Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sticks and stones ...

Remember the old saying: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me? How very old-fashioned and outdated of you. Of course, words can hurt you and hurt you so badly that they must be made illegal. That is the way our social and political attitudes are going.

An excellent article by John O'Sullivan of a few days ago outlines the process whereby free speech itself has become an endangered phenomenon in countries that used to pride themselves on it.

Of course, there is a certain amount of exaggeration in descriptions of freedom in the past. Our own libel laws (which Mr O'Sullivan mentions) have made a mockery of the very concept for some decades. Past pressure from politicians on newspaper editors meant that a good many stories were not published though one could argue that some of those stories concerned private rather than public matters. Only some, though. The infamous story [scroll down for mention] of some Labour politicians getting drunk during a foreign trip, uncovered by a journalist whose career was then destroyed because said MPs thought nothing of suing for libel and lying on oath did concern public matters. Thereafter journalists became very cautious, indeed, about their stories.

Setting that and many other examples aside, we have to admit that the notion of people being so hurt by words whether in print, on the media or on the internet that those words must not be allowed to be said is a situation that none of us can be happy with. Or can we?

After all, people who shout loudly off about "political correctness" will also demand that the burning of poppies be banned as if that were the equivalent of a genuine attack on a poppy seller. It isn't. It is nasty and unpleasant but once we start banning nasty and unpleasant we are moving towards censorship and authoritarianism.

Back in the seventeenth century John Milton had the answer to it; back in the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill had the answer to it. Unless the question is of violence or any direct harm to the individual or the state (the only religious denomination Milton refused to allow was the Roman Catholic because they were conspiring against the state) then, unpleasant though those words and actions are, we have to allow them. For who decides what is unpleasant and even nasty? The police? Some organization set up for the purpose? Public opinion on a particular day?

Meanwhile, John O'Sullivan's article is well worth reading.

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