By Jess McAree, Head of Editorial Compliance, Telegraph Media Group, and independent PR and communications consultant
The man who deals with complaints about editorial content at the Telegraph Media Group makes a robust defence of freedom of speech
“(S)he shouldn’t be allowed to say that. It’s disgraceful.”
Admit it: you’ve privately thought it, or perhaps said it. You may even have written the letter to the Editor, or to my counterparts who deals with complaints on other newspapers. Perhaps you’ve gone further, and taken active steps to stop the person saying it – whatever ‘it’ is.
I won’t hold it against you… yet (I may after you’ve read what follows). All of us are somewhere on that continuum, albeit that only a minority (I hope) are on the extreme end.
For instance, I am personally appalled by the sight of extremists demonstrating at military parades and calling armed forces personnel ‘terrorists’ and ‘butchers’. Our soldiers, sailors and air men/women are deployed and directed by a democratically elected government. Whether or not you agree with our government, it is legitimate and representative (however imperfectly) and our servicemen and women exist to do what it tells them.
They therefore risk their lives in the service of us all. It follows that to abuse our troops openly in the street is not just morally revolting. It is an affront to democracy itself. In the white heat of my rage (shouting at the television is sometimes involved), I am convinced, like many others, that it should not be tolerated, that it is one of those famous ‘steps too far’ in the exercise of free speech.
But here’s the thing. When my ardour has cooled, and I’ve recovered my Enlightenment compass, I remember that it is in fact these specific manifestations of free speech (the ones that disgust us most), that we must at all costs protect. (For ‘extremists at parades’, you might like to substitute the specific folks and views that you are convinced ‘should be banned’, when you’re reading what follows).
These individuals, however abhorrent to me, have a right to speak their mind. I don’t have to like what they say. I am free to denounce and deplore their argument. (I’m doing so now.) But I must tolerate their right to articulate it. Actually, it’s worse: I have to support it. Like all rights, the right to freedom of expression comes with duties. I must not only tolerate the expression of views I detest, I must actively defend individuals’ right to express them.
Why? Two powerful reasons:
One. It’s in my own interest. In the end, although people living in democracies inevitably have differing opinions, ironically the one thing we must all agree on is that we are reliant on everyone else for the freedom to say our piece. As we are for the defence of our right to do so. Remember Niemöller (“Then they came for the socialists…”).
Two. Open debate is essential to democracy. Voters need to hear and see both the arguments and the people making them. If it’s ‘out there’, we can support and applaud it – or disprove/dispute and deplore it. If it’s ‘banned’, we can’t. And we surely must. Obnoxious, dangerous and misguided views are prevented from gaining traction by being openly challenged and rebutted. The more debate we see and hear, the better informed we are when we cast our votes. Perhaps counter-intuitively, democracy is not democracy unless it’s shouty and quarrelsome.
In that light, the disturbing modern trend for shutting down debate (‘micro-aggressions’, ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe spaces’) is a repudiation of the very basis of democracy.
If you’re unwilling to even allow the expression of views you dislike, far less to defend the right to express them, you are actually siding with tyranny and oppression. You are a ‘useful idiot’ for the forces of totalitarianism. Worse: if you’re right and the views you’ve banished are dangerous, you have driven them out of plain sight. They will fester and gain adherents, unchallenged in the darkness.
It’s fashionable to deplore what has been dubbed ‘uncivil’ or ‘bitter’ political debate. We are urged to be nicer, kinder – and we’ve even seen politicians explicitly claiming (er, dubiously) to be so. This is of a piece with the rejection of debate and the fear of giving offence, which runs rampant through our institutions and has even been criminalised in certain respects.
Although well meant, the impulse toward ‘niceness’ is wrong-headed and damaging to our politics and our society. As any good psychologist/counsellor will tell you, it is not conflict itself, but rather the pathology of conflict avoidance that stores up trouble in human relationships. Conflict and open disagreement within the law – even/especially bitter disagreement – are the beating pulse of a healthy democracy.
I could cite the shining example of Brexit (most passionate debate in my lifetime, apotheosis in general election, institutions strengthened thereby, democracy in action, contrast with lack of democratic debate in rest of EU bla bla), but I’ll spare you. I wouldn’t want to ruin any sympathy my argument has built up so far.
Instead, I’ll simply say: watch out for that itchy feeling. That conviction – usually accompanied by white hot rage – that something you’re hearing/watching/reading is disgusting, that you’re offended, that ‘something must be done’, or – God forbid – that ‘it should be banned’.
By all means take action where the something in question is a serious inaccuracy, or a significant distortion of the truth that’s genuinely damaging. Correcting those things is what I and folk like me are here for. But be clear with yourself that the something isn’t just a view you disagree with.
If in doubt… freeze. Back off.
As Google (once) said: don’t be evil.