Whenever something like Tim Hunt’s clusterderp happens in the world, there’s one phrase I can absolutely count on hearing almost immediately. It’s so unavoidable, so foreseeable and so inevitable that I can close my eyes, count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and hear the words…
“You’re just not allowed to say anything these days!”
This isn’t just some generic wry observation of Twitter. It isn’t some modern social media phenomenon by a long shot. I hear this from all corners, including from work colleagues while they sip their instant coffee and read the broadsheet-du-jour. It’s the most infuriating cliché – a close relative of “it’s political correctness gone mad”, although more likely to be found in natural verbal conversation, whereas the lesser-spotted Politicus correctnessgonemadius can be found limited only to the dry wilderness of right-wing tabloid letters sections.
What makes it so infuriating is that it’s simply not true. You are allowed to say anything in nearly every first-world democracy. If you’re American, it’s enshrined in constitutional law. If you’re British, it’s retained in a complex series of traditions and precedents. You absolutely can say whatever you want.
Where were the people who supposedly don’t allow you to say these things when Katie Hopkins said, in a national newspaper with a circulation of millions, that she’d happily gun down refugees in cold blood? Where were these Thought Police when Nigel Farage mouthed off at an audience, accusing them of being left-wing shills? Were they napping or looking the other way for the last decade or so of Jeremy Clarkson’s existence? And everyone remember when someone went up to David Starkey and said “nope, you can’t compare the Scottish Nationalist Party to the Nazis” with a gun against his head? Because reality certainly doesn’t.
The world absolutely agrees – you are allowed to say things. Not “except for”. Not even “within reason”. You can say anything.
It’s what happens next that’s the free for all.
While the “political-correctness-gone-mad-lite” types bark about the long and prestigious tradition that western democracies have for freedom of speech, they resolutely ignore the equally long and prestigious tradition of people being held to account for what they say, for what they incite, and for what they tell others to do. I shouldn’t even have to raise the “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre” test. Or point out that you can be convicted for murder even if you hire a someone else to do the killing – even though your orders are nothing more than an exchange of words. I shouldn’t have to tell you all about slander and libel laws, which hold people to account for their words – quite literally just their words, spoken or written. These are things you all, including the “you can’t say anything” crowd, should be fully aware of. We have a very grand tradition of policing words – it’s not a new thing.
You’re allowed to say what you like, you’re just not free from its consequences. If you incite violence through your speech, the law and society will punish you for it. If you slander and damage someone’s reputation through lies and deceit, law and society will punish you for it. And society does that because words aren’t just isolated things; they convey information and ideas, and they can cause actions to come about. They’re far from harmless, so society and law treats them appropriately. What might just be a newer phenomenon is that increasingly, although the law still rarely gets involved, if you start making life hell for people who have had enough of your shit – insert countless examples or misogyny, racism, homophobia… – society will now scrutinise you for it. Because we’re realising that words can have a knock-on effect and consequences far beyond the obvious of slander and libel. You might think that the odd off-hand comment here and there can’t hurt, but the layers upon layers of micro-bullshit add up to a real effect eventually. We all accept that lies and slander about an individual is something where speech should be held to account – and so should lies and slander, in the form of slurs and “jokes”, about groups of people. At last, the more progressive component of society have said “enough” – “e-fucking-nough” – and aren’t going to take it any more. We’re going to call it out and we’re going to make a fuss.
And why shouldn’t we? After all, we are allowed to say what we want. That’s a freedom that absolutely extends to telling people that they are full of shit. We reserve the right to say that, in reality, words cause real damage and people need to answer for the damage they cause – one might lament that the career of one 70-year-old Nobel Prize winner has been “destroyed” (insomuch that you can “destroy” a career at that stage), but what about the number of women who would have heard those comments and thought “nope, science isn’t for me, that University isn’t for me, that career isn’t for me”. What about their careers? Wait, are you saying we’re not allowed to stand up for them? Are they just the wrong kind of people? Are we not allowed to criticise outright idiotic misogyny to help encourage them (or at least counter the incessant discouragement), and to stop their careers from being truly destroyed before they begin?
Because when someone declares “you’re not allowed to say anything these days!” that’s exactly what they’re demanding. They’re asking for special immunity from criticism. They’re asking for other people to roll over and shut up about it. They want special treatment, and to be put in a nice padded box where their opinions can get out but no dissenting opinion can get in. They want to say whatever they like and get away with it.
Why do they want that? Ironically, Tim Hunt said it best – “when you criticise them, they cry”.