War of words re­stricts our right to say what we think

No one should need to beg the Gov­ern­ment’s per­mis­sion to ex­press an un­pop­u­lar opin­ion, writes Eilis O’Han­lon

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - ANALYSIS -

TWIT­TER users woke last week to dis­cover that they now had twice as many char­ac­ters at their dis­posal as be­fore. Tweets im­me­di­ately grew longer, and, iron­i­cally, much less in­ter­est­ing. That per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the mod­ern malaise of hav­ing more and more op­por­tu­ni­ties to use free speech, whilst the amount of rel­e­vant or even in­ter­est­ing things which we’re per­mit­ted to say has re­duced in tan­dem.

The space for gen­uinely free speech is shrink­ing. Too many are lurk­ing in the shad­ows, ea­ger to take of­fence.

That’s what makes it so dispir­it­ing when the Taoiseach al­lows him­self to be in­fected by this dis­ease of prissi­ness in the face of plain speak­ing.

Last week he ex­hib­ited the clas­sic symptoms when com­plain­ing at Micheal Martin for us­ing the word “screw” dur­ing an ex­change in the Dail, a word the Fianna Fail leader chose to de­scribe what he be­lieved Leo Varad­kar was do­ing to hos­pices by not restor­ing work­ers’ pay.

It’s a com­mon enough us­age of the word, one would have thought. The Taoiseach begged to dif­fer. “Un­be­com­ing” and “un­par­lia­men­tary” was how the Fine Gael leader de­scribed his coun­ter­part’s lan­guage, be­fore pass­ing it up to the Ceann Comhairle for a rul­ing on whether the word was pro­hib­ited, like a school pre­fect snitch­ing on a fel­low pupil to the teacher.

On one level, this is just an­other bit of non­sense in a po­lit­i­cal world which now seem­ingly con­sid­ers the pro­mo­tion of non­sense to be its pri­mary busi­ness.

Long gone are the days when the news was ac­tu­ally about things that were go­ing on in the world, and in­stead be­came a pa­rade of peo­ple ei­ther apol­o­gis­ing or be­ing asked to apol­o­gise for say­ing the “wrong” thing or hav­ing the “wrong” opin­ion.

This is a dan­ger­ous cli­mate, so for the Taoiseach to stoke it by claim­ing in­jury at a word sends out a bad sig­nal. If he is do­ing it, why shouldn’t we? If he gets of­fended so eas­ily, why shouldn’t stu­dents?

They’re of a gen­er­a­tion with the tools and free­dom to speak like never be­fore, and they’re in­creas­ingly us­ing that power to si­lence peo­ple with whom they dis­agree. The “no plat­form” thinkers ex­press­ing opin­ions that of­fend their del­i­cate lit­tle sen­si­bil­i­ties; when one er­rant voice does some­how sneak in, they shout it down lest the pris­tine in­no­cence of their po­lit­i­cally cor­rect minds be con­tam­i­nated by dis­sent­ing thoughts.

King’s Col­lege Lon­don has even started hir­ing “safe space mar­shals” at £12 an hour to mon­i­tor speeches by in­vited guests and to “take im­me­di­ate ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion” if poli­cies on what can and can­not be said are breached. This “ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion” in­cludes eject­ing speak­ers who use “dis­crim­i­na­tory” lan­guage.

Maybe Leo could ap­ply to King’s Col­lege for a job as a safe space mar­shal if the next elec­tion doesn’t go his way?

Rather than en­cour­ag­ing the polic­ing of lan­guage, the Taoiseach should be set­ting an ex­am­ple by show­ing him­self ro­bust enough to hear cer­tain words with­out swooning. Does he re­ally want to pre­side over a Gov­ern­ment which hides be­hind the skirts of deco­rum when under fire?

Haven’t his army of over­paid ad­vis­ers told him that this spine­less­ness is just the sort of thing that peo­ple who get up early in the morning thor­oughly de­spise? A poll for Claire Byrne Live in Jan­uary found that only 19pc of Irish peo­ple were in favour of re­strict­ing free speech to avoid caus­ing of­fence, with a de­ci­sive 65pc against. The Gov­ern­ment should de­cide which of those groups it wants to court, then copy Ciaran Can­non in on the memo when a de­ci­sion has been made.

The Gal­way East TD, who al­legedly holds down a po­si­tion as “min­is­ter of state for the di­as­pora and in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment”, even got his peo­ple to fire off a press re­lease last week crit­i­cis­ing the de­ci­sion to in­vite writer John Wa­ters to de­liver a lec­ture at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame in South Bend, In­di­ana, under the ti­tle “When Evil Be­comes Vir­tual: Cy­berspace, Fail­ing Me­dia And The Hoax Of The ‘Holo­caust Of Tuam’.”

