Survival Guide

Free speech and who can use it

The times, they are certainly a changing. Britain opting to leave the European Union now seems like only a drop in the ocean compared to the United States, the land of the free, electing the enigma that is Donald J. Trump. Pundits and pollsters completely failed to predict the Tory majority in 2015, Brexit and now the most important election on earth. There is evidently a disconnection among voters and we may be to blame for not acknowledging it.
 
We’ve been entering an era of contradictions for some time in my view. In 2016, positive discrimination and political correctness operate under the ridiculous illusion that two wrongs must make a right, while anyone who dares hold views against immigration is unequivocally labelled a racist. In the great pantomime of the US election, the focus was always off topic. Trump’s inflammatory statements were highlighted and rightly so but they were mistaken for those of his supporters. The media leaped on the uninformed Trump supporters who paraded with their placards but ignored the majority who were reluctant to voice their support yet produced this seismic result.
 
Kirsten Powers, the liberal political commentator observed this curious phenomenon in her 2015 publication ‘The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech’. Whether we care to admit it or not, the liberal minded individual is slowly becoming the obstinate conservative they relentlessly rally against. The refusal to appreciate, even if opposed to, the outlooks of others has caused an unexpected but emphatic result.
 
Average Americans voted for Donald Trump. He can be called racist but families with financial worries simply didn’t want competition for employment from abroad. He can be called misogynistic but many, many women voted for him. If these views were so commonly held then he would not have been elected. If we had listened then it would not have come as such a shock. We failed because open-mindedness is not extended to the perceived to be close-minded. Tolerance is not granted to the seemingly intolerant. Free speech is only sanctity when it suits us.
 
Nobody wants Abu Hamza preaching his Jihadist hatred at Birmingham University but the question is where do we draw the line? Oprah once brought three members of the KKK on air despite them directly using racist language towards her. Although this seemed a bit on the extreme side, it at least allowed their views to be expressed (and exposed as idiocy simultaneously). Not so long ago, Facebook erupted in revulsion at the Charlie Hebdo attacks but the essence of it, the necessity of free speech, has quietly withered away.
 
The greatest challenge to free speech comes not from the multitude of so-called fascists but from our own well-educated, liberal and arrogant tongues. Political correctness has free speech by the throat; struggling to whisper much needed warnings. Trump, and in a wider context UKIP and the National Front, arise from the shouting down of people’s fears and the labelling of people, often wrongly, as racists, fascists and anything else in the illiberal liberal’s vocabulary.
 
It is very easily and very often overlooked. On Brendan O’ Connor’s ‘Cutting Edge’, Maria Steen of the IONA institute discussed home-schooling along with the other panellists and yet somehow the question of her views on contraception was put to her not once but twice. It was utterly innocuous and certainly had no malicious intentions but why did it occur?
 
Her Catholic and conservative values were simply seen as peculiar; an ancient relic in a modern world. But she is not an outlier. Immigration and refugees are raising serious questions. The abortion debate will raise many more. People of conservative values may be silent but they are of no less significance. We can cry bigotry and backwardness all we want but these people surround us, they are our parents and some are even our own age.
 
At 7:30am on Wednesday morning, I staggered home bleary-eyed after the election results, the sunny winter’s morning (another contradiction for good measure) reminded me of a similar day at the beginning of the semester.
 
Outside the Boole Library were two stands: One emblazoned in pink and rainbows belonging to the LBGT society, the other some form of Catholic society handing out free bibles or gospels. Having little in common but the bitter cold of morning, I thought little more of it until now. It was two opposing groups trying to attract new members yet doing so in perfect harmony. Despite divergent views they obviously and expectedly had no issues. The US election could not have been more different, as anti-rallies and vitriolic denunciations constantly took prominence over real issues.
 
The reason for Trump’s success was not a failure to produce a viable candidate but rather the failure to listen to a dissatisfied and substantial section of the electorate. Trump resonates with voters as his remarks though often vile are at least devoid of political correctness. He is seen as a representative, albeit an imperfect one, for the marginalised and muted. The lesson to be learned is that free speech is to be encouraged and not curtailed, to be contested rather than prevented and that it must be listened to, even if it is not what we want to hear.