IT’S BEEN another bad few months for free speech. The recent treatment of the author John Boyne on twitter earlier this year illuminated the extent to which free speech is really up against it in today’s world. Such was the virulent and unalloyed attacks on Mr Boyne he decided to remove his twitter account. And what was it he wrote to stir the hornet’s nest of social media? Well, he wrote a book through the lens of a trans person. ‘It wasn’t his story to tell’ was the impecunious logic of one of those dissenting voices. (As far as I’m aware Mr Boyne wasn’t a young Jewish boy in Auschwitz either, how dare he tell that story…)
There is something very wrong about how right we must be in today’s world. It seems that any defence of free speech has to go through a far more rigorous examination than any attack on it. And why are we supine while freedom of speech gets strangled and mauled in front of our eyes? Where are the great commentators on society? Why are they not commenting on it?
The reality is the rabid mad dog of zeitgeist has bitten them too, and so their keyboards have fallen silent. For to speak your mind today can mean complete and utter evisceration. Look around — everywhere the skeletal remains of great writers. The Romans had a term for it, Damnatio Memoriae; condemnation of memory.
It is a practice that reaches as far back to the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut in the 14th century BC.
It meant that if you stepped out of line, if you provoked the wrath of the state, Caesar or pharaoh your legacy could be wiped from the annals of history, condemned into nothingness without any record of ever having existed — a more devastating punishment I cannot think of.
This practice is alive and well and if you don’t sing the one note on offer on the octave you could find yourself on the wrong end of it. And boy, an intellectual gulag can be a cold and inhospitable place to languish in. But why are we so gleeful at the destruction of each other’s hard earned career? Surely we are allowed to get it wrong? Must we all now have to agree with what each of us writes?
Some of the most thought provoking articles I’ve read are the ones that really infuriated me and challenged my own presuppositions and values, is that not what the press was designed to do.
In Salem during the witch trials they had something they called reversal of attainder, and it meant that if you had been convicted of or even executed because a few had pointed their dirty fingers at you and you were condemned for witchery, and later the judiciary realised they made a mistake you would be granted your good name back.
For in the words of John Proctor: ‘Leave me my name’. Miller was clearly drawing a parallel to McCarthyism, where if you were a dissenting voice you could be banished for being a communist. Is that why so many keyboards are silent today, no one wants to risk their name becoming devoured by the digital maw of trolls? Because when you get down to the marrow of this thing, that’s what it is; public opinion annihilating any voice that doesn’t sing their tune. Nobody is willing to dare damnation. Is there any reversal of attainder for the plethora of writers and commentators who have been silenced in recent times? I don’t think so. And what does that say about our society today?
There was an article published in The New York Times by a woman called Tina Brown in which she portrayed all white men as being out of control, power hungry maniacs doing their best to quieten the fervent mood of female bellicose jingoism.
According to her we are surrounded by ‘masculine mayhem’; the tyrannical patriarchy she delineates forces women into ‘out-dated NASA suits designed for an alien masculine physique’ she ends her article by suggesting men never care for ‘elderly parents and disabled siblings’.
My grandmother lived with us for 24 years and when she broke her hip and could no longer care of herself. I took three years out of college and helped my mother care for her.
Without doubt it was the most rewarding time of my life as our relationship deepened in ways I find difficult to express. As I read that line in her article, I have to say, my sensibilities were offended.
But, that’s okay — I can handle that and I fundamentally believe her right to speak her mind should override the chances of someone being offended. And I actually enjoyed her article even though I did not agree with all of it. Equality should mean we must all conduct ourselves appropriately and treat each other with dignity.
We must stand up for someone like Mr Boyne, he may not be trans himself but he doesn’t have to be, because that would render the vast canon of serious fiction redundant. I fear we are straitjacketing ourselves in our desperate bid to take ourselves so seriously. We have to look at ourselves and ask what kind of society are we constructing here?
When you replace what you can’t say with what you have to say you have the same outcome — censorship. We have caught ourselves in a bind.
It’s time to lighten up a little and let’s show our fellow humans some empathy and compassion as we hurtle towards the unknown.