Dr Ciara Kelly: I might not agree, but you're right to speak up
When did free speech stop being a liberal value? Was it when the hegemony shifted solidly from conservatism to liberalism? Does the more dominant ideology always reject free speech as a way of protecting its status? Certainly conservatives hadn't much interest in free speech when they held sway but now those who share my own - currently popular - liberal views seem just as un-keen that people with opposing views would be allowed to air them. When did we stop defending free speech as an inalienable right and see it instead only as the preserve of those with views we approve of? These are very philosophical questions but I think they're pertinent and important.
In fact they're fundamental to where we go from here as a society. Look at the George Hook issue. George who'll be 78 next birthday - and before you accuse me of ageism I'm stating his age to highlight the fact that he grew up in an era when sexual politics were wholly different to today - commented on his radio show about a rape case going through the court in the UK and asked was there no blame on the part of the victim who put herself in harm's way? I think the answer to that is 'Eh? No George there isn't'. Followed up perhaps by an explainer of the reality that most men who find a semi-conscious girl alone don't rape them. And the ones who do, choose to do so. And so they're rapists who are solely to blame for violating and assaulting a vulnerable woman. And to be fair to George, I think he'd assimilate that into his mindset even though 70-odd years of conditioning is hard to overcome.
However George - despite a long successful career as a broadcaster and despite apologising profusely several times - was, as a consequence of asking that question, suspended and subsequently lost his prime-time radio show. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I am the broadcaster who replaced him in the role. Good enough for him - I hear several of you say. However, when did asking a question - that many men and indeed women of his era might well ask, even though as I say I believe the answer to it is an unequivocal NO - make you a pariah? Get you fired? And cause a feeding frenzy on social media that had people literally wishing him dead? In fact Tom Humphries - the sportswriter and convicted paedophile was less vilified for actually raping a teenage girl than Hook was for talking about rape. So unacceptable has it become to have the wrong set of views.
Colm O'Gorman, who's a dyed-in- the-wool liberal, got it in the neck last weekend when the Al Porter story broke and he commented that he'd always liked Al and had found him to be kind, but the acts he was accused of didn't fit with that picture of him, which was disturbing and hard to get his head round. He was clear he believed the men who had come forward and was in no way minimising what they had gone through or indeed the difficulty they faced in coming forward. But by simply saying he'd liked Al and that this was now something he was trying to process he became the target for people on social media to hurl all sorts of bile at him and to demand he too should lose his job as the head of Amnesty because of something he'd said.
I'm bringing this up because I believe the stifling of debate is a huge mistake. The truth is when people with opposing views don't engage with each other that never ends well - just look at the North. And when you try and whitewash certain views out of public discourse instead of debating them, you don't make those views go away. You just make people with those views resent being silenced. I think the sense of 'rightness' that some liberals have about their values and opinions has led them to lose sight of the fact that people with differing views have just as much right to express them. I think both Brexit and the election of Trump are related to the fact that those with 'little Britain' or 'American redneck' views were seen as people to dismiss as ignorant and wrong thinking - which is partly what actually mobilised them. We really need to recognise that no one's right to free speech Trumps anyone else's.
Sunday Indo Living