It was a few weeks ago that I read in the Letters section of this paper that a reader was concerned that views being expressed by some members of the community were too extreme and shouldn’t be given space in the paper.
The editor, rightly, replied that people were entitled to express their thoughts but this didn’t mean the paper supported or endorsed those views.
All of which got me thinking about free speech, which is one of the central values of a democratic society. We have heard a lot of free speech and strong opinions over the past few months as 2016 has turned out to be one of the most interesting years, politically speaking, for a long time.
And one of the things that has emerged from this year of turmoil has been the unwelcome truth that not everyone thinks like us. Just because you think that you and your friends are smart, switched on, socially and politically aware, there’s a counter group whose views are just as powerful as your own. And the very last thing you should do is ignore them.
Of course, it is unpleasant sometimes to acknowledge that, not only do many people think very differently to you, but actually there are MORE people than you who think that way, but you just have to suck it up.
Which is all very well in theory but if, like me, you cringe and feel slightly nauseous whenever Donald Trump or Nigel Farrage appear in public, then you really have to keep reminding yourself why free speech is a good thing. It is galling to see the likes of Farage and Trump given so much airtime by the media circus that surrounds both these clowns, but however horrid their views might be, it is important that we know what those views are so that we can challenge them.
Giving people the chance to have their say is so very important. By gagging someone just for having a different viewpoint is simply going to drive that viewpoint elsewhere – possibly the darkest corners of the internet. Free speech has to be just that. It cannot come with provisos – so long as it is a safe, comfortable viewpoint that we can all subscribe to. We need to understand how others are thinking, even if their opinions are diametrically opposed to our own. If opinions cannot be freely held and expressed, then democracy becomes nothing more than a worthless joke.