Rhoda Koenig: The true cost of free speech

Public vulgarity

The best lack all conviction," wrote the Irish poet and dramatist WB Yeats in 1919, "while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Boy, was that man ahead of his time. Nowadays everyone lacks the conviction that it can ever be wrong to say whatever you want. Lots of people do not like this state of affairs, and do not contribute to the visual and verbal sewage they encounter each day. But neither will they stop other people adding to it, or even express disapproval. The few who venture to do so are confronted by the passionate sincerity of the verbal defecators who bellow that they've got a right, it's free speech innit, you don't like it don't listen, when you last get any you old bag? hahaha.

The exception, of course, is language that is racist, homophobic, or otherwise officially proscribed. Then even those whose usual vocabulary is straight off the toilet wall echo the indignation of the complainers. As a result, most people don't feel comfortable objecting unless the writing or speech meets that criterion – a situation that, of course, leads to weak and false demands for the protection of the law and, eventually, disrespect for it.

So, much as I deplore the Sunday Times columnist AA Gill's recent remarks about the broadcaster Clare Balding, I do not support her using his insults as a political rallying cry. The fault lies elsewhere – in those who made newspapers into places which see nothing wrong in describing a lesbian as a "dyke on a bike" who is "puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation". Yes, holding someone up to ridicule for being homosexual is nasty, but, before that, it is vulgar.

Since the Queen's private secretary thrice damned the Duchess of York with the word vulgar 15 years ago, it hasn't been heard much in public, with good reason. Using it will type you as snobbish, prissy, and absurdly out of date. But the cruel and bullying tone of so much of our society is a consequence of our abandonment of taste and restraint – if you want attention, you go a bit further. Shouting obscene words or wearing them on your chest as you walk down the street isn't simply a matter of having a free and easy attitude toward sex: it's a declaration that your wish to do so trumps everyone else's desire not to be offended.

Public vulgarity is hostile and selfish. It is an expression of the undeserved self-love that is today everywhere encouraged, for reasons of commercial or political manipulation. Gill was vulgar not only in transforming Balding's cycling into a sex act but in preening himself on his superiority for the accident of birth that made him heterosexual. In her statement that she normally doesn't mind "having the piss taken out of me," Balding shows that she is part of the problem.

Not long ago, Gill's kind of language would not be printed in a national newspaper. It would have denied him the company of any people except the foolish and depraved. And the cold look or quiet word that once would have silenced him has now been replaced by the grandstanding of such as Balding, who is so eager to bolster the nobility of her cause that she portrays the Liberal Democrat MP, David Laws, as a "tragic" victim rather than dishonest because of his expenses claims.

Permitting the language of the vulgar – in the sense of "majority" – free rein was seen, when public speech began loosening, as a democratic act, substituting robust reality for euphemism, plain speech for folderol. But it has had a profoundly undemocratic result. While those with loud and dirty mouths may boast that they don't let anyone tell them how to talk, it's a safe bet that they watch what they say in the presence of someone with the power to give them a job or beat them up. The rest of us just have to slouch along, blinders on and earplugs tight.