FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN TODAY’S UK -Where has it gone and why?

In a free state there should be freedom of speech and thought.
Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD)

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think. And there is no freedom of thought without doubt.
Bergen Evans (1904 – 1978)

The question of freedom of speech has been on our tongues since the first caveman said to the second caveman “I don’t approve of the way you beat your wife and if you don’t stop it you’ll have to move to that fire over there”.

As humans we seem to be born with the desire to mind each other’s business. Nothing we enjoy more than telling each other what we think – and if you’re here right now you probably have this desire more than most.

We all love to be heard, even when we are talking rubbish. But of course we rarely do that, it is only The Other Fella who talks rubbish – and almost always at that. Why doesn’t someone tell TOF to pipe down, after all no one wants to hear what he or she has to say now do they?

In the olden days (anytime before 2002) we learned from listening to each other. You decided what you thought about something. Then you tried to find out what everyone else had said or were currently thinking about your preferred topic. You put all the info and opinions into the cauldron that was your brain – stirred it around and jiggled a bit – out popped an opinion. Your own opinion.

What on earth has happened to that concept? Where has it disappeared to? When did we become a nation of people who mainly only want to hear from people with whom we agree totally? “Did you hear what This One said about immigration last week? Shocking – just shouldn’t be allowed!” “Did anyone see Her That Woman on QT last night? She shouldn’t be allowed to voice opinions like that!”

Have we completely lost the plot here? Freedom of speech means having the right to put forth your ideas without fear of impunity. That means you should be able to voice your opinions on abortion, immigration, repatriation, privatization, gay adoption – anything really – without fear of losing your job, your position in society or being ostracized (unless you are an elected official or a member of the clergy in which case you need to consider your boundaries).

HOWEVER there are caveats, and of course this is where it gets tricky. There is an ENORMOUS difference between expressing your opinion and inciting. If I say to you “I don’t like scientific experiments being conducted on animals” then I am expressing an opinion. If I say to you “I don’t like scientific experiments being conducted on animals and you shouldn’t either, furthermore you need to go out and take action to prove that you’re with me on this” then I am inciting behavior that is considered socially unacceptable by mainstream society.

That is where it goes terribly wrong. Because certain members of society have taken to ‘inciting behavior’ we now are loath to allow others to ‘express an opinion’.

Yes we need to discourage people whose rhetoric encourage violent or unlawful behavior. Yes we don’t need to have people on our evening news waving their arms about trying to encourage certain members of society to take up arms, do harm, restrict the freedoms, make life generally uncomfortable for other members of society.

But we do need to start encouraging debate from everyone. Not just the people that we like. Besides, as Sun Tzu said ‘to vanquish thine enemy one first needs to know him’. If we shut them up then how will we know their weak spots. And if we don’t know their weak spots, how we will we vanquish them once and for all.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN TODAY’S UK -Where has it gone and why?

  1. dolbyn

    What both dismays and amuses me is that we consider incitement to terrorism somehow differently to incitement to other crimes. Wouldnt it me simple to have a general crime of knowingly trying to get another to commit a crime? …and then apply that law equally to those who try and incite other to do the crimes. Its a grey area i know but to me it comes down to intent. If you indend for a crime major or minor to be commited then wether you do it yourself or if you use somebody else as a surogate are you not equally guilty?

    There may be theological debate about sinfull crimes, those i think are the domain of gods judgement but man i think has a responsibilty to enforce laws of action.

    And as you started with quotes i’ll end with one
    “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” – which may or may not have been said by benjamin franklin

  2. As usual, very insightful. Funnily enough I wasn’t only thinking about inciting to terrorism. I was also thinking of inciting to commit racist acts. Inciting to commit harmful acts against people whose practices you disagree with i.e. foxhunters.

    Love the quote!

  3. I remember watching an episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ where Jim Hacker was talking to the government’s defence advisor, who happened to be Austrian. Hacker was told the Soviet’s would invade the west using ‘salami tactics’; slice-by-slice.
    And Hacker realised he would never press the nuclear button.

    Salami tactics are being used in Britain today. Another freedom goes, but it’s only one. But then another right goes and then another. The British people need to wake up and realise what is happening. Whether you are on the right, centre, or left of politics, one thing is agreed; the current British government is the most anti-libertarian anyone can remember.

  4. Dear Andrew,

    I agree but I also feel that in many ways we are as bad as they. I know that I am constantly being told in professional environments ‘you can’t say this’ and ‘you shouldn’t say that’. And it is obvious from this blog that my views are not incendiary, hostile, aggressive or anything else. When I ask ‘why not?’ the response is usually ‘you might offend someone’. What sort of a nonsense is that? I despair sometimes……

  5. Dear Morag,

    I see your point, but I am one of those people who don’t care what I say. I am honest to myself. I don’t go out and offend people, but if people are offended by what I say, that is their problem. Freedom of expression and speech is paramount to a free society. I am not changing the rules and I will continue to challenge anyone else who does.

  6. Believe me I am totally in agreement with you. Unfortunately part of my job is commenting on this and that in public forums and it is becoming increasingly difficult to say what one really feels. I always do – but sometimes not as vociferously as I would like (I can be a bit shouty) – because I figure I need to still be allowed to appear so I can say it quietly better than not to be allowed thereby being unable to say it at all.

  7. Andrew is absolutely right. I’m fearful that we could be facing great difficulties in this country.

  8. That means you should be able to voice your opinions on abortion, immigration, repatriation, privatization, gay adoption – anything really – without fear of losing your job, your position in society or being ostracized (unless you are an elected official or a member of the clergy in which case you need to consider your boundaries).

    Not sure about this. As to ostracism, if I express views someone else thinks are obnoxious, he’s fully within his rights not to want to have anything more to do with me, isn’t he? His response may be OTT, but it’s up to him with whom he socialises.

    As to your job, that’s a bit different. People should certainly be adult enough to work together whatever their differences — there’s no law that says you have to like your colleagues, after all — but if, for example, one of your salesmen expresses his view to one of your white customers that all whites are racist bastards, then you might want to have a word with him, might you not?

  9. Dear Notsaussure,

    When I think of ostracism I think of a group of people excluding one particular person for whatever reason. The old ‘don’t play with him he eats spiders’ type of thing. I could usually give a monkey’s (as they say) if people agree with me – in that I always stand by my beliefs and don’t change them to gain popularity. And am willing to accept that not everyone will agree and some may wish to cease association. What I was referring to was people steering others away from an opinion they don’t like or a person putting forth an opinion they don’t like.

    As far as work goes I guess I should explain that some of my work is as a public commentator. So in theory I am expected to express an opinion to the public and broadcasters and print media who – as much as they say they don’t – try to exert more control than is actually healthy. Hence the fact that quite a few bloggers are journalists in disguise.

    As for the ‘all whites are racist bastards’ – I’m in total agreement with you about ‘having a word’. But that sort of thing comes down to just plain bad manners combined with PC madness, definitely an entire series of posts…………

  10. We are all tempered by the constraints of our family responsibilities and work obligations, but I do believe that the ability to openly express your opinion and have people listen to it and respond is a very important mark of a civil society. It is not surprising that so many bloggers do not speak for themselves, but through a veil or personna created for this medium. If the factors that I mentioned, were not important, there would be no need to use these methods to allow free expression of opinion and response.

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