where the writers are
Freedom of Speech

My mother, bless, speaks to herself when gardening.  I can see her now, head down and muttering away as she snips at the bush in the front, tugs at weeds out the back, and caresses her prized gladiolis with tender, loving words.  She’s quite in a world of her own:

 Clip, clip, yank, yank, pull:  ‘There we go now. And just look at those greenfly.  I must get the spray.’

To be honest, I’ve tried speaking to myself when driving.  But I find that weird.  It doesn’t work.  When you’re speaking you need someone to speak to, even if it is the gladiolis.  The simple reason being that speaking is social. I swear many other drivers must have tried monologing to themselves before giving up and picking up a hitch-hiker.  But hey, I’ve been on that side too and can assure you that hitch-hiking is not all it’s cut out to be:

   ‘Let me tell you about Jesus...’,  the driver began as soon as I sat down in the passenger seat.

‘  ...and so we built mathematical models of demographic movements of upwardly mobile, pig-farming lesbians...’, continued the social statistician.

  ‘Yeah, man.  We had some great parties back in the old days, with gorgeous chicks, stacks of coke and The Stones pumping out cool hard-driving rhythms...’, drifted the red-eyed aging hippy.

I tell you, us hitchers have heard it all.  It’s all part of the hitching deal.

But that’s my point.  There are rules to follow, unless we want to come over as right wallies, uncouth yobs, or just ‘pains in the neck’.   

So: ‘Don’t speak with your mouth full!’

‘Think before you speak.’

‘Don’t be so contrary!’

‘Mind your Ps and Qs’, or  ‘Go and wash you mouth out with soap!’

‘Oh my God!  You can’t say that!’

‘Say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank-you’’.

‘It’s ‘ Mrs.’ not ‘Miss’ and she’s ‘slim’ not ‘skinny’’

‘Discreetly ask for the toilet.  Don’t hollor, ‘Oi!  Where’s the bog?’’

In fact, when you stop to think about it, the rules of speech are quite numerous and constraining.   Each what, where, how, to whom, in what manner, with which words, and when, are strictly socially determined. 

The preacher preaches in church on Sunday, and the CEO at the AGM, whilst all patiently listen.   No-one interrupts to offer contrary positions.  

Should you be so lucky, the Queen speaks to you.  Not you to the Queen.

‘Be careful how you speak to Mike the masher.  You might get a bunch-of-fives’.

‘Mind how you speak to mild Mary.  She’s a particularly delicate type’. 

Freedoms of speech?  Not, unless, like my mother, we speak alone.  And don’t think I’m putting over some upper-middle class ideal of spoken etiquette and elocution.  I’m not.  There’s enough inverted snobbery out there to fill Fort Knox three times over, so we might as well just accept the fact that socio-linguistic customs are absorbed into our identities and nigh on impossible to shake off. 

‘Know what I mean, guv?’     ‘D’you ken?’   ‘Ooh!  La di da!’

Having stated the obvious, let’s get serious.  Let’s get political.  Speaking words can have big consequences; as anyone who’s stood in church, or registry office, and said ‘I do’, can testify.  In other cases the demonic world can apparently be summoned up with satanic incantations, whilst it has been known for heads to roll for speaking out the sacred names of reverred gods. 


Phew!  Still here!

Then again, defame somebody in public and you might get hauled up before the judge for ‘slander’ and asked to contribute substantially to the nation’s coffers.  The media may not always mince their words, but they do take care before spitting them out.  Freedoms to speak carry certain restrictions.  Isn’t that right ‘Private Eye?’

Break speech codes and the weight of social sanctions falls.   Admittedly, these are far heavier in some social contexts than in others.  Historically, many a heretic has been thrown upon the burning pyre for confessing unacceptable convictions, or infidel stoned outside the city walls for saluting the wrong god.  And globally, many a political activist has had fingernails pulled out for speaking out against incumbant dictatorships, whilst many a freedom fighter has been tortured and shot for posting resistance notices up on side walls.  

Better to keep quiet, one might prudently think. Freedom of speech is not worth the pain, the self-sacrifice, the martydom or the loss of face.   Or is it?  

Living in healthy peacetime cotton wool democracies such alternatives are unthinkable.  But were that not the case perhaps we would also take these frightening paths and put our own lives on the line; as many now do and many have done?  It’s a hard thought.  One whose reality is almost too scary to contemplate.  Whose courage would not falter?   Brave indeed are those who follow their convictions to the end, be that the ampitheatre lions, the firing squad, or public disavowal and banishment.  I salute such ardent souls.

‘Better the ballot than the bullet’.  Absolutely, so long as polling booths play fair.  

‘Freedom to be heard’ now comes to the fore. So, how did that preacher get up into the pulpit; the politician on the voting platform; the university lecturer before the dais; the CEO on stage at the AGM, the dictator over-looking his military march past?  Not from internet blogging, I can assure you.

