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Should I Support Racism Because of Freedom of Speech?

What is freedom of speech? Can it comfortably co-exist with the desire to limit abusive rhetoric, and the need to protect people from threats and intimidation?

Kyus Agu-Lionel 

Naked Politics Blogger

What is freedom of speech? Can it comfortably co-exist with the desire to limit violent and abusive rhetoric, and the need to protect people from threats and intimidation?

The idea going around now is that a person’s right to freedom of expression means that they can make racist remarks and nobody can ever question them, or pull them up on it. As a black man descended from three immigrant grandparents, I say what would probably be the opinion of most other people of colour: conneries.

Certain sections seem to be saying that if somebody is racist to me, I am required to calmly hear them out and then accept their statement, as ‘we all have different opinions, and none is more valid than the other’. Again, conneries.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Of course, I am absolutely not meaning consequences like what happened to the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015, or the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after the release of his book Satanic Verses in 1988. Nobody “should be killed, or face a serious threat of being killed, for what they say or write.” If you say something that people find offensive, freedom of expression grants you that right.

But I also have the right to call you an idiot, refuse to employ you, not buy your newspaper, or refrain from having you in my establishment.

This head-scratching idiocy seems to be spreading in right-wing circles (which is expected) and also amongst self-professed liberals. News outlets such as The Spectator, The Daily Mail and others bitch and moan about the Stop Funding Hate campaign, and call it ‘illiberal’ because it urges people and advertisers to boycott newspapers which spew xenophobic bile. They call the campaign ‘bullying’, which is galling, considering the rhetoric many of them spew against anybody who isn’t white or British-born.

If refusing to use my money to fund rhetoric which encourages hate crimes against migrants and the first terrorist murder of an MP since the end of the Troubles is illiberal, then I’ll hold my hands up and gladly don that crown of illiberalism.

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I am not saying that it should be illegal for the media to express their opinions. I do like to read opinions which diverge from my own, which is why I dip in and out of the Daily Mail and the Express (with my ad-blocker on, so that they don’t get any advertising revenue from my visit), but what I am saying is that, as a person of colour, I cannot and will not cosign racism. You may want to waste time in your life fighting for Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to call Leslie Jones a black monkey, but to be completely honest, that is not the hill that I will die on.

The people who are so up in arms about this are invariably white and are therefore extremely unlikely to be the victim of racism and are not the ones potentially being put in danger by hate speech. They haven’t been called racially charged epithets in the street by strangers like I have, have not been told to go back to Africa like I have and therefore it’s easy for them to froth at the mouth and cry about why people may not want to support people and organisations that encourage that sort of behaviour.

The faux-fervour is even worse on comments sections on the internet, where if you say that you find an opinion distasteful then you’re accused of being a ‘bigot’. This is a willful misrepresentation of the word’s meaning, as though you could be a bigot for pointing out the racism in somebody stating that all Muslims are terrorists, or all Mexicans have rapist tendencies or that all black people genetically have a lower IQ than caucasians.

It boggles the mind that in 2017, we are still having this conversation. I’m supposed to be tolerant of your racist opinion? Get out.

Ewan McGregor boycotted Good Morning Britain recently because of Piers Morgan’s typically self-centred and ‘me too’ opinions on the women’s march. Morgan responded sarcastically “I have to agree with what an actor thinks about a particular issue because they’re actors. And as we know actors’ views are more important than anybody else’s”. He accused McGregor of not allowing him a political opinion and of course the right-wing media rushed to back him up.

Perhaps I need my glasses checked, but what I read was that McGregor didn’t want to be on the show because he found Morgan’s comments abhorrent?

Maybe I missed the part where McGregor called for Morgan to be gagged, or his Loose-Women-masquerading-as-a-serious-news-programme to be taken off air?

Is it possible that I overlooked the bit where he said that his opinion mattered more than anybody else’s, just because he is an actor?

Morgan made his name hacking dead girls’ voicemails, so I suppose that it’s too much to expect him to speak rationally, but the hoops that the right in general will jump through in order to portray themselves as the victim are quite extraordinary.

If I were McGregor, I would have gone on the show and proverbially torn Morgan a new one. But if he chooses to not suffer a fool just to promote a movie, that is his right. If he chooses to stand by his principles and decline to support somebody who believes that ‘rabid feminists’ are ‘emasculating’ men all over the world (in a world where violence against women by men is still rife, assaults on women’s reproductive rights by men seems to be on the rise again, the gender pay gap is closing all too slowly, and women are still fired for refusing to adhere to sexist dress codes), then that is also his right. His boycotting the show is his form of protest – is protesting now illegal?

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It’s worth pointing out that freedom of speech is only jangled up and down the newspapers when it’s the right-wing which is under criticism. Last year, The Sun and the Mail were screaming for Gary Lineker to be sacked because he dared show a shred of compassion for child migrants. So freedom of speech only applies when it’s the freedom of right-wing speech? The idea that Lineker is not allowed an opinion because he freelances for the BBC is laughable in itself: he presents a sports programme, hardly a shining beacon of hard-hitting investigative journalism. The breath-taking hypocrisy also boggles the mind. Does freedom of speech also mean freedom from consequences, or doesn’t it? Which is it, right wing?

Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences. I decline the invitation to waste precious moments of my life  sticking up for somebody’s right to call me a monkey. To those who would argue that I should, I say: conneries.

*If you would like to know more about the Stop Funding Hate Campagin, feel free to visit their Facebook Page and follow them. 

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