocious. He was the Shadow Homeland Security Officer. He said that he had met “a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless.” He also seemed indifferent to discrimination within the armed forces: “If someone is slow on the assault course, you’d get people shouting: ‘Come on you fat bastard, come on you ginger bastard, come on you black bastard.'” He then said “This IS the way it is in the army.” (My own emphasis)

    David Cameron was quite right to respond in the way he did. The comments were certainly offensive (which he later conceded), and they implied racist tendencies (see my comment above about the fine line between words and actions) that the Conservative party cannot be associated with.

  9. “He said he met alot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless.” Why is that wrong Daniel? Is it wrong to say that some white people in Britain are idle and useless? If not (as is clearly the case) then why is it wrong to suggest ethnic minorities are equally idle/useless? THIS kind of attitude is precisely the problem. Its not being ‘sensitive’ to minorities thats the problem…its tiptoeing around them and patronising them as if they can’t defend themselves.

    The gentleman in question according to Mercer was renowned in the unit for going AWOL with his women and used charges of ‘racism’ as an excuse for failing in his duty. This is a problem that continues to plague society. We had it in our school where a pupil accused a teacher of racism when actually the little sod didn’t ever do his homework and was an absolute terror in the classroom. The teacher was hardly going to be his best mate but bewilderingly there was a full blown enquiry. And why do people like that use it as an excuse? Because society doesn’t have the balls to clip them around the ear and tell them to pull their socks up.

    All this is conjecture anyway, the fact is you and I know nothing of the situation Mercer describes. For all we know his description could be spot on or it could be way off. But having family serving (and served) in the forces I know for a fact that banter and discipline is an integral part of army life. They don’t tiptoe around anyone but that is what makes the forces such a community, a ‘band of brothers’ if you will, because they are made to feel as part of one unit/community. Noone recieves special treatment. Noone escapes the banter. Perhaps if we replicated this system in society we would eliminate the divisions that still blight us today.

    Also I have conceded that sometimes words become actions which is completely unacceptable but that is why we have anti discrimination laws to ensure that when mere words do become actions then something can be done about it. In the army ‘abusive’ banter is routine but if an individual breaches that boundary between banter and blatant discrimination there are severe reprisals. Britain is a tolerant society at heart, I certainly have no problem with ethnic minorities settling in Britain and im sure the same goes for much of the country what I have a problem with is this pathetic culture of watching every word we say for fear of who we might offend. Its censorship and encourages a climate of distrust and division.

    You compassionate conservatives make me sick lol ;)

  10. Allow me to be more precise.

    If you were in company and someone used the term ‘black bastard’ would you criticise, or would you let it it pass?

  11. “Do you find calling someone a black bastard appropriate then?”

    Depends on the context. If its said as banter from one friend to another then yes. Absolutely.

  12. What its not clear whether its banter or not? Or worse, what if its said seriously? Would you say anything then?

  13. Well that is trickier. I think that the odd comment said in haste is perfectly natural. Ive said things to friends and family members in haste before. I think abusive of any form is unfortunate and distasteful but sadly a part of human nature from which we cannot escape. If the abusive is repeated to the point where it is causing serious emotional distress then yes of course something has to be done. We have such tools we could deploy in such instances for example the ASBO. We shouldn’t be screaming ‘racist’ at someone for a slip of the tongue or something said in anger. In other words we should establish the facts before shouting our own judgemental mouths off.

  14. I didn’t say ‘scream racist’. I would, however, find it distinctly uncomfortable if such a phrase did ‘slip off someone’s tongue’. There would probably be an awkward silence. Depending on the tone, I might walk off. If its repeated I may say something.

    I think this is how most people would behave in such a situation. How about you??

  15. Incidentally, you seem to recognise yourself that there are limits to how often people can use such language and that in certain contexts society should act.

