The Independent’s journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

When it comes to free speech, we're all behaving like children – and our leaders are acting like toddlers

We are governed by the ungovernable - petulant toddlers and grumpy teens hiding behind the mask of adulthood. Is the real issue in politics today not so much ideology but childishness?

Jane Fae
Monday 18 November 2019 11:46
Comments
Marie Yovanovitch receives standing ovation after Donald Trump attacks her amid impeachment testimony

When President Trump indulges in real time witness tampering, attacking the former ambassador to Ukraine as she is giving evidence before the House impeachment panel, we are, most of us, aghast.

This though is not how he sees it. He was just exercising his right to free speech, he whinges. It’s the scowl of the teenager. But the immaturity of his response is a sign of the times we live in – when it comes to free speech, we are all behaving like children.

Part of the problem has been the fetishisation of free speech - a point Professor Mary Beard picked up on at a recent Independent debate in Cambridge on internet trolls. There is now an absolutist approach to the topic: free speech is good and anything that limits it is bad.

That is troubling. I am in favour of free speech. But I also believe there need to be limits – mostly where speech starts to have real world consequences.

Online, as a trans person, I’ve watched a ragbag assortment of self-identified feminists and reactionaries rail against any limit to their “right” to come onto an individual's timeline and misgender them or use their “deadname”.

When challenged, they object that they are only telling the truth: that “only” is telling, the trademark of every teenage deflection. This overlooks that many true things are also deeply unpleasant, not to mention distressing. Are they really saying that feminism is now about the right to taunt strangers with anything from “you're fat!” to “did you enjoy your miscarriage?” on the grounds that they are true? Sounds like a crude defence of bullying to me.

It’s not just the content of this speech that is the issue, but the way that some insist on their right to accost others with it. Personally, I do not much care what people say about me behind my back. But if they insist on injecting that hatred into my daily life on a regular and concerted basis, I will call it for what it is – hatred and harassment.

And there's a law against that. Though not for much longer, if some of these free speechers get their way. Because surfing in on the back of this demand is a campaign to limit police rights to log hate incidents, the raw material of harassment everywhere.

Meanwhile hatred for any and every less privileged group, from bisexuals to women, is defended under the tagline of “just a joke”. It was a defence invoked by Boris Johnson last year when he compared veiled Muslim women to letter boxers and bank robbers.

It’s nasty, reactionary, and exclusionary – no matter what minority is targeted.

Earlier this year, I suggested that there should be legal consequences for those who mislead on climate change. The response was instant, vehement and outraged: a mix of “how dare you” and “lock her up”. It seems I had touched a nerve.

But there is more. Alongside the insistence that we have free speech at all costs is an equally resolute resistance to others being able to retaliate in kind. We can say what we like about you people, but you don't get to say bad stuff about us.

Hence Trump, last year, after a particularly torrid time in the press, pledging to strengthen US libel laws.

The press love this. The Fourth Estate have long resisted any attempt to limit its freedom to publish, but even I was shocked when, giving evidence at a tribunal earlier this year, it was argued that there was no need for opinion pieces to be accurate or even true.

Is this all about high principle? It does not feel like it. From the sensitivities of the free speech brigade to the indignation of those who dislike the EU “telling us what to do”, I am not sure I am hearing anything more sophisticated than the petulance of the toddler, the eternal pubescent shriek of “you can't make me” or “I won't, I won't, I won't!”

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

It is something that has always infested the body politic, but now seems to be writ so much larger - Trump incensed by any attempt to limit his pussy-grabbing antics, Rees-Mogg “knowing better” than officials on what to do in case of fire or anti-vaxxers dismissing science because it limits their ability to take charge of their own destiny.

It is all of a par. It’s the apotheosis of boomerhood: our fate lies now in the hands of a generation of spoilt man childs (and women too) - their every whim indulged, every demand pandered to. They never learned that no means no or that the continuation of our civilisation comes at a price: empathy and compromise.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in