Owen Jones: Giving the ‘gay cure’ quack a TV platform is an abuse of free speech
Being provided with a platform is not the same as free speech, however much it is falsely portrayed as such
Piers Morgan, Susanna Reid, Josh Parry and Dr Michael Davidson on ‘Good Morning Britain’
So-called “gay cure therapy” isn’t medicine, science, or indeed therapy: it’s abuse. Medical professionals regard the practice, which sees homosexuality as a fixable “condition”, as scientifically discredited, unethical and harmful. When my first boyfriend came out, aged 15, his parents drove him to a pseudo-scientist to be cured of his homosexuality: consider this against a context of being bullied at school for being gay. Today, he is recovering from crystal meth addiction.
This week, Good Morning Britain provided a platform for a “gay cure” quack named Mike Davidson. “On next we’ll meet the man who claims we can ‘cure’ homosexuality in men,” the show casually tweeted. “Any thoughts?” All of a sudden an abusive practice that inflicts horrendous psychological harm, that is rooted in extreme bigotry, in the very idea that being gay is a bad thing and that gay people should cease to exist, became an opinion worthy of national television. However much Piers Morgan harangued him, Davidson’s presence on air conferred on him a legitimacy he doesn’t deserve.
There are different views, after all, on how much the rich should be taxed, or how high the minimum wage should be, or who should own the railways. But whether homosexuality should be erased by an abusive practice treated as a valid alternative perspective? Believing LGBTQ people to be inferior and desiring their disappearance from society is not simply a matter of opinion to be debated. It is bigotry – which causes profound damage to human beings.
All LGBTQ people hear “gay” being bandied around as an insult from the earliest age; they may face verbal or physical bullying, from relatives, friends, people on the street; they may be rejected by family; they are relentlessly bombarded – even now – with the idea that there is something wrong with being lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer; they may be discriminated against in the workplace.
The damage is long-lasting and profound: they have much higher rates of mental distress, of suicide, of alcohol and drug abuse. Imagine you were a teenager struggling with your sexuality – one of the loneliest feelings there is – and then saw a quack being given a platform to say you are effectively afflicted by a disease that requires a cure.
We could dismiss Davidson as just a quack if it weren’t for the fact that many of our hard-won LGBTQ rights seem to be under threat. Only this week Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson spoke of students who were uncomfortable “because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality ”. Her job, she said, “isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable.” Apparently if students “don’t like his views”, they should simply “challenge them, engage with them”.
This is where the disingenuous “free speech” debate enters stage right. I share the Church of England’s view that “gay cure” abusive procedures should be banned in Britain . I am not proposing, however, that Davidson should be arrested or incarcerated for his reprehensible views. He should remain free to express them wherever he chooses: in his home, in a pub, standing on a soapbox in the street, distributing his own vile leaflets. That does not mean he should be granted a platform by broadcasters to disseminate his harmful bile.
Being provided with a platform is not the same thing as free speech, however much it is falsely and disingenuously portrayed as such. If someone refuses to lend you a megaphone, they are not infringing your right to say what you believe: they are simply not offering you their own resources to amplify your views to a broader audience. The millions of people who never appear on TV or radio and are never provided with newspaper space to promote their views are not having their right to free speech undermined or attacked.
The left is waging war on free speech, screeches the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet its interpretation of free speech is: “The right to say whatever I like about minorities without facing any challenge.” Any criticism of their expressed prejudices is treated somehow as an attack on their free speech. Like oppressors throughout history, they portray themselves as the ones who are really oppressed: they are free speech martyrs, besieged by an intolerant left-wing rabble.
The one freedom they seem to truly care about is the freedom to incite bigotry; this freedom trumps the freedom of minorities to live unencumbered by prejudice, threats to personal safety, and discrimination. Words do indeed have consequences. The vilification of immigrants in the EU referendum led Britain’s small minority of abusive bigots to believe they had been legitimised and now had a mandate: hate crimes soared on Britain’s streets as a result.
Perversely, it is these right-wing abusers of “free speech” who are the most chronically offended. While those on the left object to the hounding of minorities and women, the right are offended by critiques of privilege, attempts to come to terms with the past, or simply ideas that challenge injustice. When the journalist Afua Hirsch denounced Britain’s racist past and suggested Admiral Nelson’s support for slavery raised questions about whether his statue should remain , the right-wing self-professed “free speech” brigade did not rush to her defence. Quite the contrary: they frothed with outrage.
When L’Oréal sacked model Munroe Bergdorf for demanding white people tackle a systemic racism bred from centuries of slavery, wars of oppression, colonial subjugation, and subsequent famines and genocides, the right-wing “free speech” brigade did not proclaim she was entitled to her opinion. Instead she was bombarded with abuse and threats of violence. Right-wing Brexiteers are continually offended and enraged by critics – scrutineers, even – of the Tories’ Brexit approach, smearing them as “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”. Any attempt to scrutinise privilege – whether it be that granted by class, race, gender or sexuality – is greeted with paroxysms of fury by right-wing, well-heeled, white, straight male commentators who find the notion that they have been the lifelong beneficiaries of odds stacked in their favour as almost unbearably offensive. Today’s populist right is built on offence, on the twisted idea that the struggles of minorities and women for equality insults and attacks those who are white, male and straight.
In an era in which prejudice and bigotry have been given renewed legitimacy, providing platforms for homophobes on national television is dangerous. Free speech is indeed sacred, a hard-won right extracted from the powerful at huge cost. It does not mean the right to incite hatred, not least on public platforms provided by others. But the bigots who clothe themselves in the garb of free speech have no real interest in it. They just want the right to hate without challenge.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist