There has been a lot of shouting about freedom of speech recently. ‘They’re taking away our freedom of speech!’ they yell. ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it!’
To address the second point, no you won’t, you’ll rant on Twitter, that is nothing like defending to the death. And for the first, we have never, ever in the UK had freedom of speech like we have now. Not even close. And we aren’t dealing with these new levels of freedom too well. That is the problem.
Before the Internet, that time everyone seems to have forgotten, there was almost no freedom of speech for 99.9% of us. I mean I could be free when I spoke to my friends, so long as I wasn’t saying something that made them avoid me. I could also go to a busy street and shout my opinions at passers by, but if people listened enough to draw a crowd, then I’d probably get moved on or arrested for disturbing the peace. I, and everyone I knew, weren’t able to release our thoughts to the world at large, we weren’t heard.
For those that were heard, the 0.01% of journalists and famous people, there were still restrictions. Television, film, the media, it was all pretty staid and restrained – nothing incendiary, no sex or swearing. Largely because the people running these institutions were from a tiny sector of society – public school, Oxbridge, rich white men – and in general they wanted to keep society running just as it was. There were a few ‘rebels’ who criticised the establishment, but I think these people were more about giving the impression of change and problems being sorted. They reassured us that someone was asking the right questions and fighting back on our behalf, while not actually saying anything too disruptive.
Then the Internet came along and pretty soon anybody who had access could potentially be heard. Most of us aren’t listened to, of course, but if your opinions are entertaining enough and extreme enough you might just get a following and soon millions of people all round the world can hear what you say.
THIS HAS BECOME THE NEW FREEDOM OF SPEECH
and it has never happened before. Where as previously, someone with extremist or conspiratorial thinking would be a loner, with the Internet they can find thousands across the world who agree with them. And then those who would never have had paranoid or raging thoughts before, get caught up in the excitement too. Troublemakers, fascists and bigots (as well as revolutionaries, heroes and make up experts) can speak to the world and be heard in a way that has never been possible in all of history. That is why freedom of speech is being argued with, because a lot of people are becoming radicalised into various types of hate, and it has led to trouble.
Now I have no sodding clue what the solution to this is. I don’t like censorship, I’d much rather opinions were out in the open and dissected. I’m also not a big fan of the establishment controlling what words we see, I don’t like that system. However, I’m also quite alarmed at how vitriolic and divided populations have become – I think most of the trouble is online, but spills out every now and then, and the reaction to coronavirus and the US election has shown how dangerous that can be.
This is as far as I’ve got thinking about it, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Is there a way that freedom of speech can lead to healthy discussion? Or are we heading for a war? Or will all the drama peter out as everyone gets bored of shouting?