One of the fundamental tenets of a free society is free speech – the freedom to criticise, to debate, to hold to account and to shock or insult. The world is full of people who will say “I believe in free speech – but it doesn’t mean the right to insult people or their beliefs.”
Well, I’m sorry if you find this offensive, but I’m about to offend that belief. It’s illogical nonsense. Free speech is not free speech if you cannot use it freely – and part of its function is to allow people to express their beliefs, including that the beliefs or sensitivities of someone else are incorrect, unpleasant or just plain idiotic.
The fallacy of “I believe in free speech, but not the freedom to offend” is alarmingly widespread, and extremely dangerous. Sometimes it is spouted by the naive, the mistaken or the simply stupid – but often it is a faux-logic cover for those who simply do not believe in freedom at all.
Claiming to believe in free speech but not in the freedom to offend is like saying you believe in the freedom to breathe, but not the freedom to absorb oxygen into a bloodstream, or that everyone has a right to use pens but ink should be banned. It means you don’t believe in free speech at all. It is the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand – and not a very good one, drawing a distinction where no distinction exists.
If you are guilty of using it, please stop doing so. In the magic trick stakes, it’s more like the kind you get free in a cracker and try to perform drunk on Christmas afternoon than a Derren Brown illusion. No one thinks you actually have magic powers, they think you’re a tiresome relation who can’t hold his drink. When you finally doze off in front of one of the weaker Bond films, they’ll raise a silent cheer and either draw on your face or place your hand into a cup of warm water. Or both.
Until now, the law backed up these amateur Paul Daniels tribute acts. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 made it a criminal offence to say anything insulting, where that insult is defined subjectively by the recipient of the comment or anyone witnessing or hearing tell of it.
I’m delighted to read that the Home Secretary has now accepted a Lords amendment to delete the provision which outlaws insults. I hope you will join me in congratulating the Reform Section 5 campaign – and in keeping a watchful eye for any other incursions into free speech.
Last night I went to see Frankie Boyle at the Hammersmith Apollo. Depending on your tastes it was everything you might hope for, or everything you’d never want to hear – offensive, contrarian, shock-a-minute stuff. In short, hilarious.
It got me thinking about exactly what has spawned the recent boom in stand-up megastars. Most of those who have become hugely successful – Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Russell Howard, Al Murray – are distinguished by being as offensive as they are clever.
They plumb every controversial issue you could imagine, giving audiences a double hit of clever humour combined with an “I can’t believe he said that” shock factor.
Why has this happened? So far as I can see, it’s a classic case of supply and demand.
I don’t mean there’s a demand for actual racism or sexism – happily that has largely died out in the last couple of decades. However, there is a demand for freedom of speech and thought, and there will always be demand for comedy.
The prurience of politically correct tyranny, first in cultural discourse and now even in our criminal law, restricted the supply of free speech by threatening disgrace and conviction on anyone who dared say something un-PC. At the same time as they restricted supply, they managed to encourage demand by bringing out the natural British urge to give bossy authority a poke in the eye at any opportunity.
Those PC crusaders who forced through changes in the law and drummed people out of jobs have shot themselves in the foot by going too far. They have become so puritanical that they have provoked a popular backlash, like Cromwell’s attempt to ban Christmas celebrations. Neither comedians like Frankie Boyle nor their audiences are racist or sexist, but there is now a cachet, a frisson about someone saying what is supposedly unsayable.
I’m sure that – had she been there – Harriet Harman would have walked out of last night’s gig within about 17 seconds. How it must gall her that as a result of her work, someone like Frankie Boyle makes millions from saying to eager audiences all of things that she wants banned.
I’ll be buying tickets again, and I hope you will too – when you’re rolling in the aisles, revel in the feeling that Harriet is out there, somewhere, supping on the bitter broth of failure.