Free speech has real-life repercussions

Free speech has real-life repercussions
Toni Morrison listens to Mexicos Carlos Monsivais during the Julio Cortazar professorship conference at the Guadalajara's University in Guadalajara City, Mexico. Picture: AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File

There are things on Twitter and in life that can induce anger in a person. This week in the Irish Twittersphere, there was a storm brewing over the concept of free speech, particularly in reference to certain political ideologies and allegiances.

People were splitting hairs over this seemingly indefinable concept. Some pointed out that so-called carte blanche free speech can be a disguise for homophobia, racism, transphobia, and misogyny.

Furthermore, hate-filled rhetoric can incite fatal violence, as was seen in the El Paso Texas shooting last Saturday, where 22 people were murdered.

The suspect in the shooting posted a manifesto online filled with such hatefilled rhetoric, which Hispanics and immigrants bore the brunt of. The dots between the ideology and the action were not difficult to join.

Back in the Irish Twittersphere, the response to the notion that free speech can act as a disguise for hate-fuelled violence was argued against, the counter argument being that some people just want to erase and silence certain opinions and values.

To the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee, such “silencing” and “erasure” could mean something else entirely. She would probably have seen it as the dismantling of discrimination through education in order to create empathy.

But in order to dismantle such discrimination, I suppose we do need constructive discourse between people of all views, but Twitter usually isn’t the best forum for such progressive debate.

Meanwhile, on the mean streets of Dublin, as the media and political elite continued to split hairs over political ideologies and free speech, there was a man rooting through a bin near the Olympia theatre on Dame St.

He was tall and broad, and wearing a pair of those heavy-duty workwear trousers, which were covered in splashes of Farrow & Ball-coloured paints. Elephant’s breath and what not.

On closer inspection, he wasn’t rooting through the street bin, but through the ashtray on top. In his hand were about 20 cigarette butts, as he deciphered which had the most tobacco left in them.

That same day, a report emerged in the news about a 20-day-old baby who didn’t have access to nappies. Their parent was an asylum-seeker living in direct provision, and access to basic supplies was not forthcoming.

It is unlikely that either the baby or its parents, or the man looking for halfused cigarette butts on a busy Dublin street, had much time in their life or space in their head to debate about the rights and wrongs of certain political ideologies.

I doubted if I would find any of them online defending expressions of racism, misogyny, or homophobia as a form of free speech. The expression that it is the empty vessel which makes the most noise came to mind.

While some people spend their days attacking people on social media as a way to defend their right to free speech, there are others who are out there doing the work. By work, I mean those who create positive change where real inclusion is brought to 3-D life.

Right now there are men and women gathering schoolbags and white shirts, copy books and lunch boxes for children living in direct provision so that these kids can go to school at the end of the month, and not stand out because of the material possessions they may lack.

A woman by the name of Carla Bredin is opening an indoor cycling studio, Echelon, on Dublin’s D’Olier St soon. The on-street front door brings you to the reception area, but the studio is in the basement. Yet still, there is disabled access to the studio and a disabled shower facility too. I’ve been to hairdressers, hotels, and hospitals that have had less access.

There are people out there just doing work; they aren’t arguing and they aren’t virtue signalling, they are simply doing the work. On Thursday night, Irish comedian and actor Aisling Bea brought her new show This Way Up to Channel 4. She wrote it, produced it, and acts in it alongside Sharon Horgan.

In an interview with The Observer last weekend, Bea talked about that anger that certain discriminatory ideologies can rouse in a person. The anger gets in the way of her doing work, she said.

“But nobody wants to walk around being angry any more,” she said.

I don’t want to have to talk about this. I’m bored talking about it. This is probably the least funny I can be, talking about gender and comedy.

"I can’t be as joyful. It gets in the way. It’s exhausting. And it doesn’t allow me to do the thing I’m supposed to be doing.”

While destructive, divisive social media spats can incense anger in a person, this kind of anger distracts you from doing any real work. And maybe that’s the perceived, maybe even paid job of those who purvey and peddle their discriminatory ideas and opinions online. To distract. But according to the late Toni Morrison, any one with any bit of freedom has only one real job.

She said: “I tell my students: ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’ ”

That is the only real work — with your freedom, in speech, online, or in real life, are you empowering or disempowering another?

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