There’s a false argument that’s been floating around the concept of free speech for some time. Over the last couple of months I’ve taken an interest in it to attempt to understand what it is that’s really going on.
The argument itself pits Free Speech on one side and Offence or Decency on the other. The media rolls this thing out constantly tapping into the publics seemingly endless ability to take offence at anything you can possibly say. Whether it’s a bad joke, a good joke, an utterance that’s lip read or a misguided or youthfully naive tweet. If you want to read just one piece that utterly destroy the dichotomy of free speech and offence I would turn to the wisdom of the clown. Comedian Doug Stanhope have written the most fluent and coherent counter to this debate .
The problem is that these comparisons and equivalencies are false. They are not the two sides of the same argument and indeed the comparison hinders any real debate about the essential idea of freedom. My reasoning for this stance is simple:
Free Speech is about the act of Expression.
Offence and Decency are not a counterpoint to free speech, they are a reaction to it. They are themselves – expressions.
The opposite of Expression is Silence.
The dichotomy between free speech and offence or decency is false and it’s why the current debate is nonsense. The underlying premise is wrong and what you end up doing is essentially arguing against the same side of the debate. To actually have an argument you would have Free Speech I one side but you then need to put an actual equivalent on the other side – and that’s Silence. Silence is the absence of expression. You can attach motive and meaning to silence just like you can with speech. These may not be self-evident but embedded and contained within.
Silence is extremely powerful counter point to free speech. Steven Skala explores it in-depth in his lecture The Power of Silence. He prompts us to reflect on the silences as a guide to genuine understanding.
Silences and omissions, covert and overt, occur around us and cause us, positively or negatively, to shape our own experience, and most significantly, our understanding of the nature of things that are often most important to us.
When you start to reflect on the silences around us things really do start to get interesting. On one side you have the ability to expresses and on the other we have the inability to express. Now we can really start getting into a real debate!
When you discuss the right to say things vs the silence it creates we’re getting into a proper debate. We start to head beyond the trivial of offence and start to uncover what is truly structural, pervasive and damaging. When you start to notice is not the words being said but the silence that’s left behind you start to ask questions.
When someone uses free speech to preach hate, who’s voices are getting lost? When debate is framed by the extreme opposites of the argument, who doesn’t get a say? When we begin to really reflect on silence we have to question the mechanisms we hold up as tools of free speech. The free press for instance. Always the darling of free speech but what about the silence it creates, fosters and amplifies?
Who’s voices are missing in corporate media?
What ideas are missing when there’s a vested interest in the status quo?
What hope is there when ultimately someone else decides what the narrative is, who gets the bull horn and for what purposes?
How “free” is the press anyway?
Does a commercial, or even a publicly funded press, actually enforce silence at the expense of promoting free speech?
Comedian Frankie Boyle discusses the consequences of when free speech is equated with offence . Interestingly what he alludes to, without being explicit, is that it actually re-enforces the silence. It creates new ones, enforces old ones to deeply affect our ability to actually discuss and understand. In many ways silence is the preference to free speech when dealing with complex issues:
It’s always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time-consuming process of understanding them.
I understand that offence and decency may be big issues for some people – but I’m with Frankie on this one
We have given taking offence a social status it doesn’t deserve: it’s not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.
By avoiding those difficult conversations we create Silence. As I’ve written before – the cost of free speech shouldn’t be silence. If we’re discussing free speech without paying any attention to silence we’re missing the point.