Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Your freedom or everyone's freedom?

Hmmm, thanks to Helsinki, Sarah, Brad and Dannyboy for flagging up important points in last week's tagboard debate about judges, political correctness and freedom of speech. I want to pick up on that this week, because an appeal to "freedom of speech" is an argument often wheeled out like a cannon to blow political correctness off the agenda. But this is usually a rather limited argument, based on emotional responses to anyone attempting to control the way we speak. This is at least partly because there is a strong vein of resistance in traditional British culture to anything that smacks of being told how to think.

Well, I'm as resistant to that as the next person, but I also like to think of myself as someone who treats other people the way I would wish to be treated myself. As I'm not overly keen on being patronised, insulted, or abused - whether intentionally or not - I try not to do it to other people. And for that, I need to show sensitivity to how other people feel about the words I use.

We also need to consider more critically what "freedom of speech" really is. In Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale, (go and read it immediately if you haven't already!) one of the characters tries to define types of freedom, breaking it down into the freedom to, and freedom from. He uses this analysis to justify the appalling oppression of women within the novel, but it is a useful distinction nonetheless. Are we looking for the freedom to use language to hurt other people's feelings, to support discriminatory attitudes, and to incite fear and hatred? Or are we looking for freedom from these things? Your freedom as a member of a more powerful social group? Or everyone's freedom?

Check out the links below for further perspectives on the power of language.

Kilroy's sacking and the free speech debate

More on The Handmaid's Tale


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