Freedom of expression, restraint and the public space

By Jill Segger
March 8, 2016

The tensions between freedom of expression and the occasions of its restriction have filled thousands of column inches and hundreds of hours of airtime. It could be argued there is little new to be said. Most of us will acknowledge that there is no right not to be offended but neither should the giving of gratuitous offence be therefore permitted to go unexamined.

Until, that is, the issue under discussion is one about we may have strong personal feelings. The challenge of treating fairly with the opposing view then becomes more demanding. I will admit my own prejudice here – I very much dislike what is usually called 'bad language'. This is nowhere near as important an issue as 'no-platforming' or whether we should allow people with views we find rebarbative to enter the UK. But because it may be seen as a smaller and less democratically significant difference, it may perhaps be examined for the relationship between giving and taking offence without generating heat at the expense of light.

Last week, Salford City Council enacted an Order criminalising ' foul and abusive language' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22813) – a concept which raised more questions than it answers, as Liberty's response makes clear.

What this does not appear to engage with, is the manner in which we perceive and inhabit shared and public spaces. Social media – for all its welcome empowering of those previously overlooked – has played a somewhat questionable role in blurring the emotional, social and psychological bounds of the private and public registers.

When I find a comment in my Twitter time-line fuming that “the fucking bus is late again”, I have no difficulty in understanding that a) the complainant is not swearing at me and b) that he or she may be entirely justified in their vexation. But I do feel it reasonable to ask if the copulatory adjective adds anything to the force of that expressed vexation. If I were actually standing at the same bus stop, and therefore receiving those vibrations on my eardrums, would I be justified in asking for restraint?

If someone were to use a similar expression within my home, I should have no hesitation in asking them to forebear. And, when I have – only most rarely – found it necessary to make such a request, it has always been graciously met with apology and acquiescence.

This is simply to say that considerable cultural and generational differences come into play when we consider what may be thought 'foul' and offensive speech. But it is worth considering that for a good many people (not all of whom are middle-aged Puritans), the transposition of the familiar into the general may not best serve the cogency of the case expressed.

It seems therefore reasonable for both 'fors' and 'againsts' to question themselves. Should I be always at liberty to express my feelings without restraint? Do I have a case in saying that your chosen mode of expression deafens me to your intent?

There are wider implications here for more important matters and none of us can afford to circle the wagons into laagers of either derision or outrage.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.