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The New Prudishness: On Free Speech In Election Year
Phil Harrison , January 12th, 2015 13:27

As the Charlie Hebdo attacks bring issues over the limits of freedom of speech, Phil Harrison looks at how the UK in 2015 is becoming ever-more polarised

Image courtesy Philip Date /

Nous sommes Charlie, right? So it turns out that freedom of speech isn't just an abstract concept after all. Sometimes, people risk their lives for it. And when the unthinkable happens, it feels like we've forgotten to acknowledge how fragile our consensus is; how recently the conditions we complacently regard as our birthright fell into place; how easily they can still be undermined.

And it's easy to tell that we've forgotten. Because the atrocities in Paris have arrived at a potent moment for the UK too. There's a culture war underway and it's going to define the next few months of British public life. And since that period will culminate in potentially the most pivotal election in recent history, it's a war we'd better fight hard.

Quietly and incrementally, freedom of speech has found itself threatened in Britain too. Think of Britain as a country divided into two camps; the Politically Correct Brigade and the Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad Lobby. Contemplating the last couple of years, it's clear that there's a fundamental disconnect. One person's hate speech is another person's banter. Nigel Farage has made a career out of worrying away at this faultline - take away the sporadic, comically incoherent brain-farts that pass for UKIP policy and it becomes clear that the UKIP leader is essentially speaking on behalf of a demographic who can't bloody well see what's wrong with calling someone a poofter, for God's sake. You can't say anything these days, can you?

Well, no you can't. Particularly - should UKIP's Paul Nuttall get his way - if you want to perform political comedy in a publicly-funded theatre. Or even, as of one particularly scary moment last year, if you just wanted to disagree with UKIP on social media. UKIP thought that a cartoon featuring the three main party leaders being run over by a van was a worthy image for a Christmas card. But they also appeared to think that a house with a St George Cross hanging out of the window was a vision deserving of almost religious levels of solemnity. Everyone's keen on freedom and truth. But all too often, only if it's their freedom and their truth.

Still, let's not be too smug. Let's not pretend that the self-styled progressive left has any kind of long-term tenancy on the moral high ground. Not if you attend one of the universities who voted to ban Robin Thicke's dumb-as-a-post date rape anthem 'Blurred Lines'. Or if you idly signed an online petition that ended up turning the pitiful Dapper Laughs into Britain's first banter-martyr.

There are even recent freedom of speech issues that defy such binary categorisation. There's Exhibit B for example. Is it racist? Hard to say. The half dozen or so art critics who've seen it might have an opinion worth considering. But the rest of us? We'll never know. Because even not having seen Exhibit B themselves didn't stop an online pressure group from feeling able to decide on our behalf. Maybe it really did deserve to be run out of town. But isn't it infuriating to be robbed of the chance to make up your own mind? Because one person's 'pushing artistic boundaries' is always going to be another person's 'going too far'. Aren't we mature enough as a culture to deal with that?

So here's a thought. Is it just possible that there's rather too much banning of things going on at the moment? Let's call it the New Prudishness. Now it's possible to participate in the putative banning of something by simply clicking a link on Twitter and filling in a dialogue box, could it be that some of us just aren't thinking this stuff through? Most of the examples here will feel like footnotes this time next year if they don't already. But the implications are much more profound than individual cases suggest.

For a start, as in the punk era, polarities like those abroad in Britain today often speak of significant change, on its way but being vigorously opposed. Could this schism actually be a good sign? Could a new generation gap be opening up? Or if not a generation gap, a chasm which might force sides to be taken and could spell an end to the stiflingly nostalgic aesthetic of consensus that has felt so prevalent in the recent past and a return to some sort of forward motion? Could this tension actually be creatively fruitful? If, once again, it's truly possible to provoke and upset, might we be at the end of the era of the pop star/comedian/artist as 'role model'? We can only hope.

But the prudish, offence-prone present has a more insidious political dimension too. The Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad lobby make great capital out of the idea of this country being in the hands of an elite. Which it obviously is. But it sure as shit isn't the liberal, leftist metropolitan elite of Nigel Farage's nightmares. There's a fundamental confusion over the nature of powerful elites in the UK and it only serves to bolster the consensus. The right wing media and its favoured politicians have, in the last few years, done a masterful job of obscuring economic issues with cultural ones. And so is the great UKIP myth of an ignored, put-upon, silent majority perpetuated. From Dapper Laughs to Ched Evans, the left have their small victories. Meanwhile, the absurd and obscene inequities of British life flourish unchallenged and the real elite maintain their self-styled birthright and carry on ruling.

Freedom of speech is already a slight misnomer. It remains a limited and contested concept. It's moderated by hate speech legislation. Laws against incitement to violence. The libel and defamation statutes. But up to that point? Let's just call anything else the rough and tumble of just-about-functioning democracy. Given that so much is up for grabs in 2015, how about a collective national thought experiment? Let's think of it as our tribute to the tragically fallen of Charlie Hebdo. Let's not ban or otherwise stifle words or images or ideas. Let's encourage everyone to say exactly what they mean - but only on the condition that they're willing to stand up and account for it, in detail, in front of a crowd of informed, inquisitive and even hostile peers. Wouldn't it have been great to see Julian Blanc surgically eviscerated on live TV? Or to see Anjem Choudary's risible Islamo-fascism not tolerated but dismantled on Newsnight? Or watch David Cameron explaining that no, he wasn't using the memory of his dead son as a shield to prevent examination of his NHS-supporting credentials? Let's disagree, furiously if necessary. But let's not hide ugly or inconvenient truths - or indeed, ugly or inconvenient lies - behind comforting but disempowering layers of unthinking outrage. And let's not pretend that we've any possibility of easy consensus in a land that's more spiritually, materially and intellectually divided than it's ever been. In an era as conflicted as ours, consensus isn't always our friend. This year, let's not die wondering.