  16. I recognise, and incidently have never disputed, that where there are obvious signs of deep rooted discrimination in words and action then yes the state is obliged to act to protect the individual. However I do not believe that we should ‘rank’ discrimination and we have had this debate many times before. As far as I am concerned Britain seems to be more squeemish to racism than it is to say sexism or homophobia… similarly I dont think discrimination against ‘gingers’ has even been afforded an ‘ism’ lol. But the fact is it is still discrimination and harmful to the person experiencing it.

    Thus we should have an umbrella legislation in place for sustained verbal or physical discrimination whether its racist, sexist or homophobic should not even be considered. Its discrimination and the punishment should be equal to the crime. I think continued verbal abuse should be punished with an ASBO which could progress on to a prison sentence. ‘Sticks and stones’ and all that. Physical abuse however is a bit different and the punishment would be judged on a case by case basis. Words are cheap and I think sometimes society and the media in particular comes down a bit heavy on people for one or two ‘offensive’ comments.

  17. I largely agree.

    As I argued from the outset, words can often infer a certain attitude and future possible actions. So, I think you’re right to to say that words can be ‘obvious signs’ of racist tendencies.

    I agree that just as we are ‘squeemish’ about racism we should be concerned about sexism and homophobia too.

    Further, I am not talking about the State intervening. I am talking about social situations where one individual challenges another’s use of words. Certain words gain meaning over time which make them inappropriate in most instances. It is up to our politicians, such as Mercer, to be aware of this. If they choose to ignore these social constraints them I’m afraid they are complicit in any misrepresentation of them.

  18. Haha well at least weve got some form of consensus. Where we diverge is in your unrealistic expectations of politicians. This issue points to a wider issue; the fact we expect too much from our politicians. The media set the agenda and they have built up these unrealistic expectations. Politicians are people: flawed. Occasionally they will put their foot in it and have to resign but in the process we might lose a damn fine public servant. We need to get realism back in Britain which comes to terms with the ‘tradgedy of the human condition’. We will put our foot in it, we will say things we don’t mean, we will have ‘off days’, we will make mistakes and we have to learn to accept these things.

    But again where repeated mistakes are made of course they have to be removed. Largely I think politics today is too reactionary and is unreflective of the public opinion we, as (potential) politicians are supposed to represent. Cameron is showing some guts by making symbolic gestures like ‘wrapping himself in the union jack’ (the first leader since Thatcher to do so) and take the fight the fascists by reclaiming the Union Jack from their grubby paws. He also is defying the critics by demanding immigrants speak English. In short hes standing up for Britain. I sincerely hope it continues and his words are (in this case) commuted in to action ;)

    • I don’t think its just the media. I think society more widely has high expectations of public servants. And, I think this is a good thing.

      The central role of public servants is to make judgements on our behalf. If they fail to make the right judgement when using language about minorities, or majorities for that matter, then they should be at the mercy of public opinion (including the free press).

      At the very least Patrick Mercer showed appalling judgement.

  19. In an ideal world Patrick Mercer should have been able to say what he said. As far as I see it he was stating fact. Had he said some white members of the armed forces were lazy or idle noone would have batted an eye lid. As soon as you bring race in to it in a negative context the politically correct go off on one and howl racism. He wasnt saying ALL ethnic minorities were lazy. Rather he was saying that in his personal experience (much more than our own) some ethnic minorities use their race as an excuse for their own incompetence/ignorance and some, in his experience, were failing to meet the standards required of Her Majestys Armed Forces.

    They expected to be treated like special cases because of their race. Well tosh to that. As ive stated before there is no special treatment in the forces and noone escapes the banter. Its the way it is. And its the reason why the British armed forces are one of the most formidable, respected and competent in the world today. Where there are cases of genuine racism, bullying and discrimination it is dealt with swiftly by the authorities but they bring a bit of common sense to their deliberations and refuse to allow an individual to go play the race card over a few ‘inappropriate’ words here and there.

