Thought I’d repost a Sunday Business Post column I wrote on the Irish attitude to freedom of speech. No reason.

Sunday business post logoLet’s vote on the Freedom to Offend

10 May 2015 by Jason O’Mahony

In a few weeks we’ll be voting on the age of presidential candidates, quite possibly the most moronically pointless referendum we’ve ever been asked to vote on.

All the political reform issues we could be voting on, and Fine Gael and Labour give us this thing they found crumpled up in a bin at the Constitutional Convention. Why are we voting on this? Because FG and Labour, having failed to do any political reform, are now trying to find something to point to and call reform. We should be thankful: knowing this crowd, we could just as easily be asked to vote on adding an exclamation mark to the country’s name to make it sound more dynamic. Ireland!

If we’re going to have a referendum for the craic, then let’s have one on an issue that actually matters and will shape Irish society for generations. Let’s vote on freedom of speech.

Don’t we already have that? Actually, we don’t. In fact, you can tell the Irish attitude to freedom of speech in one simple way. Is there a get-out clause? The US constitution says that Congress may not abridge the freedom of speech. That’s it. No ifs or buts.

Our constitution says something similar, except there’s a very Irish “however”, which then gives the state all sorts of excuses to tell people to shut the hell up.

Having sat through the Marriage Equality debate, it’s fair to say that the concept of what freedom of speech means is up for national discussion. The level of intolerance, of people ripping down posters because they don’t like what they say, or demanding that X or Y should not be allowed on telly shows that to many Irish people there isn’t a respect for freedom of speech as much as a respect for my freedom of speech but not yours.

It used to be simple. The Catholic right took a “you can’t see/read that filth!” approach to everything from Playboy to The Life of Brian. Those of us on the liberal side believed that people should make their own minds up about things. Yeah, I did support Section 31 back then, keeping the Shinners off the telly but guess what? I was wrong. But broadly speaking, it was freedom versus censorship.

Yet today, many of the most intolerant people I meet tend to be among my fellow liberals, and they’re hawking around a new concept imported from British and US universities where people seem to be claiming a right not to be exposed to opinions they don’t like.

It’s the Fox Newsification of liberalism, where you only start seeking news and information from sources you agree with.

Where the self-policing of rational thought, by reading what the other side is saying, is now regarded as some sort of dangerous contamination.

That’s why we need a debate on freedom of speech: because it is two sided, not just saying your piece but hearing what the other guy says too. That’s how we keep ourselves honest, and it’s under threat.

It’s a funny thing: as a country, we’ve never been that bothered by freedom of speech. Is it because we’re not a nation given to open public discourse? Is it because whether it’s the Dáil or the AGM of the Feckerstown Tidy Towns committee, the real debate and decision making is done elsewhere?

Would we vote for a US freedom of speech right? I suspect not, because we wouldn’t think “Finally, I can now say whatever I want!” No, we’d vote No in our thousands because we’d be terrified that absolute freedom of speech would allow people to say anything about us.

It’s one of those bizarre areas where the hard-left liberals and the hard-right parish pump conservatives could agree. Both like the concept of the approved public opinion, whether it’s only one acceptable opinion on Marriage Equality or keeping quiet about that county councillor sending his secretary to England for her “special medicine” while he was in Lourdes.

There’s no need for other opinions to be flying around, confusing folk and giving them the wrong ideas.

Think I’m being over-dramatic? Last year in Oxford University a debate on abortion was called off after a protest. The protesters objected to two men debating the issue, which is fair enough. But why not raise that in the actual debate? Instead, the protest group decided that its opinion was superior to the people who wished to hear the arguments, and demanded the thing be shut down.

We’ve been here before. There’s a line in Father Ted about fellas dressed in black going around telling people what to do …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *