Gary Day

December 1, 2006

Is there such a thing as free speech? No. Or if there is then Gordon Brown may legislate against it. Right, that's that sorted. Oh, all right then. I'd suppose I'd better explain what I mean. It's really very simple. If you own a phone or television, use a computer, buy a newspaper or magazine, then you are paying to participate in the exchange of opinion.

The most you can hope for is a discount or a cheap rate. But cheap or discounted speech doesn't sound very appealing, does it? It has the whiff of basement bargains, "buy one get one free". It's a reward for being a good customer. Like the plastic toy that comes with a McDonald's Happy Meal.

I suppose you can make free with speech. Which is a different matter. Here, we are talking about wit, irony, play. But the English, who define themselves by their sense of humour, believe you shouldn't make jokes about something so serious, proving once again that there is no such thing as free speech. If you're not allowed to have fun with it, then that's a restriction on its use.

In any case, laughter, according to Freud, is no guarantee of liberty. Look, I don't care if he's wrong, he's a lot more interesting than Brown. The unconscious uses humour to evade the censorship of the ego, so we never quite know what it's saying. The poor thing can speak only in a code that Lacan says we can never crack. And if we can't know ourselves sufficiently to know what we mean, then what value has free speech? It is the illusion of the intellect.

Free speech is a chimera. Yes, you can point to Question Time , the letters pages of The Times and even Radio 5 Live, but these are mere tokens. They are not examples of free speech because the views that make it into print or on to the airwaves are selected from among many more that do not. What's more, they are responding to an agenda set by politicians or the media. So-called free speech is almost always reactive. And it is mostly the privilege of the white, educated middle class. They dominate the media, they are the mouthpiece for power.

We need alternative voices. So we look to those who bang the table for free speech. But what do we find? Some of its strongest supporters are against widening participation. If there is such a thing as free speech, it depends on people being able to express themselves, and that is what education offers. Or should. To protest that too many people are going to university is to restrict the possibility of free speech to the middle class who mostly go there.

I have heard defenders of free speech say it is their right to offend others, and they talk in terms of "humiliating" and "ridiculing" their opponents. That's not free speech, that's bullying. The demand for free speech was part of the Enlightenment project. It was a means of reaching truth through open debate. But you can't have discussion in an atmosphere of intimidation. Free speech is an essential ingredient of democracy but consideration for others is common decency without which civilisation totters.

Some who believe in free speech attack the avalanche of legislation curtailing our right to protest, others deride those who campaign against global warming as "middle-class miserablists". It takes all sorts. Again, some who believe in free speech have a sense of social responsibility, others regard that as a form of "tyranny". When Brendan O'Neill, the deputy editor of online magazine Spiked , complains about the planned ban on junk food advertising, you wonder, despite his protestations to the contrary, whether he cares more about the rights of advertisers than the health of children. Domino's Pizza will relish his polemic far more than parents trying to get their kids to eat healthily. They may be a little alarmed by his reference to Marx, but there's no need. Apparently the author of Das Kapital thought that trying to persuade us to buy, say, a floating duck radio, is "an essential civilising moment". Well, you learn something everyday.

We don't just work in an economy, we live in a society. And in society you cannot have unbounded free speech. Even at home I'm not allowed an opinion on McFly. Free speech is not an absolute. It exists in institutions that regulate its use and perpetuate social and economic inequality. Forgetting that fogs the issue. I am tired of hearing the phrase, "I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is pure posturing since there's no possibility - yet - of the speaker having to make good on his or her word. Personally, I have no intention of dying just so that someone can talk bollocks. I can do that perfectly well myself, thank you.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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