This was a talk des­tined to take place in an­other coun­try, at an in­de­pen­dent ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion. It was cat­e­gor­i­cally none of Ciaran Can­non’s busi­ness what Wa­ters in­tended to say, and yet the ju­nior min­is­ter’s re­sponse was pep­pered with pe­jo­ra­tive, highly-charged words such as “shame­ful”, “in­sen­si­tive”, and, best of all, “hurt­ful” be­cause, of course, feel­ings mat­ter much more than the demo­cratic right to free speech.

“The pri­mary aim of ev­ery pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ist,” Can­non de­clared, “should be to re­port truth­fully on events”.

What about the aim to chal­lenge con­ven­tional nar­ra­tives, or to of­fer counter in­ter­pre­ta­tions? To an­a­lyse the way in which sto­ries have de­vel­oped and the uses to which they’ve been put? John Wa­ters is not a re­porter. He’s a writer with an in­ter­est in cer­tain ideas, and he does not need the Gov­ern­ment’s per­mis­sion to speak.

Give a TD a fancy ti­tle, and, be­fore you know it, they’ve set them­selves up as the coun­try’s an­swer to Judge Dredd, rather than, in the fa­mous words of vet­eran in­ter­roga­tor Robin Day to a Tory De­fence Sec­re­tary in the 1980s, “a tran­sient, here to­day and, if I may say so, gone to­mor­row politi­cian”.

Can­non based his ob­jec­tion on a sus­pi­cion that “Wa­ters is ex­pected to ex­press an opin­ion that there is no hard ev­i­dence of any wrong­do­ing in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home”. Put more suc­cinctly, the ob­jec­tion could be bet­ter sum­marised as: “Wa­ters is ex­pected to ex­press an opin­ion.” Therein lies the ul­ti­mate sin.

Where does this lead? Will min­is­ters de­cide what books should and should not be pub­lished, or what jokes stand-up co­me­di­ans can and can­not tell? Will The Late, Late Show have to sub­mit a list of guests in ad­vance to the Taoiseach’s of­fice for ap­proval?

Controversial opin­ions should in­deed be strongly chal­lenged. Historian Cather­ine Cor­less has done so in her painstak­ing work on the Tuam home. But it is not the Gov­ern­ment’s job to en­sure that only the “right”, so­cially-ac­cept­able opin­ions are heard.

Rather it is to pre­side over a coun­try in which all opin­ions can be aired. This may blow Ciaran Can­non’s mind, but democ­racy con­sists in de­fend­ing John Wa­ters’s right to be wrong, if that’s what he is, not in writ­ing to for­eign univer­si­ties to say, in ef­fect, that you’re “deeply dis­ap­pointed” in them for be­ing able to tol­er­ate opin­ions that hap­pen to dis­tress you per­son­ally.

There is no way to leg­is­late to avoid of­fence in mat­ters which are, by def­i­ni­tion, sub­jec­tive, es­pe­cially when free­dom of ex­pres­sion is pro­tected under the con­sti­tu­tion. What’s re­gret­table is that there’s rarely any pub­lic out­cry in Ire­land when that right is threat­ened, as there is in Amer­ica when its First Amend­ment comes under fire.

Singer Tay­lor Swift hit the head­lines in the sum­mer when her lawyers threat­ened to sue the au­thors of a blog in Cal­i­for­nia with a mi­nus­cule num­ber of fol­low­ers un­less they re­moved a post ac­cus­ing the pop singer of be­ing a bea­con for white su­prem­a­cists and the so called “alt right”, and for not speak­ing out on racial is­sues, al­leg­ing that “si­lence in the face of in­jus­tice means sup­port for the op­pres­sor”.

It was a mad ar­gu­ment, laugh­able re­ally, but the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union im­me­di­ately stepped in to de­nounce the move none­the­less, and to of­fer its sup­port to the threat­ened au­thors, on the grounds that what had been writ­ten was merely an opin­ion, say­ing: “This is a com­pletely un­sup­ported at­tempt to sup­press con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected speech.”

Ire­land ur­gently needs its own an­swer to the ACLU if politi­cians have so lost the run of them­selves that they’re now in­tent on polic­ing rogue opin­ions and sup­pos­edly hurt­ful lan­guage. Free speech needs to be de­fended at its fur­thest bound­aries, not where it’s al­ready of­fi­cially ap­proved.

Words that pro­voke dis­sen­sion are the very ones which need most pro­tec­tion. Opin­ions which of­fend no one are al­ready pro­tected by a co­coon of their own un­threat­en­ing ba­nal­ity. That mes­sage should be com­ing down from the top.

‘Free speech needs to be de­fended at its fur­thest bound­aries’ ‘Give a TD a fancy ti­tle, and be­fore you know it, they’ve set them­selves up as the coun­try’s an­swer to Judge Dredd...’

CIARAN CAN­NON: The Gal­way East TD had his peo­ple to fire off a press re­lease last week which crit­i­cised the de­ci­sion of Notre Dame univer­sity to in­vite writer John Wa­ters to de­liver a lec­ture at in the United States. But what busi­ness was it of the...

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