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You have no right to abuse your freedoms

By silencing others like this, by ensuring that our university is not a safe place to express oneself, you are not supporting that freedom. You're only acting out of self-interest, ensuring freedom of speech for yourself, and those with the same privileges as you.

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A few days ago, Julie Burchill, newspaper columnist and troll extraordinaire, wrote an article for the Observer that was quickly identified as a completely vile tirade of abuse and intolerance towards transgender people. Burchill's article was taken down, but later republished by Toby Young, fellow bastion of the commentariat, sub-bridge dweller at The Telegraph, in a show of support for - you've guessed it - Burchill's "freedom of speech".

Incidentally, this week also saw the legalisation of public insults, in an amendment to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 - you're now free to legally insult each other. Congratulations, you may kiss the Crown Prosecution Service.

Now this interests me because, here at York, we love a good fight over freedom of speech. If I had a cookie for every time somebody has barked that Voltaire quote at me during my time at university, I'd be in a diabetic coma. Our excitement over this issue flared up again recently, with the argument over the now infamous 'Spotted: University of York Library' page.

The page's creators stopped posting in response to accusations of sexual harassment. The ensuing furore involved a lot of shouting about people's right to freedom of speech having been violated, as well as some hilarious suggestions that we might be living in some kind of totalitarian state.

I would like to assure all the wannabe Bradley Mannings that our freedoms are perfectly intact, which I am actually demonstrating by writing a comment for a student newspaper.

What I would like to ask, however, is what exactly you intend to do with those freedoms that you fight so valiantly to preserve. Because, last time I checked, the right to freedom of speech is a valuable tool for calling authority into check and for ensuring that we are all free and able to live the way we want, so long as we don't pose harm to others. That seems to me like a pretty important right, and that's what I want to fight for. That's what Voltaire was willing to die for.

Fighting for the right to offend, insult, marginalise, and outrightly scare people who are less privileged than you is a somewhat less noble calling. George Orwell didn't write Winston Smith into existence to demonstrate the perils of being prevented from telling your opponent to get back in the kitchen, or whatever is the misogynist joke du jour.

It is often observed that the people who screech about their freedoms being taken away when they are challenged on the internet are conspicuous by their absence at Amnesty International Meetings, campaigning against the incarceration of Pussy Riot, or the fact that far too often in everyday life we are still asked to define as either men or women, preventing many people from properly expressing their identities. These are freedom of speech issues and they are worth challenging.

So yes, freedom-of-speechers, you do have the right to do those other things. You do have the right to call someone a "tranny", or to publicly humiliate someone on a social network. But why would you want to? It's a cheap shot, it's not funny, and it doesn't make the world a better place.

Freedom of speech is a human right, but rights bring with them responsibilities. It's a right predicated on an equal platform for all voices - if you already have a significant platform because of, say, your gender, your ethnicity, your class status, or even your access to a column in a national newspaper, then using that platform to attack minorities is not a use of this freedom, it's an abuse of it.

Perhaps we should treat freedom of expression like the infra-red helicopter I got my dad for Christmas - it's brilliant, and everyone wants to use it, but it only works if it's used properly. Repeatedly fly in into Grandma, and you'll probably break it. And Grandma. If you care about your freedom of expression, the only way to preserve that freedom is to use it properly. Anyone wishing to defend their right to scare, upset or silence others is standing against the values of universal freedom of expression.

By silencing others like this, by ensuring that our university is not a safe place to express oneself, you are not supporting that freedom. You're only acting out of self-interest, ensuring freedom of speech for yourself, and those with the same privileges as you. You are devaluing, damaging and curtailing the value you claim to uphold. If we really find these freedoms to be as important as we say, why denigrate them by using them to mock the weak rather than challenge injustice?

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23 Comments

Louise Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

This might be one of the best-written articles Nouse has ever published.

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Rachel Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Seconded, Louise. The best take I've seen on this whole Moore/Burchill mess, but more importantly an actual solution to the imaginary 'free speech' debate. I foresee myself linking friends to this article a great deal in the future.

However, that Voltaire quote you mention ("I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,") is actually a persistent misquote - Voltaire didn't say it, but his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall did, in an attempt to summarise Voltaire's attitude.

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Lisa Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Could not have put it better myself. These people who claim that being able to post humiliating and intimidating posts on 'Spotted' is part of their right to freedom of speech seriously need to think about the phrase's definition. And what about the freedom to be able to work in an environment without fear of judgement or abuse? But I suppose that freedom's not as important to them because there aren't as many laughs to be had from it.

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Chris Venables Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Nice article Sophie. Spot on.

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Dan Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Bravo! An excellent article. To me, free speech is like a Swiss Army knife: a valuable and often essential tool in the right hands; a potential weapon capable of harm and gross misdeeds in the hands of those with fewer good intentions.

