Freedom of speech came to be a topic for this session as people are affected by the political climate as we experience it in certain parts of the world. So for us, in our part of the world, the debates which have raged for the last few years around the referendum for independence for Scotland, and the referendum for Brexit for the U.K can have a significant impact on how people feel about where they live, how secure they feel, perhaps how welcome they feel. Because big media issues can have an impact on the mental and emotional well being of individuals we thought it would be important to discuss it.
It feels very very difficult when somebody disagrees with us! We acknowledged this; none of us like it when someone disagrees with us. Some of us are better at asserting their point of view, others may keep quiet to keep the peace, either way it is uncomfortable. But our beliefs and values sit deeply in us and facing someone who believes opposite to us feels very unsettling. So maybe it would be nicer if we just all agreed about everything, right? No!!
So, what is free speech? Amnesty International define it as:
‘Freedom of speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.’ Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be deeply offensive. But it comes with responsibilities. We also spoke about the social consequences of freely expressing offensive ideas, you may lose friends, your career and respect.
There can be a real power balance in expressing free speech because society accepts some views more readily than others; there are acceptable stigmas, such as stereotypes of people on benefits, or perhaps stereotypes about the profile of someone who went to Eton. Some people are seen as fair game to be discredited, is this right? Who is allowed to have free speech and who isn’t? We discussed the current debate about universities curbing controversial voices, the group discussed how this could push views underground and intensify their virility. How do you treat a person who has an opposing view to you? It is important to not lose the humanity of the person opposite you, disagreeing however powerfully with someone’s views is not a license to dehumanise or demonise them-as discussed earlier they may face consequences, social or even criminal for their views, but people remain human whatever their beliefs. Free speech moves to hate when it encompasses:
“abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
We considered how people can end up with what we perceive as horrendous views; in a documentary about white supremacists, a black lady interviewed members of a group in America. She discovered that many members were in the group because it was a place where they had a feeling of being connected and of belonging to a group. Through meeting her, and building relationship and receiving education, some members left the white supremacists group as they no longer saw the beliefs and values as valid.
It is helpful then for use to be aware where we generalise, stereotype, stigmatise and discriminate; some would argue that in doing so we are coming from an evolutionary protective system in looking out for ‘our tribe’. However, we are all human and maybe sometimes we need to understand the human in front of us and the reason for their very distasteful point of view, maybe they will even change it if we manage to treat them well at the same time as disagreeing. Or, as someone in the group brought, maybe we are the ones to have it all wrong, and by being open we could learn something from the other.