Last year, I spent a lot of my time (I was working full time in Equality and Diversity) debating the line between freedom of speech and safe space. The recent atrocity in Paris has helped me come to a conclusion.
Before I continue, I want to make a point that I shouldn’t have to make but want to just in case. What happened to the Charlie Hebdo staff was an atrocity. It was appalling. No one has the right to take the life of another, and to slaughter a group of people as they worked at something they loved is an abomination.
What I want to talk about is what has happened in the wake of it.
Now as I’ve said before, I love the power of social media. The #illridewithyou in Australia made me cry, and the posts of solidarity for #jesuisCharlie show the impact a campaign and a passion can have, and that’s a brilliant thing. However it also shows a real vindication of free speech, that holy grail of rights.
I’m not going to talk about free speech in the context of Charlie Hebdo, because I think it’s too loaded an issue. I’m not going to refer to this example or give my opinion on it because my opinion is simply that the murder of those staff was awful. That has to an extent ruled out anything else. However it has not ruled out what has happened in the wake of it, which is what I am going to talk about.
Freedom of speech is important, don’t get me wrong. In calling out a government. In decrying a dictatorship or a Big Brother nation or even just a Tory government making some terrible decisions re: privatisation for the benefit of their sponsors. Freedom of speech is something everyone should have, to be able to say what they really feel. Then face the consequences.
In an ideal world, we would be able to mock other groups and political correctness would not have been driven mad. We would be able to make stereotypes gently laughing at the possibility that anyone would believe it or act based on them. But of course we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where certain groups are very much oppressed, and that, I think, is where the line is.
Freedom of speech to speak out against a privileged group is important. Freedom of speech to criticise an oppressed group for the thing that society oppresses them for is dangerous. Satire against anyone with a disability or a non-cis gender identity or a non-hetero sexual preference or minority religion is a lot more damaging than satire taking the piss out of Eton Bullingdon boys with silly hairlines, because the fact is those boys were not stopped from getting to power because of their hairlines. Disabled or non straight or non-cis people are not in power because of the fact that for whichever reason, there are still social barriers standing in their way.
Freedom of speech needs to be carefully considered. Until we live in an ideal world, where people can be expected to laugh it off because it doesn’t represent centuries of oppression, your words will still have a massive consequence, and a reckless support of your right to say whatever the hell you want only reinforces existing privileges.
Note: if you are reading this and are outraged that I am suggesting that actually you don’t have the right to say whatever the hell you want then maybe stop and check whether you are two or more of the following: white, male, middle class, abled, straight, cis, young, etc…
Photo credit: Brigitte Djajasasmita