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Alex Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Whilst I agree with the sentiment of the article, and it is fantastically written, all I want to say is this: Is freedom of speech a right not a privilege? To me, it is a right, and a right is something I do not have to respect as if I have been granted it as some kind of gift, it is something I am free to do with what I will. Attacking people is perhaps not morally justified, but I am comfortable in the knowledge that I have the freedom to express opinion, in any way I want, and I will respect anybody else's use of their freedom of speech, no matter how much I disagree with it (rephrasing the wrongly attributed Voltaire quote there)

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Daisy Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Yes Sophie! I think you've hit the nail on the head.

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Janey Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Well done you. Very proud. The calm voice of reason amongst the self-righteous screaming.

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Sophie Miller Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Rachel, I had no idea about the biographer! That's kind of hilarious, and might even show up the people obsessed with that quote a bit further. Thanks everyone xx

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Ryan W Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

When it comes to style wit, most of these "wannabe Bradley Mannings" are permanently empty vessels, as anyone who has ever tried to argue with them can honestly testify. After reading this article, I finally know why: these qualities are so much on display by Sophie that nature cannot help but compensate for the imbalance.

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Ryan W Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

*style or wit

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asdf Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

If I wrote an article calling Julie Burchill a fat old cow that looks like a man, hopefully a woman of her moral stature would happily celebrate it as a fine piece of free speech.

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CZH Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Fantastic article

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William Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Section 5 of the public order Act has been used to lock up gay activists. It is far from clear that the repeal of Section 5 is a bad thing. It is plausibly a good thing (especially given what you said about the importance of not silencing power minorities).

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Caleb Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Great internal critique. Cohen would be proud.

Also, asdf, what the hell?

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Elliot Davies Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Excellent article. Well-written and well-argued.

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Nuala Shields Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

I concur with the right to Freedom of Speech being one of the cornerstone's of a free society. Where I break on this is that one must remember that your rights are not without consequence. You have a right to swing your arms freely, but that right terminates short of my nose.

When your right to free speech threatens the rights of others (shouting "FIRE!!!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire for instance), then you have overstepped the liberty of exercising your rights of free speech. So in effect, yes, your right to free speech has limitations and is a finite right, since your liberty to exercise it ends when it treads on the rights of others.

Remember also that rights, while being universal, are useless if you are denied the liberty to exercise them. Also, your right to free speech does not mean that you are entitled to a mainstream public forum to express that speech.

It has been found that speech which incites violence against others is a violation of the rights of those upon whom the violence is perpetrated.

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jytjhtrgre Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Would it be okay to post a link for a video? It's Christopher Hitchens discussing free speech, and should be required viewing for anybody interested in the subject.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyoOfRog1EM

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jytjhtrgre Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

By the way, i also thought the article was brilliant.

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anon Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

This was a really well argued and witty article and although I agree with the general sentiment, I couldn't help but notice the sentence "If you care about your freedom of expression, the only way to preserve that freedom is to use it properly." I assume by "using it properly" you mean refraining from causing offence but then doesn't freedom of expression include the right to offend? To assume that there is a "proper" use of the freedom of expression is to impose your own personal values onto that right, surely? Which just seems a tad hypocritical when you (rightfully) attack the people who are guilty of doing just that, the people who marginalise and silence minorities.

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Tim Riggins Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

When people tell me they're "offended" by the way us Texans express ourselves, I like to borrow a phrase from Mr. Fry: so f***ing what?!

I am not responsible for how my speech makes you feel. That's your issue.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqPcjm-X5GQ

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TW Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

@Tim Riggins: darn tootin', it's our constitutional right to insult the gays and the blacks, that's jus' how we express ourselves.

People who claim that others who are offended should 'shut the fuck up' more often than not have never experienced systematic oppression and fail to understand the significant emotional impact that language can have. It's incredibly disappointing to hear Stephen Fry come out with such an asinine statement when he has personally experienced homophobia and the stigma attached to mental illness.

Damn good article, Sophie Miller.

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anon Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

@TW: your comment to Tim Riggins was an utterly vacuous one as well as being a half-baked attempt at a slur. For such a strident defender of one's right not to be offended, it's to your shame that you resort to banal ad hominem attacks rather than reasoned argument.

The argument is not that the offended should "shut the fuck up" but that they have no claim to a right to not be offended. Nobody does (because of the inherently subjective nature of offence.) Of course, every minority should be protected under the law against violence, and attempts to marginalise and silence them. This, by the way, if we're to talk about equality and equal protection under the law, includes the minority of bigots and loudmouths who, despite their distasteful views, are citizens.

If you want to talk about the significant emotional impact that language can have, the word "black" can be just as offensive as the word "nigger" if expressed with enough hostility and aggression. Likewise, the word "gay" can be more hurtful than the word "faggot" under similar conditions. The debate isn't about language it's about attitudes. You won't stop people from being hateful and bigoted just by tempering their language.

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