By Jaeben Watkinson
‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ This famous quote is carved into a yellowing wall next to a statue of its author, George Orwell, who towers over passers-by like a teacher giving a valuable lesson. This quote has never been more relevant than today.
Before you read on, let me clarify one thing. I do not think that hate speech doesn’t exist, of course, it does, but I will explain my contentions with the term later on in the article.
Conservative commentator Darren Grimes was taken in by police for questioning regarding his interview with eminent historian David Starkey, who had almost every position and honour stripped from him for commenting that slavery wasn’t a genocide otherwise ‘there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks.’ Starkey, who has since apologised for the remark, has also filed a complaint with Grimes against the Met.
Grimes was under investigation for ‘stirring up racial hatred.’ In other words, he was being investigated for something that someone else said. Grimes has also come under criticism for not objecting to what Starkey had said, and that by not doing so he was facilitating racism and hateful rhetoric, with some arguing that he should have predicted that Starkey would say something controversial, given his remarks in the past regarding Jewish people. Despite apologising several times and holding himself accountable, I do feel like it is very unfair to say that he should have predicted this because, like every other human being on the planet, he’s not psychic.
But I digress, this isn’t just about the interview. This is about the most important right that anyone in a western liberal democracy should possess, which is the ability to write, say and publish whatever we want.
The fact that police are investigating people who offer others a platform to voice their opinions should terrify everyone.
Already, the cancel culture generation is proclaiming from their safe spaces, that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of consequence, and even now, while they are doing what they can to no-platform speakers and cancel people in the public eye, I still support their right to speak. In some ways, they’re right. However, if I’m not inciting violence against anybody, why should I not be able to voice whatever thought, belief, and opinion that I may hold?
I believe in freedom of speech, thought, expression, and the sovereignty of the individual over the collective. But most importantly, providing that I’m not infringing on anybody else’s rights and freedoms, I want the government to leave me alone.
If you have to leave the room because someone says something that you don’t like, you’re not ready to face the challenges in a world that will leave you behind.
Unfortunately, this is not the only example of people being persecuted for saying, writing, or publishing the wrong thing. The most recent example being JK Rowling adding another addition to her Strike series, the antagonist being a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing. This was then branded as being dangerous and offensive to members of the LGBT+ community. Bear in mind that the antagonist is based on two real-life murderers in the US who had the same MO. It just seems to me that those who were upset by this had jumped in front of a bullet that was heading towards a tree. A stupid, pointless sacrifice they never needed to make. Why was this ever made an issue to begin with? I love Rowling’s books, she’s a talented writer who deserves the merit and praise that she has, I separate the work of the artist from the artist themselves, I’m interested in her ability to craft a story, on the other hand, could it be worthwhile to use her platform to talk about her views and have a discussion about something so contentious? I would say yes. Regardless of what Rowling has said in the past, which people are going to be divided on, it’s unacceptable to attempt to cancel her and stop her from publishing her novel and making a living.
As the next generation who will inherit this country, we need to drop this victimhood mentality and cancel culture narrative before it’s too late.
I will not repeat the old and tired Voltaire quote that we’re all familiar with, but the point still stands. Just because I defend someone’s right to voice their opinions, does not mean that I agree with what they say.
The worst thing is that it’s the universities that are encouraging it. Spiked, an online magazine, releases a survey regarding universities and free speech up and down the country, operating on a traffic light system where the worst result is red, and the best being green, the most recent survey being in 2018. Very few get the latter result. Do you want to guess what the result for Hull university was?
Copied from the University Regulation on Freedom of Speech document, “The University of Hull values academic freedom and is committed to promoting and encouraging free debate and enquiry.” This means that it tolerates a wide range of views, political as well as academic, even when they are unpopular, controversial, or provocative. However, the University believes that a culture of free, open and robust discussion which is within the law can be achieved only if all concerned avoid offensive or provocative action and language. Debate and discussion will inevitably involve “offensive or provocative language”. The wording of this alone rubs me up the wrong way. It’s too general, too vague. What constitutes offensive language? Valid points that upset someone? An off-colour joke told within a group of friends that’s slightly overheard? Offence is completely subjective, what offends me will not offend you, who is to stop the wrong person in a position of authority at this university to halt any sort of debate or discussion because someone, somewhere will get upset?
Universities should be the best place to put forward controversial ideas and opinions, giving students the chance to develop their own thoughts and not keep them in an echo chamber.
Read the Universities response to Jaeben’s comments here:
At no point do I want anyone who reads this to think that I believe hate-speech doesn’t exist. Of course, people can speak hatefully. I always encourage people to treat each other with respect and tolerance, even if you may disagree with everything the other person is saying. But one of the questions I find the most valid, is that who is going to be the one to decide what is hateful and what is not? There is no one in my life who I trust. Is there anyone in yours? What you might find offensive, I might find utterly benign. Therefore, why should there be a rule or a law that states there must be someone appointed to judge what may or may not be suitable for public consumption?
Please remember that if you ever celebrate someone being punished for publishing or even speaking the wrong thing, remember that you are giving everyone else permission to do it to you when you say the wrong thing, even if what you said was utterly trivial and inconsequential. And if you ever think that it won’t happen to you, I advise you to research the Mark Meechan case in Scotland, Chelsea Russell in Liverpool or Harry Miller of the organisation, Fair Cop, all of whom have been investigated or have criminal records for daring to engage in the horrific crime of wrongspeak.
In conclusion, I have found that the best solution for offensive speech, is more speech. Not sticking our fingers in our ears and pretending that it’s not happening. Could we please, in the name of whatever god you may or may not worship, start having the conversations that need to be had, and not pointing the finger at someone who said something that mildly offended you? They may not be nice to have. You may feel uncomfortable. You might hate the conversation so much that you just want to storm out of the room and not talk to that person again. But whoever had their mind changed because they were socially ostracised for saying the wrong thing? I can’t think of anyone.