Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Loaded Weapon of Free Speech

Along with about 300 others on Monday evening, I stood in the cold outside the offices of The Daily Mail, to mark the death of Lucy Meadows.

We filled half the road. Mail staff, said some, peered from the windows in bafflement. I wouldn't be surprised if many of them had no idea why we were there. For all the lies written about the trans community, there is one thing which most get right - if they address us at all. We are are small in number. But we are growing. This was the biggest gathering of trans people and our supporters ever in the United Kingdom. And an astonishing 196,000 people have now signed a petition demanding the sacking of Richard Littlejohn

Six people spoke to the crowd on Monday. I was one of them. I had been asked to put a few words together, but others had said much of what I wanted to say before me, and powerfully, so I cut it short. I didn't know Lucy Meadows but I tried to focus on her as one of us - without labels - simply a human being - wanting what we all want. To be herself, and to be happy. And yet also doing something which marked her out. Not by being transgender. But by being a teacher. Lucy had expressed her hope that she could change attitudes, teach children about personal integrity, about honesty, about truth. She was denied that chance.

I asked whether those there wanted children to learn the lessons of Littlejohn, about fear, prejudice and hate, or those of Lucy Meadows. I believe it comes down to such a question - the future we want to create for our society. I was shaking by the time I'd finished, and spent much of Tuesday feeling raw with sadness for a woman who simply tried to claim a basic birthright and was possibly driven to her death for it.

Later I ran into journalist Jane Fae, who told me that she had been invited onto the radio to debate the 'free speech' argument, again. I shook my head. You'd be surprised who the invite is from... I'll leave that for her to share. But Burchill this person is not. It made me think that some of the 'middle ground' of the journalistic community, people who couldn't be described as polemicists and who don't make their living endlessly axe grinding, now feel that they should wake up and speak, post Leveson, lest their more thrusting colleagues question if they've Still Got It .

The sterile debate about free speech spins around and around, studded with cliche and empty thinking like bits of broken bottle in a puddle of mud. A few weeks ago, Julie Burchill broke new ground with a widely discussed piece wretched with hate, garnering support from 'libertarians' of various sorts who also enjoyed the chance for a bit of gratuitous ridicule of trans people along the way (as the excellent Marko Attila Hoare writes about here.) And since then we have had plenty of fruitless discussion all the way up to examination of the vindictive, doorstepping Accrington Observer and self appointed judge and jury that is Richard Littlejohn.

One club golfers, the 'free speech brigade' have just one assertion.

That in a 'free' society they should have the right to say or write anything. There's a lot of talk about the potential loss of this right, as if any exploration of its boundaries immediately jump cuts modern Britain into Stalin's Soviet Union circa 1936.

It is funny how this narrative always comes from a lucky, platform owning, largely white, middle class group of people? They have been called the 'Commentariat' - well resourced (financially, socially and culturally), they sit mostly protected from the consequences of the words of others should 'free speech' ever disagreeably come looking for them. Their salaries, their social positions, their access to libel lawyers...and cultural veneration of the platforms from which they are allowed to speak (often a newspaper or broadcaster) keep them safe. The Burchills, the Littlejohns, the Moirs, the Liddells...have privilege. They sit within a cultural fortress that protects them. The libel lawyers are to hand, and even if it doesn't come to that, their social, class or working status will ensure that they are never short of supporters to whom they can turn for nodding approval and a shared sense of vested interest.

It feels very different from another end of the spectrum. If 'freedom of speech' is used by the powerful to vilify the weak for no other reason that it can be used, sometimes destroying its target's right to other freedoms, then the effects can be devastating. The freedom to speak can be used to remove from another their freedom to live in peace, to find happiness, even to be who they are - and the weaker the target, the more likely this is to happen. It is often used this way by the tabloid press because the weak are of course easy pickings; reliable victims who find it hard to fight back. For many minority groups this is a serious problem, and for transgender people it can be literally life threatening. This is because words of hate fall on a group of people who are not protected against any of their potentially disastrous consequences by the social and cultural fortress on which their authors rely for themselves.

The gratuitous insult to a trans person in a newspaper might be read by a million people. Because the trans community is small, diverse, hidden, and until now, scared, few of those million are likely to be equipped with the knowledge to make an informed judgement about such an insult. The space of public understanding into which these (usually uninformed) opinions are fed is often pretty empty. It is thus possible, and routine, for such ideas to sink into consciousness and to shape attitude.

Sometimes the effect is simply direct...many trans people have been insulted publicly by others using language invented by tv comedians - David Walliam's 'Laydee' character for example, but there are plenty of others. Some have been physically attacked to the sound of it. And the poisonous drip of hostile attitude, based usually no knowledge of the issue at all in the mind of the author, takes its toll. Attempted suicide is common amongst people who have this stuff thrown at them day in day out in the name of 'free speech'. And sadly, for some, the attempt is successful - even if they have to try two or three times.

The solution lies not by abandoning a commitment to free speech, but managing society around the concept.

First, innocent or vulnerable people who are attacked need to be able to turn to mechanisms which can protect them. Trans people have few such mechanisms, often. Certainly media regulators are a waste of time...enthralled by the free speech argument, they routinely ignore their obligation to protect within any wider social context because of the ferocity of the media which they are trying to regulate.

Second, those given a platform, and power to broadcast their free speech widely, need to properly understand the responsibilities it brings.

As it stands the freedom to write words that insult, to ruin, to destroy the social standing of innocents, even the freedom to drive the vulnerable into suicide, is something most loudly supported by a privileged group offered a platform to give it the cultural protection to be mostly protected from getting it back.

It has not crossed the minds of many of this group what being on the receiving end of this 'right', if misused, could really feel like. They have never thought about what it could mean to be forced from your home, because of someone's else's right to express an opinion - even one based on conjecture, prejudice or ignorance. To be insulted in the street. To have your children bullied. To have pictures of you stolen, or money paid to others for vindictive gossip. To be made to leave your job. To lose friends or to receive hate mail. Perhaps even to be driven to despair, and death.

All because of the irresponsible use of a 'right', by others.

Until such people face up to the blind arrogance with which they use terms like 'free speech', until they start accepting that it can resemble a loaded weapon, the situation will not change.

Those of us who have had enough do not want to disarm them. But we do want to stop them gratuitously firing their weapon at the vulnerable and entirely innocent, simply because they feel they can.

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