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Are we really champions of freedom of speech?


Cartoon by Tom Halliday

Cartoon by Tom Halliday

Cartoon by Tom Halliday

It goes without saying that we are all beyond horrified at what happened in Paris on Wednesday. Sometimes, after sick and sickening events like this, we can learn something from our own reactions. While it is easy to look at the "other" and feel smug about ourselves, there can be no harm either, at times like this, in a bit of soul searching, a look at our own back yard if you will.

Clearly, there is no justification under any kind of god, as we understand god, or under any sense of justice, humanity or spirituality, for these cold-blooded murders. And clearly we all agree, right now, with freedom of speech and the freedom to offend. This is a part, we all agree, of what makes Western democracy enlightened and, dare we say it, superior to theocratic, fanatical cultures.

But you can't help thinking, as people have thanked God for the freedom of expression that we enjoy in this society, that while Ireland is hopefully a million miles away from being somewhere where you can be murdered for offending someone, we are not quite the bastion of free speech we might like to think we are. We are certainly not above a bit of intolerance of views we do not share.

Some would argue that the rot starts right at the top. It has been well aired over the last few days, for example, that we have, unusually for an enlightened Western democracy, laws that could prohibit cartoons of the prophet. One of Ireland's leading Muslim academics has already thrown shapes with the backing of that law.

Naturally, all right-thinking modern liberals now agree we should get rid of our blasphemy law and that people should be free to offend people of various religions. These people have been simultaneously stressing that it would be almost impossible to successfully prosecute a case if someone did print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In this great land of free speech, I haven't heard too many people arguing that we should have a law against blasphemy. They wouldn't dare.

We have other laws that are anti-free speech also. Under broadcasting legislation, you can get in trouble for causing offence on TV. Given that we can tend to be a nation where people get up in the morning looking to be offended, this is a very broad curb on freedom of speech. One man's offence can be another man's truth. What you might deem comedy or satire, I might deem offensive. Everyone has a right to take offence, but would you not argue that people have a right to give offence in many circumstances too? Remember that this law is in addition to our already strict libel laws.

There is another queer beast in Irish broadcasting too called balance. Balance can apparently mean that a gay man, if he is presenting a radio show, cannot express his enthusiasm for being able to get married.

It can mean that when a woman appears on television to talk about an incredibly harrowing story about delivering a child that would absolutely not live outside the womb, and having her baby's body delivered to her a few weeks later by courier, like a package from Amazon, that it has to be put to that woman that many people would not agree with her right not to go through that living hell, to have that trauma at least happen closer to home. This story has to be balanced even if that woman is, in her own words, "pro-life" and "anti abortion".

New media in Ireland is not exactly a haven for free speech either. Many of those, who stood up so smugly and so piously for free speech on Twitter and elsewhere in the public sphere last week, are the same people who can be hugely intolerant of anyone who goes against the allowed liberal consensus on social issues. You might not get literally murdered for speaking your mind in Ireland, but you can get figuratively and virtually lynched.

There is a certain consensus in Ireland on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Before you all leap on me, let me assure you that I probably fall within that consensus in many ways, even if, like most people, my views on abortion are fairly nuanced and far from black and white. But still, the uncomfortable fact in Ireland is that anyone who falls outside of that consensus, and who dares to express any opinions that do not concur with the accepted liberal truths, is immediately branded some kind of right-wing Catholic nutjob.

These people will often be subject to, at best, all kinds of personal attacks, and at worst, hate speak. And lest you missed it there, right wing and Catholic are, in the modern canon of PC liberalism, huge insults. They are two of the worst things you can be, apparently, and they generally go together.

We are going to have a lot of talk about thorny social issues this year. We have a gay marriage referendum to deal with, and abortion is an unresolved problem in this country whether the Government likes it or not.

One of the reasons we have failed to come up with a workable abortion regime, I stress just one of the issues, is because we never manage to have an honest conversation about it. We tend to hear a lot from those at the extremes of the argument. Those in the middle, with more nuanced views, tend not to wade in because they tend to be afraid to. It is just unfortunate that that middle probably constitutes a huge percentage of the population. You won't hear too many people speak out about whatever concerns they may have about gay marriage. Or indeed too many people saying they don't care. They wouldn't dare. Because they know that the response will not be reasoned argument or an assuaging of their concerns, but probably dog's abuse and invitations to leave the country or die.

I could put several things up on Twitter right now that I could almost guarantee they would lead to a witch-hunt. What if I said, for example, that freedom of speech is not absolute and that we should not wilfully offend religious people? I don't know that I hold that opinion, but I do think the whole area is less black and white than we are making out. What if I said I was against gay marriage? That it goes against my religious beliefs? Or what if I said that I am pro-life? I guarantee you my life would probably not be worth living for a while if I expressed these views, which are generally verboten by the commentariat.

I think as we congratulate ourselves for our freedom as a country, we should bear in mind too that everything is nuanced, that even how we deny people their freedom of speech is a grey area. There are other more subtle ways of ensuring consensus and punishing thoughtcrime than murdering people and we are no strangers to those ways in this country.

We should try to remember too, as we face into two potentially divisive social discussions, that freedom of speech extends to those we disagree with, and also that there are certain limits to how we use our freedom to respond to those we disagree with.

Sunday Independent