Survival Guide

Free speech for all

I normally don’t watch ‘The Late Late Show’ unless it’s the Toy Show time of year. Last week was an exception. It happened to be on and I had the non-pleasure of witnessing Katie Hopkins, controversial columnist at The Daily Mail, proclaim her delight over the results of the US election and EU referendum in the UK. Whatever, I thought to myself. I personally don’t agree with her views in this regard, but it wasn’t the first time I heard them iterated. But she then went on to pronounce the words that provoked a reaction within me that was harder to dismiss: “The list of things you can’t say is now longer than the list of things you can say.” If she really thinks this is true, it would seem she might benefit from a quick reality check.
In 1924, Italian politician Giacomo Matteotti was kidnapped and killed by Fascists after making a speech in the Chamber of Deputies denouncing their use of electoral fraud.
In 1955, the newspaper ‘Alger Républicain’ was banned by French authorities due to its anti-colonial perspective. Its editor-in-chief, Henri Alleg, was later arrested and allegedly subjected to torture under French custody, and his subsequent memoir of his ordeal, ‘La Question’, was banned by the French government in 1958.
Under the Soviet Union, the Goskomizdat organisation censored all published matter. Citizens were also encouraged to report on friends, family and neighbours suspected of harbouring anti-government sentiments, which led to many being sent to gulags for simply expressing their beliefs.
In Elizabethan England, people caught spreading seditious rumours could be sent to the pillory or have one or both of their ears chopped off. Hopkins claims the United Kingdom has become ‘Ghetto Kingdom’ and the most people can do about it is campaign for her to be fired.
I assume that, when complaining about what one can say ‘these days’, Hopkins is thinking of the growing community of ‘social justice warriors’; millennials who ‘police’ people’s posts on social media, criticizing uses of terms perceived to be derogatory towards minorities.
She probably also has in mind the fact that a column of hers entitled “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants” was last month branded by the Council of Europe as amounting to hate speech.
What she neglects to realise, however, is that coming under fire for making mean remarks is not quite the same as experiencing a real crackdown on free speech.
Let there be no doubt that we live in a world where many suffer for speaking out for what they believe in. Mere thoughts, words and images can be considered punishable crimes. Many countries have harsh blasphemy laws in place. In January 2015, Charlie Hebdo journalists were murdered for having published a couple of crude cartoons.
But, with the rise of the internet and of literacy levels, things are actually looking up with regard to freedom of expression. Websites like Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit allow users to express their thoughts with relatively little limitations. They can even do so anonymously. Yes, they may get a scolding or two from other users for doing so, but here’s the thing: Are those reacting to what they see as inflammatory material not within their rights to do so? If people have the right to say offensive things, what’s the problem with others using their right to free speech to call them out on it?
The irony of the matter is that, during her appearance on The Late Late Show, Hopkins continually interrupted both audience members and the show’s host, at one stage responding “No, I won’t” when asked to let a member of the audience finish his point. How’s that for freedom of speech?