Free speech: sometimes it comes at a cost

It hardly needs saying that freedom of expression is important. The introduction of free speech laws allowed us to criticise the King or the government or the church without fear of arrest or imprisonment. They allowed scientists like Charles Darwin to propose radical new theories that would previously have been censored as heresy, driving forward independent thought, and with it, our understanding of the world.

Without this fundamental principle underpinning modern society, we might never have seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of Section 28, the Gender Recognition Act or the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, equal marriage. Our Muslim friends would not be able to practice their religion, celebrate its festivals or wear their traditional dress. Women would not be able to work or vote or ‘disobey’ their husbands.

But whilst the good that has come of this principle is fairly obvious, in the social media age, free speech is all too often corrupted to serve as a shield for those disseminating divisive, dangerous and damaging ideas that target the most vulnerable among us.

To take but one example of this, the current onslaught against trans people in the press and on social media, the deliberate misgendering, the fear-mongering, the egregious mischaracterisation of trans people as sexual predators hell bent on grooming young people, the recycled, reheated homophobia, barely altered from 30 years ago and re-weaponised to direct at people who are, sadly, now seen as a more socially acceptable target, all dishonestly cloaked in the language of ‘legitimate concerns’ and their right to be expressed.

But freedom of speech, like any other right, is not, and cannot be, absolute. There are numerous necessary limitations that exist in order to prevent one person’s ability to speak, write or publish freely causing harm to others. Libel, slander, copyright violation, food labelling, national security, perjury and incitement to violence are all examples of valid and appropriate ways in which free expression is limited.

In all but a tiny minority of cases, the line between what is and is not acceptable is perfectly obvious. ‘Nigel Farage is a toad-faced Hitler tribute act who should yeet himself into a fucking skip’, for example, falls well within the definition of acceptable free expression, whereas ‘this is Nigel Farage’s home address and here are detailed instructions on how to make a shit-infused petrol bomb’ almost certainly does not.

Now, of course, outside of the legally proscribed exceptions, anyone is free to express themselves however they see fit, but in doing so, they must be prepared to face the inevitable consequences of voicing opinions that are injurious to the safety, dignity and mental wellbeing of vulnerable communities. It is not reasonable to expect that you should be able to proclaim a racist, homophobic or transphobic mindset, and the only negative ramifications be those visited on your victims.

David Starkey is a relevant and topical example of this. He was perfectly at liberty to appear on a podcast and say, “Slavery wasn’t genocide or there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks,” but he could not expect to do so without facing widespread public condemnation, professional censure and loss of income.

Maya Forstater, the researcher lauded in JK Rowling’s recent manifesto of prejudice, is another such example. Forstater had a contract with the CGD, which they failed to renew in light of her persistent transphobia and misgendering of those she didn’t consider worthy of the title ‘woman’. She subsequently sued the CGD, and lost.

The judge concluded:

“It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

As both of these cases show, the right to free speech was both available and exercised by those who were later ‘cancelled’. Neither Starkey nor Forstater were imprisoned for their beliefs, but they were made to face the eminently reasonable personal repercussions that arose as a result of their actions. Any organisation with which either of them were affiliated had to make a choice between supporting them and, by extension, their harmful ideals, or severing ties to protect both the reputation of the organisation and the dignity of its employees, stakeholders and patrons.

In neither case was anyone silenced. Starkey is free to continue being racist, and Forstater is free to continue being transphobic. It is their right to do so, but they have no divine right to a platform for their bigotry, or to continued employment in an organisation that does not share their discriminatory views.

And this is what the whole ‘free speech’ argument comes down to. Those who spend their days shrieking about being ‘silenced’ (usually on Radio 4, on Newsnight, or in their nationally syndicated newspaper column), are actually upset that others have exercised their right to free speech to decry whatever offensive belief they have sought to promote. It is not mere freedom they seek, but the right to punch down with total impunity at those who already subsist on a daily diet of abuse and intolerance. 

