When I was about aged nine, each Tuesday, I would kiss my parents goodnight, climb under the covers of my bed, and take out the transistor radio secreted in my bedside cabinet. With the earphone in my left ear (in those days, we were satisfied with just the one), I waited patiently for my clock to chime midnight for that heralded the beginning of my favourite radio series—a locally produced lecture series called “Let’s Talk About . . .” There would be a few seconds of theme tune and then the voice of Dr. Langley Crispier, whom I imagined was most certainly greying at the temples in that most distinguished way many scholars do, would say “Let’s Talk About” followed by the most deliciously exciting pause before announcing the topic of that week’s episode. There was no way of knowing in advance what would be discussed. What made the anticipation so palpable was the fact that, after those few seconds of silence, that man could have said anything.
Except, of course, he couldn’t have said anything. He couldn’t have said “Let’s Talk About Barack Obama’s Presidency,” because this was long before Obama even dreamt of such a thing. He couldn’t have said “Let’s Talk About Emetophilia,” because that would have been too disgusting to hear about at that late hour. He couldn’t have said “Let’s Talk the Bomb That Will Be Hitting Our Town in Three Minutes,” because that would have caused total panic. He couldn’t have said “Let’s Talk About the Policy of Adding Poison to the Food Served at Tim’s Cafe,” because that would have been slanderous (and anyway Tim’s Cafe was a major sponsor of the show and the food there was delectable). Despite America’s laws protecting free speech, Dr. Crispier was not totally free to choose the topic for that night’s speech.
This why I feel compelled to punch in the face those who defend the obnoxious shite that is spewed by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, David Irving and Ann Coulter with the phrase “Well, it’s a free country and we have free speech.” I don’t stoop to violence, of course, but goodness me, I sometimes want to.
The first problem involves the word free, which can mean “without cost.” Do you think Jeremy Clarkson would be willing to post a rebuttal here for free? I’ve a feeling I’d have to provide him with a rather large cheque for the privilege of publishing his “free” speech. But cost does not always refer to dollar signs. Ask a parent whose gay son committed suicide because of bullying or a worker whose rights are abused because his employer is non-union. The old chestnut “You can’t yell Fire! in a movie house” is true because people could get hurt. Words that perpetuate ignorance and hate may be without cost to Jeremy Clarkson, but someone is paying the price for them everyday.
Ultimately this is what is most important about free speech. Freedom works best when it’s coupled with responsibility. The greatest gift that language offers us is its ability to change the world. I so admire those who use that gift wisely.
I am not arguing for changing laws protecting free speech. But with freedom comes responsibility. If an injured fox were lying in my driveway, I technically have the freedom to run over it with my motorcar. Despite this freedom, I would not because it would be cruel, stupid and messy. It would not be the right thing to do.
But Jeremy Clarkson would run over the fox. And then the BBC would pay him thousands of pounds to talk about it on a television show. And if people were offended, the Sun newspaper would accuse them of wanting censorship.
And that makes me want to vomit (and not in a sexy way).