    Also I think the press is too free. If I were in power I would force the truth in to it… i.e I wouldnt let a paper publish a story without factual evidence for what they are writing, evidence which must be submitted to a regulatory body :P People want news not sensationalism. The press build people up to knock them down and destroy countless lives in the process eg: Diana, Jacko to name just 2. They also have an unhealth influence and leverage over the British political system and politicians

  20. Right, two things.

    Patrick Mercer’s comments were unacceptable because he seemed to accept that in the armed forces calling people ‘black bastards, ginger bastards and fat bastards’ was perfectly acceptable. You call it banter, I don’t think it’s always as clear as that. One persons idea of banter is another persons idea of bullying. So no, I reject your argument that its okay to use this language. If I called my colleague at work a ‘black bastard’, he/she would be entitled to ask me to stop it (whether it is your idea of banter or not).

    “Also I think the press is too free.”

    I believe in free press. You tangle with the press, you deal with it.

  21. I believe in freedom of the press less than freedom of the individual. If the freedom of the press infringes on the freedom of an individual then no I don’t think its acceptable. Peoples lives are ruined by the media and people are routinely victimised. Lest we forget when Diana was in the traumatic part of her divorce the paparazzi and the press were calling her “wh*re, sl*g, tart, bitch” and other abusive language so they could get a photo of her in tears which would fit their sensationalist and ficticious stories. This is unacceptable and not an isolated incident. I believe in freedom of the press but genuine freedom and fairness.

  22. I have a more balanced view. While I accept that parts of the media can be sensationalist, the people they write about often seek publicity.

    Diana is a good example. She was quite happy to use the press for her own publicity during those ‘traumatic years’. One thinks of her dramatic interview for Panorama – ‘There are three of us in this marriage’. If she got her fingers burnt in the end then she was complicit.

    Back on to Mercer. His comments did not simply slip out. They were considered. He genuinely thought that using such language was fine in the armed forces. He genuinely thought it was acceptable to relate examples of ‘idleness’ to ethnic orientation. He could have just referred to ‘idle servicemen’, but he went too far by relating idleness to race. Of course people found it offensive. I had and still have no sympathy for this stupid man.

    People need to learn that while they have free speech, they also live in a society, where people will disagree with another’s idea of ‘banter’.

  23. I think you are right to a degree. Celebrities are on occasion victims of their own action but then again the same is true of society. Politicians grow up and devlop in society and that influences their behaviour and their values which they later deploy in public life. I personally feel civic morality has gone to the dogs and ‘values’ is a dirty word in society today. Thus how can we expect politicians to embody these qualities if they have never been taught or exposed to them in the society they represent?

    I therefore think there is a bit of a double standard in your argument above; you think celebrities who are treated appallingly by the press deserve it because they encourage it, yet dismiss the fact that politicians who have questionable personal lives or make mistakes are actually a product and reflection of the society we live in. We impose false double standards on ourselves and our politicians. Perhaps if we accepted that they, like we, are flawed creatures this country wouldnt be as broken as it is.

  24. I accept that we are flawed, of course. However, this doesn’t always excuse our mistakes.

    In Mercer’s case his personal flaws made it difficult for him to continue in his position.

  25. I disagree. I think in a long and distinguished career of service, without a blemish of racism, he made a few remarks based upon his experiences. He didnt sugarcoat it he said it how he saw it. That does not mean he is racist, that does not mean he condones or encourages racism. His record and service was instantly dismissed because his comments ‘were unacceptable’.

    I find it abhorrent that we can throw decent public servants with decades of service to their name on the scrap heap for speaking their minds. I personally feel he is an honest and honorable politician and If we want honesty and integrity in politics we’d better stop castrating people for speaking their mind and saying it how they see it. Why cant we have a bit of adult debate in politics? Why do we all have to conform to the same rules and sing from the same hymn sheet? That is why noone has any faith in politics or politicians anymore because it is completely unreflective of public nature and opinion.

  26. I’m going to copy what I said above.

    “His comments did not simply slip out. They were considered. He genuinely thought that using such language was fine in the armed forces. He genuinely thought it was acceptable to relate examples of ‘idleness’ to ethnic orientation. He could have just referred to ‘idle servicemen’, but he went too far by relating idleness to race. Of course people found it offensive.”

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