Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Free speech with responsibility

Ten days ago I took down nine posts published on this blog from 13 December to 3 January. I did it because they had drawn unexpected commentary from various sources, in particular natal women who found things in some of them worthy of criticism or frank ridicule. Their views, moderate or extreme, had to be taken seriously. Even though they themselves were not the target readership.

There were two responses I could have made: first, to edit the posts to make them more widely acceptable; second, to remove them altogether. I decided on the second choice. Naturally I have preserved a copy of each of them in its entirety, comments included. They have been archived as historical documents that received a mixed reception and were withdrawn.

Ten days on, and I wonder why I didn't go down the other route, and simply edit them. It's bothering me. I'm beginning to feel a bit dishonest not to have left them up in some form. I'm even thinking that I let myself be pushed into self-censorship, and that I should now consider republishing these posts - albeit with some parts omitted - as a way of upholding the principle of free speech.

'It's your blog, write what you want to say' is a fair maxim. But I'd add some riders to it.

One: I aim to write posts in normal English, free of language that would surprise and offend ordinary people like my family and neighbours. I think that's quite a good test.

Two: I aim for an even tone, pitched to the level of an educated person aware of current events and capable of taking a balanced view. Tone is very important. A sneering, mocking, condescending or threatening tone alienates. It gets in the way of the message.

Three: anything said in public, even if expressly put forward as a private opinion, can have repercussions for many other people. Especially if one publishes a real face and a real name alongside the message - as I do - then your image and attitude can easily be taken as the typical image and attitude for one's social group. Even if one doesn't feel at all typical, and would like to be regarded as completely individual. So care is required.

The fallout from The Observer backing off from Julie Burchill's recent article has obviously made me think. Various views have been expressed about that: some taking the line that the paper was unwise to accept the article for publication in the first place, but acted properly in having second thoughts. Others thinking that it was a bad example of political correctness in action. The Telegraph republished the article, but has not itself escaped criticism. There are for instance problems with moderating comments.

The article is a hot potato, and contains language that has reduced its message to a rant. So there is regret all round that it has achieved little beyond giving more personal exposure to Julie Burchill. It certainly hasn't fostered understanding, and it may have the undesired effect of alerting the authorities to a 'problem' that needs action, that they may not understand, leading to clamp-downs on free speech that nobody will want.

I don't want my blog - or yours - to be constantly vetted either directly, or through Google, for content that may lead to a reprimand or worse. Nor do I want to see the media confined to a small number of compliant organs that tread very, very carefully, even if they are not actually censored. To prevent this, the outrageous language, tone, slant, prejudice, and character-assassination techniques used by the press, and examined in the Leveson Enquiry, need to be avoided just the same by the ordinary blogging and article-writing public.


  1. Lucy, you need to put in place a disclaimer saying that what you write are only your views and not necessarily the views of others. You need to state that abusive, offensive or derogatory comments will be edited and you have the right not to publish such comments as you see fit. Other than that steer clear of subjects likely to cause offence or disturb the hornet's nest. Personally I try to avoid offending anyone deliberately or otherwise. Free speech is everyone's right as long as it doesn't cause unnecessary friction or offence.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. "Free speech is everyone's right as long as it doesn't cause unnecessary friction or offence."

    The problem with this statement is the caveat that it must not "cause unnecessary friction or offence."

    How is communication possible if only those that conform to the desired, (or dictated/demanded/approved) speech patterns or ideology are allowed to speak.

    There can be no open dialogue if one party or the other is allowed to make the rules as to what is acceptable or "politically correct".

    An example raised was the use by the trans crowd of the term "cis". Many natal women, most notably the moreradical feminists, find that term to be objectifying and degrading.

    Of course the trans crowd see the term as perfectly acceptable and obviously pay no mind to those hateful "rad-phlems", whom they have demagogued and dismissed as less than human.

    This sword cuts both ways you see.

  3. No-one has yet explained why they find the term 'cis' objectifying or degrading; nor have they come up with a suitable alternative. 'Cis' is only used in the context of trans/non trans. Outside that discourse, neither 'trans' nor 'cis' are needed. As for natal, we were all born. Just sayin'.


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford