Why it's wrong to defend Burchill's 'right to offend'


OPINION:Why is freedom of speech so important? Last weekend protesters gathered outside the Daily Telegraph’s headquarters over an article that ridiculed transgender people. The rant, by Julie Burchill, was originally published in the Observer, but was removed from the Guardian website after readers accused Guardian Media Group of promoting hatred towards minorities.

A “censorship” debate ensued. It was framed by journalists – including Fionola Meredith, in this paper last week – as an attack on their right to offend people.

Toby Young republished the piece on the Telegraph website, smugly citing “free speech” and keeping quiet about “free website traffic”. Crafty.

Well, I’m passionate about free speech too – and I will not let it be sullied by bullies. I don’t mind broadsheet journalists defending their right to write filth – that’s their prerogative – but they must be challenged. With free speech. It is lovely having space in Ireland’s paper of record to discuss this. The irony is not lost on me.

So, free speech. It’s essential for exchanging ideas. It stops governments from controlling academic thinking. I’ve also heard people say the gay and black civil rights movements couldn’t have happened without it. True. As I understand it, freedom there was the liberty to say “We deserve respect” – not to abuse minorities in newspapers.

When respectable newspapers attack vulnerable people it isn’t “offensive”, or “free speech” – it is hate speech. Rory Smith, who runs a support group for trans men in Sussex, recently told Out In Brighton local radio: “With rights and freedoms comes responsibility – and freedom of speech does not mean you can go around and be downright abusive to people.”

Ugly purpose

He’s right. Freedom of speech is a noble and beautiful idea and to use its name for ugly purposes is not only abhorrent but an attack on true free speech. Mock me for the things I say. Question my beliefs. Poke me when I contradict myself. But don’t ridicule me for looking a certain way, because the only person who looks bad then is you. And freedom of speech suffers too.

We live in a culture where it’s still acceptable to humiliate people on account of natural human variation, from the overweight to Muslims, and Traveller communities to trans people. But if we allow our media to bully people, why would our playgrounds be any better? Do we want to teach our children to hate difference? And when quality papers target minorities, what message does that send? That it’s acceptable to harass people like me?

Nothing will erase my memories of being picked on as a child: constantly, violently, both at school and at home by my father; nothing will make me forget the isolation and fear, the self-loathing and despair. I fought back but how could I fight them all?

When I see people defending the likes of Burchill, I have to ask myself was I wrong, as a child, to complain about the abuse – and were my teachers wrong for helping? Should we, instead, have been defending those bullies’ “right to offend” me? Should we heck. It is always correct to defend the weak, always righteous to stand against injustice.

‘Bunch of hypocrites’

As author Marko Attila Hoare puts it: nobody “has suggested that the state should take action to censor [Burchill] or prevent her from writing or publishing wherever she is able. Protesters were, rather, urging that the Observer should not be hosting such articles . . . What the so-called champions of ‘freedom of speech’ seem to be arguing is that an independent newspaper like the Observer has no business removing an article from its website, and that its readers have no business urging it to do so. They are, in other words, a bunch of hypocrites.”

The commentariat, that privileged elite of largely London-based journalists, preach free speech, but they don’t live it. They’d soon tell you to shut it if you started talking about your sex life on the train, in detail, in front of their children; they’d stuff your mouth with socks if you started sharing their secrets; and they’d phone the police quicker than you can say “double standard” if you subjected them to a racial slur, or leaked a story they were working on, or revealed one of their private sources.

That isn’t free speech, they would tell you, that’s malicious or inappropriate – free speech is about exchanging ideas, not harassing people. They’d tell you all this with passion and write about it with vigour. And, in this instance, they’d be right.

* Paris Lees edits Meta magazine, a digital publication that celebrates gender diversity, and is acting assistant editor at GT (Gay Times). She campaigns for better media portrayals of transgender people

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