Personal views from University of Bath researchers on the news of the day

Free speech means standing up for forms of expression we disagree with

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📥  Public Policy

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, was right to assert – in the aftermath of the pointless terror attack in London yesterday – that we should now carry on ‘as normal’. There are always two elements to such incidents – the events themselves, which are tragic enough for all concerned, but then also how we, as a society, respond to these. It is the latter that defines whether we are terrorised or not. It is the latter that the perpetrators look to for their impact. And it is this satisfaction – that they are having an effect – which we must never afford them.

But May also referred three times to our valuing ‘freedom’ (as well as ‘liberty’), in her short talk outside Downing Street after the Government’s emergency committee meeting last night. And that is where her rhetoric of resilience is at its weakest. For in pointing to the importance of ‘freedom of speech’, which she is right to do – she, her government and others like them all around the world, have conceded far too much already in legislating against particular speakers and certain forms of expression – deemed hurtful, offensive or able to encourage terrorism.

Free speech is not comfortable or easy for anyone. It does not mean the freedom to say the obvious or the popular. Rather, it necessarily means standing up for forms of expression we disagree with – that are challenging or unpalatable and sometimes spiteful or simply inane. What this allows though is priceless. It trains us all in how to address and overcome such words – without which we would be disarmed and seeking those who claim to afford us protection. Free speech is not comfortable or easy – but it makes us all stronger and better.

And what we witnessed in the attack yesterday, as well as the recent incident at Orly Airport in Paris and the many other such occurrences in recent years, were the actions of the all-too-readily offended – the response of individuals who have not been trained in the spirit and discipline of freedom, who cannot contain their emotional anger and who, in a moment of self-righteous rage, lash out at a society they sense no attachment to or engagement with.

In that regards, they are a product of what we have made them – febrile individuals, whose ideas have rarely been challenged or put to the test for fear of offending their assumed beliefs. People brought up to believe that their feelings are paramount and indulged in their distorted sense of grievance and hurt. It is high time the government sought to live by its fine words because, in the long run, it is only by living freedom that we can rid ourselves of this social problem.

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