Margaret Hickey looks at how in a true liberal democracy the right to free speech for everyone supercedes the right of the ‘snowflake’ generation not to be offended
IF YOU thought the term “safe space” had something to do with crèches or playgrounds you would be wrong. It applies to universities and places of public debate, places traditionally the preserve of adults who are particularly well able to look after themselves. The term is a new construct which means it is socially unacceptable to attack or ridicule peoples’ cherished views and convictions or say anything that might potentially be imputed to reflect negatively on any demographic. The end of debate? Well, clearly not. Not for some at any rate.
Media sphere was never more awash with opinions and theories which, of their very nature, evoke disagreement or agreement in varying measures. So, qualification is needed. People who promote the safe place concept want protection for themselves and their own views, not necessarily and, at times under no circumstances, for those who oppose them. It is the usual tyranny of the consensus, however it may be formed. Being enlightened and progressive, onside with the current zeitgeist as well as, of course, on the side of history, was always a privileged place to be. It used to the the Church that censored: It is now the new secular guardians of “liberties” who suppress voices of dissent.
It the realms of twitterdom and other media platforms, fair and informed comments, respectfully made, are less common than offensive, bellicose ones. They chase each other down chat threads petering out often in a completely unrelated discussion. However, nothing worth its salt comes cheaply and freedom of speech and expression, within the bounds of libel and defamation laws, is surely bought cheaply if the price is merely the verbal equivalent of tomatoes and rotten eggs.
So what has made the so-called snowflake generation so fragile? The same snowflakes, massed together online, can come down like an avalanche on voices who cut in on their sweet harmony of consensus. Contrarian commentators are tossed around in digital bonfires, fuelled with scorn and most toxic of all, innuendo.
Commentators of both conservative and liberal persuasion are equally recipients of these long, snaking threads of verbal vitriol, some less related to anything they have written than to the existential rage of the writers, for whom they are the lightning rod of choice. Many have become hardened, taking, possibly, the sensible view that allowing free speech to others is the surest way of guaranteeing it for yourself. Or, perhaps, they consider that the splatter and drivel of most comment feeds do not form part of democratic discourse and decide not to indulge them by responding.
It is a far cry from the narcissistic, self-pitying bleating that challenges the right of others to take pick and axe to the self serving world view you have wrapped yourself in. Sure, some feedback may be personalised and nasty but is it not more likely that the comments we all fear most are those that shred our arguments, leaving our cause or our case as tattered as Cinderella after the last chime of midnight?
Those who most loudly rail against the voices that challenge their moral grandstanding are often advocates of open season commenting, where the sacred cows of others are concerned. In calling for repeal of our blasphemy laws, Amnesty International rightly states,”religious and non-religious ideas alike should be open to any criticism. That is how human knowledge progresses”. In fact, the right not merely to criticise religions, but to lampoon them outrageously was defended by all those, who marched in protest at the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in 2015. Amnesty called the killings “a dark day for freedom of expression”. So it was, but what happened to the idea of safe space for vulnerable sensitivities when you come head on with the most viscerally sensitive, brittle, volatile, and violent movement of our time?
The right to freedom of speech implies there is no right not to be offended. Within the protections of defamation laws, why would a mature society have the remotest problem with this? In a way, as the Charlie Hebdo protests show, our society doesn’t, at least not in theory, but in practice there can be inconsistency.
Facing down murderous, extremist bullies is laudable but it should not go hand in hand with bullying others. Yet, Amnesty and other campaigners for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment are attempting to do that when they insist “Ireland’s obligations to women and girls under international human rights law” should be a “key benchmark” in the terms of reference of the citizens’ assembly which will make recommendations to the government regarding the Eighth Amendment.
So, the proposed assembly may not be a safe space for those who believe the life of the unborn human person should be protected. While we are bound by the international treaties we are party to, the interpretations of monitoring bodies have no legal standing in Irish law, unless ratified by our own parliament. This is why we can have a citizens assembly and potentially a referendum to decide the question for ourselves as a sovereign people. Otherwise, both exercises would be pointless.
Our Constitution, as the Supreme Court has clarified in the McCrystal and McKenna cases, obliges public broadcasting and to facilitate fully informed, balanced debate. Even if “most people” are judged to side with one view on the basis of polls, even if “most experts” are onside with those views, the imperative for full debate is not any the less. Arguably it is more. Consensus is often the result of inadequately examined thinking.
Safe spaces in debate are a tool of the dominant ideology, as they always have been. It is simply a euphemism for censorship and should have no place in a truly liberal society. Sometimes it only takes a one person to point out the Emperor is wearing nothing. If we are looking for pretexts to suppress freedom of expression then we need to ask ourselves how that fits with marching in solidarity with casualties of free speech. If we can’t see the contradiction, we are in the emperor’s parade, closed to voices that want us to take a close look at our ideological finery.
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