Sunday 20 January 2019

War of words restricts our right to say what we think

No one should need to beg the Government's permission to express an unpopular opinion

Ciaran Cannon: The Galway East TD had his people to fire off a press release last week which criticised the decision of Notre Dame university to invite writer John Waters to deliver a lecture at in the United States. But what business was it of the minister’s?
Ciaran Cannon: The Galway East TD had his people to fire off a press release last week which criticised the decision of Notre Dame university to invite writer John Waters to deliver a lecture at in the United States. But what business was it of the minister’s?

Eilis O'Hanlon

Twitter users woke last week to discover that they now had twice as many characters at their disposal as before. Tweets immediately grew longer, and, ironically, much less interesting. That perfectly encapsulates the modern malaise of having more and more opportunities to use free speech, whilst the amount of relevant or even interesting things which we're permitted to say has reduced in tandem.

The space for genuinely free speech is shrinking. Too many are lurking in the shadows, eager to take offence.

That's what makes it so dispiriting when the Taoiseach allows himself to be infected by this disease of prissiness in the face of plain speaking.

Last week he exhibited the classic symptoms when complaining at Micheal Martin for using the word "screw" during an exchange in the Dail, a word the Fianna Fail leader chose to describe what he believed Leo Varadkar was doing to hospices by not restoring workers' pay.

It's a common enough usage of the word, one would have thought. The Taoiseach begged to differ. "Unbecoming" and "unparliamentary" was how the Fine Gael leader described his counterpart's language, before passing it up to the Ceann Comhairle for a ruling on whether the word was prohibited, like a school prefect snitching on a fellow pupil to the teacher.

On one level, this is just another bit of nonsense in a political world which now seemingly considers the promotion of nonsense to be its primary business.

Long gone are the days when the news was actually about things that were going on in the world, and instead became a parade of people either apologising or being asked to apologise for saying the "wrong" thing or having the "wrong" opinion.

This is a dangerous climate, so for the Taoiseach to stoke it by claiming injury at a word sends out a bad signal. If he is doing it, why shouldn't we? If he gets offended so easily, why shouldn't students?

They're of a generation with the tools and freedom to speak like never before, and they're increasingly using that power to silence people with whom they disagree. The "no platform" thinkers expressing opinions that offend their delicate little sensibilities; when one errant voice does somehow sneak in, they shout it down lest the pristine innocence of their politically correct minds be contaminated by dissenting thoughts.

King's College London has even started hiring "safe space marshals" at £12 an hour to monitor speeches by invited guests and to "take immediate appropriate action" if policies on what can and cannot be said are breached. This "appropriate action" includes ejecting speakers who use "discriminatory" language.

Maybe Leo could apply to King's College for a job as a safe space marshal if the next election doesn't go his way?

Rather than encouraging the policing of language, the Taoiseach should be setting an example by showing himself robust enough to hear certain words without swooning. Does he really want to preside over a Government which hides behind the skirts of decorum when under fire?

Haven't his army of overpaid advisers told him that this spinelessness is just the sort of thing that people who get up early in the morning thoroughly despise? A poll for Claire Byrne Live in January found that only 19pc of Irish people were in favour of restricting free speech to avoid causing offence, with a decisive 65pc against. The Government should decide which of those groups it wants to court, then copy Ciaran Cannon in on the memo when a decision has been made.

The Galway East TD, who allegedly holds down a position as "minister of state for the diaspora and international development", even got his people to fire off a press release last week criticising the decision to invite writer John Waters to deliver a lecture at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, under the title "When Evil Becomes Virtual: Cyberspace, Failing Media And The Hoax Of The 'Holocaust Of Tuam'."

This was a talk destined to take place in another country, at an independent educational institution. It was categorically none of Ciaran Cannon's business what Waters intended to say, and yet the junior minister's response was peppered with pejorative, highly-charged words such as "shameful", "insensitive", and, best of all, "hurtful" because, of course, feelings matter much more than the democratic right to free speech.

"The primary aim of every professional journalist," Cannon declared, "should be to report truthfully on events".

What about the aim to challenge conventional narratives, or to offer counter interpretations? To analyse the way in which stories have developed and the uses to which they've been put? John Waters is not a reporter. He's a writer with an interest in certain ideas, and he does not need the Government's permission to speak.

Give a TD a fancy title, and, before you know it, they've set themselves up as the country's answer to Judge Dredd, rather than, in the famous words of veteran interrogator Robin Day to a Tory Defence Secretary in the 1980s, "a transient, here today and, if I may say so, gone tomorrow politician".

Cannon based his objection on a suspicion that "Waters is expected to express an opinion that there is no hard evidence of any wrongdoing in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home". Put more succinctly, the objection could be better summarised as: "Waters is expected to express an opinion." Therein lies the ultimate sin.

Where does this lead? Will ministers decide what books should and should not be published, or what jokes stand-up comedians can and cannot tell? Will The Late, Late Show have to submit a list of guests in advance to the Taoiseach's office for approval?

Controversial opinions should indeed be strongly challenged. Historian Catherine Corless has done so in her painstaking work on the Tuam home. But it is not the Government's job to ensure that only the "right", socially-acceptable opinions are heard.

Rather it is to preside over a country in which all opinions can be aired. This may blow Ciaran Cannon's mind, but democracy consists in defending John Waters's right to be wrong, if that's what he is, not in writing to foreign universities to say, in effect, that you're "deeply disappointed" in them for being able to tolerate opinions that happen to distress you personally.

There is no way to legislate to avoid offence in matters which are, by definition, subjective, especially when freedom of expression is protected under the constitution. What's regrettable is that there's rarely any public outcry in Ireland when that right is threatened, as there is in America when its First Amendment comes under fire.

Singer Taylor Swift hit the headlines in the summer when her lawyers threatened to sue the authors of a blog in California with a minuscule number of followers unless they removed a post accusing the pop singer of being a beacon for white supremacists and the so called "alt right", and for not speaking out on racial issues, alleging that "silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor".

It was a mad argument, laughable really, but the American Civil Liberties Union immediately stepped in to denounce the move nonetheless, and to offer its support to the threatened authors, on the grounds that what had been written was merely an opinion, saying: "This is a completely unsupported attempt to suppress constitutionally protected speech."

Ireland urgently needs its own answer to the ACLU if politicians have so lost the run of themselves that they're now intent on policing rogue opinions and supposedly hurtful language. Free speech needs to be defended at its furthest boundaries, not where it's already officially approved.

Words that provoke dissension are the very ones which need most protection. Opinions which offend no one are already protected by a cocoon of their own unthreatening banality. That message should be coming down from the top.

Sunday Independent

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