A recent article on The Conversation UK got me a bit riled. Here’s the opening gambit:

One of the many debates generated by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris has been centred on the different ways that older and younger generations understand and support the concept of free speech.

In a recent article headlined: “We may be Charlie but our children are not”, Times journalist Alice Thomson observed that the young generation are: “far more racially and culturally sensitive than mine ever was” and while they may “wear the T-shirt in solidarity with the victims”, they recoil from imagery that they instinctively perceive as offensive.

This is particularly the case at universities, where all manner of speech and imagery finds itself banned – sometimes amid a huff of offended protest. This has become more routine now, because causing offence is deemed to be “unsafe”.

And here is my follow-up comment:

This is hogwash.

You make no distinction based on who it is that is being offended. Let’s consider the ’77 punk movement. They were offensive and exercised their right to free speech. But who were they offending? The powerful. The system. The elite. The man. Intolerance itself. White riot indeed!

Now let’s consider the prevailing movements that dominate media headlines in this country nowadays. UKIP. They exercise their right to free speech alright. And they’re offensive. But who is it that they are offending? The powerless. Marginalised and minority groups. Is their right to free speech suppressed? No. The opposite. Their offensive and intolerant ideas reverberate around the media.

This distinction is vital, and anybody who does not recognise it will conclude that political correctness and free speech are incompatible. Such a person would be a fool.

“If you want a tolerant society, went the argument, you have to suppress intolerant ideas”. You state this as if it is self-evidently untrue, but why is it? We *should* be suppressing intolerant ideas for the very fact that they are intolerant and do not contribute to the development of a fair society. We should suppress them by using tolerant ideas and exposing them as foolish. But this can only be achieved if tolerant retaliations are given a large enough audience. If outlets for tolerant ideas are few, then restricting the number of outlets for intolerant ideas seems perfectly reasonable.

The young may be afraid of offending marginalised groups; this is a triumph for the progress of good ideas and should be celebrated. But the young are not afraid to exercise their freedom of speech. It’s just that when they do speak, nobody listens.

 

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