Monday 18 December 2017

Free speech

Why, oh why, asks Eilis O'Hanlon, do we encourage halfwits to think their uninformed opinions matter?

Free speech is protected in the Constitution
Free speech is protected in the Constitution

Free speech is a bit like free love. It sounds great in principle. But in practice, things quickly become tangled and bitter, and everyone loses their tiny little minds as they struggle to deal with the disruptive side effects.

In Ireland, it's protected by Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution. Free speech, that is, not free love.

This explicitly commits the State to safeguarding the "right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions". The original wording was overseen by a man in a frock - that's Archbishop McQuaid, by the way, not Eamon de Valera - so naturally this right was immediately qualified by provisos that the "rightful liberty of expression" should not be used to "undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State" and to forbid the publication of "indecent" material.

What Bunreacht na hEireann gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. But, theoretically, we're free to say whatever we want.

The problem is that what many people want to say is so plainly and pig-headedly wrong that it's not only deeply annoying to have to listen to them, it's also a drain on everyone else's time to repeatedly have to set them straight.

People believe some crazy horse dung, after all, and they invariably express those opinions with a level of deluded confidence unique to braindead loons spouting nonsense.

There are some people who think, for example, that socialism is the answer to all society's problems; or that a bit of bread and wine turns into the actual body and blood of a Jewish carpenter who died two thousand years ago; and even that Ed Sheeran's new album is a work of genius, rather than the musical barfings of some ginger busker who got lucky.

The French philosopher Voltaire may have been willing to die to defend these crackpots' right to speak, whether he agreed with what they were saying or not; but if so, then he deserved to die as painfully as possible, because some things just aren't worth saying.

It's sentimental claptrap to keep pretending that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are more equal than others. That's just the way it is. Deal with it.

"But we have as much right to free speech as you do," they always whine when corrected

"No, you don't. You're an idiot. Now shut up."

For anyone who still insists that free speech is a good idea, I offer the clinching argument in two short words: social media. Go on, I dare you. Spend 30 seconds on Twitter and Facebook and then say that free speech works.

The philosophers hoped we'd utilise free speech to share exalted, high-minded ideas with one another in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.

In fact, social media proves that the vast majority of people will just use their so-called right to free speech to provide a running commentary on their tedious lives, or to fire off abusive messages at total strangers just because technology makes it possible.

Social media is free speech reduced to its most brutal and honest aspect. As such, it conclusively proves the hypothesis that the interestingness of what people say will always be in inverse proportion to their determination to say it. It can be hard to get people who might have something fascinating to say to speak out, while those with nothing at all to say just won't shut the hell up.

Nor are we allowed to physically hold them down and force them to zip it, because apparently free speech applies to those who don't know what they're talking about, just as much as it does to those who do.

That's good news for the producers of late-night radio phone-in shows, who rely on every angry nutjob within a 50km radius calling into entertain an audience of drunk insomniacs.

But it's bad news for the rest of us who aren't stark-staring insane and have no desire to become so.

Once upon a time, it could have been argued that an indulgence of folly was a small price to pay in return for the glorious gift of free speech. Increasingly, it seems that it's people using free speech for the right reasons who are in the minority, not the other way round. That's why guns are banned in most civilised countries - because giving people unrestricted access to dangerous weapons that they don't know how to handle properly does more harm than good.

There's nothing more dangerous than a spectacularly bad idea, so why are they allowed to be passed around freely as if they were harmless?

Free speech would probably be better appreciated if it wasn't so, well, free. Few things are valued when they're given away for nothing.

Look at all the free newspapers handed out at train stations. Most of them end up underfoot on the floor of the carriage minutes later.

If we were made to pay for our speech by the word, it would force us to think carefully before opening our traps. There could be an allowance for reasonable use, as with water, with fines for excess wastage. Eventually we'd learn to use this precious resource more responsibly.

Until then, free speech is bound to remain as over- rated as forgiveness, or the 1980s, or parenthood. Encouraging halfwits to think that their uninformed opinions matter is the sort of woolly-headed, hippie moral relativism that brought about democracy, and look where that got us.

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