‘Please talk to me!’  The sign held above the young homelessman read as he traipsed alone along the banks of the Thames looking pretty glum and downcast.  Equally, it could have read: ‘Please listen to me!’  Speaking is social.  For each speaker a minimum of one listener is required.  Take that away and loneliness ensues.

‘You don’t always listen to me!’ My wife has complained.  I hold my hands up in guilt.

‘Five hits on my blog today!’ I remark, joyful that someone out there has listened to me. 

‘I might as well speak to a brick wall’, a geography teacher once moaned. 

‘Over five hundred facebook friends’, a friend’s teenage daughter commented. ‘That’s over five hundred people reading my comments!’  

Evidently, it is psychologically important to be listened to.  It tells us that we exist.   And the more important we are, the more people listen. That’s the facebook mentality, anyway, encouraging the race for prestige by gathering up ‘friends’.   It’s also an opinion subscribed to by preachers and politicians.  And if you happen to be a dictator, then you simply force people to listen - and not disagree. 

Therein lies the struggle.  Not simply the freedom to speak, but also to be heard and listened to.  But who listens?  How does yesterday’s crazy rant becomes today’s enlightened speech?

‘The earth is round! The sun is the centre of the universe!’ 

‘Are you joking?  The man’s a nutter.  Burn him!’

‘All races are equal’.

‘No way!  Africans are born to be slaves.’ 

For sure, quality of speech goes a long way, although Plato’s idea of a philosopher governed republic was trashed millenia ago.  Oratorial skills are certainly important, as Barack Obama  demonstrates so well.  Charisma helps, but is not enough or Mick Jagger would be vying with Cliff Richards for no.10.  Wealth and power undoubtedly play some part, or Silvio Berlusconi would still be a cruise boat cabaret singer.  And nepotism too can help, ask any royal family.  A touch of magic enabled Merlin and various tribal witch-doctors to have their limelight days, whilst sheer talent enables Shakespeare’s words to still be heard. Bloody-mindedness, of course, can not be overlooked, for bigotted religious fanaticists too often get their points across. Perhaps ‘courage of one’s convictions’ is a more positively termed determinant:  Just think of Martin Luther King, Steve Biko and Dietrich Bonhoffer.  Examples, amongst countless others, who selflessly died for theirs.

For the rest of us, swimming in the shoals of mediocracy, we fight to be heard or we are not heard at all.  ‘Letters to the editor’ remain unpublished, finished manuscripts of radicalizing novels lie dusting on the shelves.  Our rock-and-roll bands of yesteryear, that were once going to revolutionize the world, are now but strands of crumpled magnetic tape spooling off the reels in boxes of old memories; alongside the photos of student protest days and university debating society membership cards.  Now, we simply hold fort around the dinner table, criticizing government policies and proudly showing our children how wise we really are.  Then it’s off to the pub with a few select friends, amongst whom one can really, freely speak:

 ‘Now, if I was in charge...’

‘The government just hasn’t got a clue...’

‘What this country really needs is...’

Or, like my mother, it’s into the garden with the gladiolis.

Freedom to speak and freedom to be heard? There’s a time and a place for everything:  My wife usually cuts me off when ‘Desperate Houswives’ comes on. Nevertheless, ‘enraged reader from Basildon’, do keep plugging away.  Picking up the phone can also be useful, but please don’t cut me off during the live radio phone-in debates.

‘Get up, stand up.  Stand up for your rights’.

‘All we are saying, is give peace a chance’.

‘Thank-you, Mr. Jones from Clapham.  And now over to the weather.’

‘But...but...[click]... arrgh!’

Yes, in the west, at least, ‘getting heard’ is more the challenge than having the ‘freedom to speak’. Principally because the freedom not to listen also exists. Thank goodness!  Fortunately, choosing ‘the ballot’ over ‘the bullet’ is our Western democratic way.  There’s no polite discussion with a man holding a gun to your head.

Furthermore, votes in the ballot box come from speaking out for ‘others’.  That’s our inherited political tradition; notwithstanding power-mongering agendas which are often also involved. I’m not that naive.  Speaking out for friends, neighbours, and countrymen; the poor, the infirm and the oppressed. That’s the way to go.  Read up on any great preacher, politician or civil rights activist who have striven along these lines.  We, the majority, ‘the others’, need these representatives to speak up for us.  It beats trying to get our voices all simultaneously heard.  

But what a great tool the internet has become!  It’s global, democratizing effect ensures that a billion voices can all speak out at the same time.  And for those living where the internet is censored or banned; where the media is suppressed, and where freedoms of speech are ‘persuasively’ discouraged, there is, for the while, but one solution:   

They have a voice and thereby exist, through ‘us’, through ‘you’, and through ‘me’.