Mike Hume writes:
And free speech needs defending in an urgent way today. Something has changed. In the past, the free speech wars tended to be about ideas or arguments considered too subversive or dangerous to be allowed public expression. The recent controversies have gone way beyond that. The backlash against the likes of Prince Harry, Thatcher or Clarkson focuses not on ideas, but on words that nobody is apparently allowed to use in any circumstances, whatever they meant by them, and regardless of whether they are spoken in public or private – or even inside somebody’s own head.
spiked tries not to go in for too much shrill hyperbole. But it is not too much to suggest that the thought police are in operation here
Now it seems that words themselves can be seen as inherently evil, regardless of context. This looks more like a modern version of the Middle Ages when people believed there were ‘words of power’ that, whether uttered as a prayer, a spell or a curse, could themselves alter real lives and situations.
Like the riot cops forcing back the picket lines of striking miners 25 years ago, the cultural thought police have been busy pushing back important lines in the free speech wars. They have blurred the traditional distinction between what people say in public and in private. And they have crossed the divide between words and deeds. The conventional notion that speech was ‘only words’, and that actions spoke louder, has even been turned on its head. In some cases now it seems as if offensive words are treated as potentially more harmful than weapons, at least in the long-term.
It might be said in response to this that we don’t want to endorse or encourage the expression of racist or other offensive views. But to try to suppress words is simply to impose a polite etiquette, a snobs’ speech code to make ‘them’ talk like ‘us’.
Instead we are entering a cultural age where people can be sacked, censured or censored for saying the wrong word, regardless of where or what they meant. The inevitable consequence will be a chilling effect, making many people more cautious and further restricting conversation over a chilled glass of wine, never mind heated debate.