Monday, April 12, 2010

The dark side of freedom of speech

The other day I was discussing the blog post below (30 March) with a friend. I was saying how right I thought Pullman was on the issue of freedom of speech, and was a little surprised when my friend responded that he was against the principle of freedom of speech and thinks there should be legislation against it.

His argument went along these lines...

"Freedom of speech may well not be of particular concern when you're criticising groups that can easily defend themselves, but what about groups who don't have that ability? What about those who have neither the mental nor physical capacity to stick up for themselves?"

What about, for example, those who suffer from Downs' Syndrome? Last week, as part of his stand-up routine, 'comedian' Frankie Boyle apparently devoted five minutes to mocking Down's Syndrome sufferers, picking on their speech, clothing and hairstyles. He was subsequently challenged by Sharon and Keiron Smith, a couple in the audience who are the parents of a daughter who suffers from Down's Syndrome. Sharon speaks about how it offended her on her blog, in a post entitled 'Punching me in the face would have been preferable'.

She says, "I wish that I had managed to explain to them all why i was upset, to tell them how wrong the stereotypes about Down syndrome are. I wanted to show them how proud i am of my daughter, to tell them about how well she is doing at mainstream school. To show them the hundreds of pictures I have of her, so that they can see how pretty she is, that she wears pretty clothes and that she does not have bad hair... I wanted to break through their prejudices and to show how wrong the stereotypes are."

Fair point - so why do people like Boyle and those who laugh at jokes about vulnerable people think it's okay to do so? And, perhaps more importantly, why do we as audiences allow them to get away with it, rather than challenging them, as the Smiths did at the time?

As an aside, I do wonder why Sharon Smith was so shocked by Boyle's comments, when he's well known for bad-taste jokes on subjects ranging from paedophilia to mental illness. She comments, "I know talentless comedians like Jimmy Carr have a history and reputation of poking fun at people with disabilities, but I never expected it from Frankie Boyle."

Unfortunately, this seems a little naive - Boyle is notorious for his bad-taste jokes. But I really admire Smith for responding to him at the time and for her openness about the issue on her blog - not everyone is will risk embarrassment to stand up for what they believe in.

So, having considered the matter in greater depth, I have become a little more convinced by my friend's argument. In a sense, it's not really Pullman's point he's contending with. Pullman is right that Christians who are offended by his book are mostly able to respond and can take up the right of reply by way of protest. But not everyone has that ability, as Boyle's comments demonstrate. If the Smiths had not challenged him, no one would have done so on behalf of those suffering from Down's Syndrome.

I'm not necessarily in favour of censorship, and to be honest, I just don't know what the answer to this problem may be. But as I sit here on the fence, I wonder if perhaps it's long overdue that those who do have the capacity to stand up for people who are vulnerable make a stronger commitment to do so.

My friend’s point is that people simply won’t take that responsibility, and that therefore we actually need legislation against freedom of speech. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s certainly given me food for thought.

It just seems far too easy to claim that freedom of speech is a good in and of itself - as someone who works in the media world, I'm certainly sympathetic to this view, but I'm not sure it's true. Surely it's what we choose to that freedom for that counts? Perhaps it's time for people to start taking more responsibility for the things they say, rather than defending their prejudices by claiming the protection of free speech.