Social media, for all its many (many, MANY) flaws, has been a tremendous force for good in this sense. Ordinary people who, for so long, were denied a voice, may now speak up in forceful opposition to those who would seek to denigrate, disparage and dehumanise them. If, before the advent of Twitter, a high-profile author had published a dishonest and unreferenced attack on a marginalised group of people, they would have had virtually no right of reply. Now, they can raise their collective voices to condemn their oppressor and offer detailed rebuttals of her hostile rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, those who have been used to wielding virtually unlimited power in the sphere of public debate fucking hate this.

This is why we’re hearing howls of anguish about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘stifling debate’ from those who disable comments on their own articles full of malicious untruths and well-worn tropes. They’re not at all concerned about debate being ‘stifled’, they’re simply enraged because they no longer have free reign to propagate their bigoted ideas unchallenged.

J.K. Rowling and the Guileful Intolerance

We live in an age of absolutism. Everything is binary: right or wrong, black or white.

There are times when this approach is helpful. Necessary, even. My ‘never fuck a Tory’ policy, for example, has served me well for many a long year and will no doubt do so for many years to come.

But when we try to apply this way of thinking to bigotry, or rather, to judging whether a person is or is not a bigot, it all starts to unravel. There seems to be a popular, and arguably deliberate, misconception that a person may only be considered to be intolerant of a particular group if they have a history of screaming epithets in their faces and/or committing acts of physical violence.

Modern bigotry, however, is altogether more subtle than this. It’s a suggestion, a nudge, a nod or a wink. Nigel Farage doesn’t go dropping the N-bomb on Question Time, as much as we all know he’d love to. He’s fucking thinking it, of course, but he never says it out loud. At least, not on the telly. Instead, he couches his racism in phrases like ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘protecting our borders’, like the worst kind of Pavlovian shithouse. And obviously, the stench of racism wafts off him like the smell of stale chip fat (along with, almost certainly, the actual smell of stale chip fat), but his supporters will argue to their dying breath that he’s ‘not racist’, purely on the basis that they’ve never heard him say the P-word.

That’s not to say there aren’t bigots who are rather more explicit in their intolerance. One of them, weirdly, for such a famously non-racist country, actually managed to get himself elected to the office of Prime Minister, but for the most part, they’re a little more sophisticated. Some are so sophisticated that they get to utilise their massive celebrity status and huge social media platforms to target hate at one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world, and still, somehow, manage to emerge looking like the victim.

Step forward, J.K. Rowling.

The piece published by Rowling on 10 June was an absolute masterclass in the art of manipulating the narrative to suit a particular agenda, while maintaining plausible deniability for the damage that would inevitably ensue. This is unsurprising given that she’s amassed a billion-pound fortune from her use of language. She knows better than most how to tell a tale in a way that will elicit the desired emotional response in the reader, and that’s what makes the piece – and its author – so extremely dangerous.

If you’re not familiar with the cases she cites, if you don’t know the pressure points transphobes routinely exploit to demonise their targets, if you haven’t heard these same, tired arguments recycled and reheated time and time again over a period of 30-odd years, you might come away from Rowling’s essay thinking it all sounded perfectly reasonable. That was certainly the intention, and in a great many cases, it worked like a charm.

She begins, of course, like any halfway competent bigot would, by painting herself as the victim. The first couple of paragraphs are all about her being abused, threatened or ‘cancelled’ by those who object to her harmful rhetoric.

Now, to be clear, threats are always unacceptable. And I would never condone a man calling any woman – not even Katie Hopkins – a ‘bitch’ or a ‘cunt’. It’s misogynistic, unhelpful, and provides easy ammunition for anyone seeking to promote a narrative of victimhood. That said, it’s not for me to judge women who use those terms in anger, or for me to police the tone of the victims’ responses to the abuse they face.

We have a big problem in this country with ignoring the content and the intent of what a person says, and focusing instead on the language used.

