Freedom of speech was once hailed by human rights advocates, and was soon embedded to many versions of human rights bills and documents including Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the free speech movement surged over campuses in North America and many other nations that enabled circulation of such radical and dangerous, but unconventional, and eye-opening ideas. Now, we live in a society where it has been freer than ever to speak up on different issues on different platforms. But do we all feel so? Do we all feel welcome to speak up on whatever matter in, whichever tone we want to? Witnessing battles over statements and discourse in the era where ‘political correctness’ dominates the debate, the notion of ‘free speech’ is as important as ever, especially within campuses and student societies where the very phrase must be protected and upheld.
Ever since Twitter presented us all equally with 140 characters for ramblings, witty jokes, and a platform for casual insults; mankind finally entered the epoch where speech had become freer than ever. Donald Trump’s ravings about ‘fake news’ is on par with the general dissatisfaction of us commoners. From paper media outlets, to social media, the platforms of speech also have diversified and so the debates today can take place on and offline, and words travel beyond borders. But does this technological advancement along with popular recognition of the importance of free speech fully sustain the means and functions of the phrase itself? Also, are we all equal beings when situated in the midst of social and political discussion?
According to YouGov polls released in association with Prospect, 67% of the Britons believed that too many people are easily offended these days over language that others use whereas 33% – half of the figure- responded with the idea that people need to be more attentive with the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds. ‘Extremist’, ‘racism’, ‘bigots’ and ‘chauvinism’ are perhaps the most common terms of condemnation we witness from media outlets on a daily basis, and we can attribute these terms to the discomfort the majority of us perceive. Based on a single rhetoric, it is way too easy to be branded and labelled as a person with either socially unacceptable or politically incorrect beliefs. And in fear of securing a safe space, words and statements are often more oppressed, leading to discussion being discouraged. Like how the University of Kent’s Student Union forced the campus’ UKIP society to cancel the crusades social (read more about it here), such anxiety over causing potential distress without offering a genuine and effective censorship of an idea hinders a university campus from being a place for open and free discussion. And amidst whatever irritation we receive, the division is deepening every second as problems of necessary opinions being held back in silence are addressed, and that the real nucleus of the whole free speech issue should be placed somewhere else: the power relations and attitudes of people.
Just like how the majority of people seem to agree, it seems fair to argue that readers of media outlets, and varying online platforms, are now too quick to judge one another, but that still cannot suture the voice of concern raised regarding hate speech and inconsiderate discourses we often encounter on all platforms. Filtered and paraphrased by ‘sanitised, progressive language’ are, in reality, vicious and exclusionary attitudes projected through individual discourses on social media to mainstream news outlets. It can be regarded no different than making obviously racist remarks using racist labels, when it is popularly argued the ‘civilisation of the native (whoever the native is)’ and the ‘secular culture’ must be defended from the threat of immigration. Decades ago, it was warned that there may be a chance of having a ‘nigger for a neighbour’. The real issue of free speech in modern days lies in the power that prints hate speech, demagogy and fragmentary rhetoric without inhibition, only in a more presentable tongue. With the conventional authority – usually middle-class or wealthy, white straight men – dominating the debate, who can easily offer support for rather dangerous rightist ideas, the words will merely polish divisive and hateful views into seeming like they’re socially acceptable.
Free speech is indeed stirring up mayhem, whilst producing a good number of people confused between ‘no platforming’ and ‘letting them speak’. And it is no better time for universities to search for a better, alternative way to moderate and preserve free speech; to uphold the means of the institution, the very place for open and free discussion. As the Kent Union election commences, students can pay close attention to how the candidates would contribute to bringing back open and healthy ‘agroa’ to the university, whilst simultaneously promoting righteous values and ideas across the various matters that affect student lives.