Friday, October 05, 2012

Speaking out on Free Speech

It never fails to amaze me how often people try to silence me by talking about free speech.  If you believe in "free speech", then say "I disagree with you but I respect your right to hold and express that view". Doh.

Personally I am in favour of free speech as a general ideal.  I don't however think that it is something that should be defended to the exclusion of all other concerns.  If twenty children are standing around one smaller child shouting "ugly little shit", I do not care for their right to free speech - that is bullying and it needs to be stopped and measures taken to prevent it happening again.  If I see a pile of BNP leaflets in my local library I pick them up and throw them away.  Even if they say nothing even vaguely controversial.

It's not about something being offensive because that's a rather meaningless concept.  I can look at a picture of kittens playing with wool and say "I am offended". People around the world have regularly looked at pictures of their imaginary friend (who of course must never be depicted) and decided they are offended.  We can't waste our time sacrificing free speech because somebody is offended.

When people stand outside abortion clinics with images of aborted foetuses I call that bullying, not free speech.  If people want to put those images on websites or campaign leaflets then fair enough (though again if I find them in my library, as it happens, I chuck them out) but outside clinics is harassment. Which is really just a grown-up word for bullying.

I think there is also a temptation to confuse editing or promoting with attacking free speech.  When newspapers edit content, that's not attacking free speech.  Well not unless they edit it so that it changes the author's meaning, or misrepresents what they were trying to say.  They might accept one article and not another, and that is their right.  If that wasn't the case I'd exercise my right to free speech and have a lengthy column in every single newspaper in the UK every day. The one in the Daily Mail would just say "Richard Littlejohn is a total idiot" over and over again.  But they can publish what they like and when I disagree I can write angry letters and if they won't publish them I can put them on other websites or this blog, or Facebook, or whatever.  And if Facebook decides what I've written is not acceptable on their platform they can also remove it, cos it's their website.  Similarly I do not publish every comment made on this blog.  Only the ones that I think are of interest to my readers.  Unless you all want to buy viagra and hear about the ways in which I "deserve" to be violently gang-raped...?

And I am also entitled to a view on what criteria others should use to edit their content.  I'm entitled to say I think the Guardian should moderate comments on it's Comment is Free site more carefully, or that they should include more voices challenging prostitution and less presenting full legalisation as a solution to abuses. I'm entitled to think Nick Griffin shouldn't have been allowed on Question Time. It's about who is given a particular platform.  I think I should get to write for the Mail, but he shouldn't be on Question Time. Those are my opinions. Yours may be different. We can all say them, but not on BBC One unless specifically invited.

I'm also entitled to an opinion about how businesses run and how they are regulated.  If you want to have the world's weirdest sex and invite your friends and neighbours to come along and watch, I fully defend your right to do so (obviously assuming it's all very clearly and carefully consensual).  But I think lad mags should be sold on the top shelf at newsagents and pornography websites (which make large amounts of money from adverts on their sites or paid downloads and subscriptions) should be made to remove violent scenes and make the rest available only to over-18s who have opted in using a verified credit card or proof of ID. None of this is about free speech, it's about how businesses are regulated. I also think supermarkets shouldn't be allowed to sell battery-farmed eggs or products made from them. You might not agree with me - but it's not about free speech and it IS my right to express those views if I want to.

Now a website appeared a few days ago that I caught wind of called Rape Is No Joke. The website tag line says "Campaigning for comedy without misogyny" and they offer a pledge where comedians and comedy clubs can pledge not to tell "rape jokes" and not to put on comics who do.  Now I understood from this that they were asking people not to tell jokes which trivialised rape or blamed victims. I didn't take it as meaning the subject could never be raised onstage. I mean if someone wants to talk about having been raped - wow, give them a mic, what a brave thing to do. And if someone (like me, I do this) wants to make jokes about the poor police response or about the awful things that the likes of George Galloway and Brendan O'Neill have said, again, that's great. I assumed the website was not saying the word could never be uttered or subject could never be raised. I assumed that "rape joke" (especially since they were talking about ending misogyny in comedy) meant the bad sort. So I signed the pledge and posted the link up so others who wanted to could do so.

Suddenly I'm the wicked witch of the west (again!). Apparently firstly I am told I wrote the site. I did not, I don't know who did, but I like them. Apparently (actual quotes):

"Comedy is the last bastion of free speech" - ha ha ha, if that's true we are fucked. Every comedy club in the world has a booking policy, some nuanced and helpful, others arbitrary and stupid. In my opinion. Comedians who do racist material are not as popular as they used to be, most clubs won't book them. Rightly so.

"Implication is that if you don't sign pledge you're seen as not willing to act 'responsibly'" - yeah and if you refuse to say you're not a racist, we might all think you're a racist. But no-one is stopping you from writing your own statement of what you consider responsible and what you will and won't include in your set.

"If we start that where do we end it?" - in a world without rape culture, yeah!

"I would of though of all people to attempt to censor be Kate its very very hypocritical" - I'm not censoring anyone, I'm putting people in touch with a golden glorious opportunity to express their views on rape and rape culture and to choose to express their own commitment to ending it.  You are welcome.

"Rape affects men too you know" - well if it affects men too isn't that DOUBLE the reason not to trivialise it and belittle the victims? And may I be the first to add: Waaaaa what about da menz...

"As someone who works in the criminal justice system, I can assure you that EVERYONE takes rape allegations seriously." - interesting that we've still got a 6% conviction rate then. Also I personally know a number of women who've been to the police to report rape and been ignored and belittled and disbelieved and treated like crap. In fact I don't know any women who've had good treatment after reporting rape.  Not admitting that's a problem would seem to make you a part of the problem. Plus rape culture affects women's decisions as to whether or not to report.  If comedians are making jokes suggesting women are at fault if they are raped, that might mean women don't go to the police.

"This comes across like an attempt at using emotional blackmail to advance your own particular agenda." - yeah that's what I was planning when I POSTED A LINK ON FACEBOOK.  Definitely.

(this is my favourite) "All sounds ominously like loyalty oaths and anti-commie affirmations in 1950s USA" - yes, circulating a link to a website about rape jokes is definitely just like trying to persecute communist 'sympathisers'. No, I mean it, you're definitely right there. Thank goodness you pointed it out, there I was being all McCarthy-ish, suggesting people might want to sign a pledge about violent crime and sexism in stand-up comedy.  One day someone will write something like The Crucible about me. Really. I can hardly wait.

This has nothing to do with free speech.  Clubs have freedom to put the acts they want onstage (again otherwise I'd play a lot more clubs that I do). Acts have the freedom to do whatever jokes they want. If you or your club wants to make a choice not to include "rape jokes" then go for it. If you'd be willing to sign it if the wording was slightly clarified, why not drop the website a line and say so? Or start your own website. Be a part of the solution. And if you don't want to sign it at all, don't sign it.  But don't come telling me that my circulating the link has infringed your right to free speech because I will be exercising my freedom to not listen to you or your probably not very good comedy routine.