For example, if someone said to me, “Respectfully, sir, I believe that all homosexuals are an abomination unto the Lord and destined for Hell,” and I responded with, “Go take a flying fuck at the moon, you Bible-shagging twat,” there are a great many people who would think I was the one who should be censured.

The same applies here. Rowling tweets out barely disguised transphobic bigotry to 14.5 million followers, but because she does so ‘politely’ and some of the responses are, to say the least, extremely impolite, she somehow gets to occupy the moral high ground, and in doing so, tar an entire group with the same brush as its most abusive members. She must accept, however, that if she’s going to take that approach, she must assume responsibility for all the truly appalling vitriol directed at the trans community as a result of her interventions.

So with the victim narrative firmly established, she goes on to profess her undying love for the trans community, and all her many trans friends, like an infinitely more articulate Donald Trump pointing to the African-American guy he’s just appointed to some role or other as proof that he’s definitely not racist.

Then come the tropes:

Any cis man can readily obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate to access women’s spaces for who knows what nefarious purposes, trans teens are simply confused gays or lesbians, children are being rushed into irreversible treatment options that will destroy their lives, ‘trans rights activists’ deny that biological sex is ‘real’, veiled ridicule of trans suicide rates, and, most insidiously of all, the mischaracterisation of trans women as sexual predators.

This last one, as ought to be obvious to anyone who lived through that time, has its roots firmly in the homophobia of the 70s, 80s and 90s. This is hardly surprising given Rowling’s proximity to noted homophobes, and her selection of a pen name that matches the actual name of a high-profile proponent of gay conversion therapy. It’s also, it should be noted, absolute fucking bollocks.

Rowling even introduces her own experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault to underline the idea that trans women are a threat to cis women and girls, despite the fact that her abuse took place at the hands of cis men. I can only imagine the pain that such traumatic experiences must still bring her, and my heart goes out to her and any woman who has had to live through this ordeal. There is absolutely no reason, however, to mention this in a piece about trans people, unless you’re trying to promote a very particular idea.

The fact is that men have been raping, abusing and sexually assaulting women for millennia, and it’s extremely rare that they’ve ever felt the need to pretend to be women to carry out these despicable acts. Does she really think that a man hell bent on forcing himself on a woman will refrain from doing so because they’re not supposed to be in the women’s toilets? Or that they’ll go to all the ultimately pointless trouble of obtaining a GRC, which they don’t legally require to access those spaces?

The vast, overwhelming majority of trans women just want to get changed after their swim, or go for a piss at the shopping centre, then quietly go about their day. They’re not lurking in darkened corners waiting to catch a look at your genitals, or to show you theirs. Trans people have had the legal right to use the facilities of their choosing for well over a decade, and there have been very few reported incidents involving trans women during that time. Countries that have already introduced Self ID have had no reported increase in sexual offences as a result. Of course, that’s not to say no trans woman is capable of being a sexual predator, just that they’re no more likely to be than an equivalent sample of cis women.

But still this narrative persists. The subtle nods, the plays to our primal fears, the gentle, persistent reinforcement of the idea that our wives and daughters will be forced to undress in front of ‘male-bodied’ individuals intent on causing them harm. And this is where so much of the the anger towards Rowling and other transphobes is rooted. I know, because I felt (and still feel) the same anger every time the ‘gay men are paedophiles’ trope rears its head.

The fact is, we have to get better at spotting the falsehoods, the dog-whistles, the misdirections and the fear-mongering, and highlighting them to those who remain blinded by the ostensibly reasonable tone of the ‘legitimate concerns’ crew. Rowling herself would no doubt ridicule the idea that all Muslims are part of some ‘rape gang’ or other, but yet she’s happy to point her readers toward the conclusion that trans people – trans women in particular – present a threat to the safety, and indeed, the very identities, of cis women and girls.

By hiding the iron fist of her transphobic attacks in the velvet glove of her professed ‘love’ for trans people, she has managed to pull off a great deception, and it’s one that will inflict untold and widespread damage on a community that was already at breaking point.