There’s an old saying along the lines that something free is only worth what you paid for it, or put another way, if it’s free it isn’t worth having. So what of free speech? What good does it actually do us? I can see how in times past it was a serious matter that you should be able to criticise the king without fear of losing your head, or challenge religious orthodoxy, or develop new scientific thinking. Free speech has enabled civilisation to advance, it was crucial to the spread of new ideas, new thinking, new understanding. But as crucial as it was, free speech did not represent new ideas, new thinking or new understanding, it was merely the tool to bring them about. Today we have a lobby that worships free speech as if it were an end in itself. There is a scene in “Life of Brian” where the fleeing anti-hero loses a sandal and some of the chasing mob pick it up and worship it. Free speech should be something we use to get from A to B, like a sandal, and that’s all it is. That’s not to say it’s bad, that’s not to say we shouldn’t have it, that’s not an attack on free speech as a concept.
Where we do have a problem with free speech is with the zealots who worship it and who strive to extend it’s boundaries beyond reason, the sandal worshipers in that Python film in other words. To them, it is perfectly okay to insult Christians, it is perfectly okay to insult Jews and it is perfectly okay to insult Moslems. To them, free speech is paramount, it matters above all else. If they see that any Moslems, for example, are offended by cartoons mocking the Prophet then it becomes a matter of principle to them to torment those Moslems beyond endurance. Free speech is paramount. Free speech must prevail. The Christians and Jews have already been beaten into submission by the free speech lobby, but is that right? To complain or criticise on the basis of reasoned rational thought is one thing, but should it be acceptable to insult anyone for no reason other than to extend the limits of free speech? It is almost a religious obsession with some of the free speech fanatics, just criticise them and see the reaction. The irony would be lost on them.
The problem is that free speech is not being used to advance new ideas, new thinking or new understanding. It has been hijacked by those who are intolerant. To them the feelings of other people are an irrelevance before the altar of free speech. No one who is hurt to see their sincerely-held faith mocked, or is offended by foul or abusive language, actually matters. Indeed, it sometimes seems they are deliberately targeted for offence. Free speech did not come to us for free, it was hard won and a high price was paid for it. Right now we have lost it, and it is not doing us any good. On the one side we have whistle-blowers trying to tell us about corruption in Europe and who are being suppressed. Where are the free speech zealots when you need them, banging their drums and demanding attention? On the other side we have idiot Danish cartoonists who become a cause celebre instead. We need to win back free speech, it is too important to allow the zealots to run riot with. I am never going to stand up and defend the right of someone to be gratuitously offensive.