Let’s make 2011 the year of free speech
We should take to task the film censors, advert-banners and political blacklisters who think they know better than us.
Unfortunately, in 2010 the idea that the public needs to be protected from ‘dangerous ideas’ did not get ousted alongside the New Labour government. Instead, in the disparate spheres of politics, culture, education and advertising, words, opinions and images continue to be censured, corrected, silenced and removed from public view in the name of protecting us from harm.
The busybodies who take the liberty to decide what we, the public, are allowed to hear clearly cannot tell the difference between words and deeds, and do not understand that without the right to hear all sides of an argument or to see full versions of movies or plays, we don’t actually have genuine freedom of expression and conscience. Without access to a broad range of views and aesthetic judgements, we can’t truly work out for ourselves what is wrong or right, what is good or bad.
Here in Britain, many civil liberties campaigners were hopeful that the Lib-Con coalition government would help us reclaim the freedoms robbed by New Labour micro-managers. We heard that the database state was being rolled back, the ID cards scheme was getting slashed, and some surveillance cameras would be disassembled. Yet while some of the intrusive and unwieldy symbols of the surveillance society have certainly come to feel out-of-date and so New Labour, our new rulers continue to treat our minds as play dough to be kneaded and moulded into an ‘acceptable’ shape.
The Lib-Cons and their social psychology advisers call it ‘nudging’: it’s about gently pushing us, ’empowering us’, to make the right choices, to think pleasant thoughts, to do good. And so anyone or anything that can potentially lead us to behave badly must be removed. We’ve gone from ‘the politics of behaviour’ to ‘the politics of the brain’.
The idea that a minority should determine for the rest of us what we are allowed to say, think or listen to now spans the political spectrum. Remember, for instance, when the Conservative home secretary Theresa May used exclusion powers for the first time? It was to disallow Mumbai-based televangelist Dr Zakir Naik from giving a series of lectures in Britain in the summer. May was very much following in the footsteps of the former Labour home secretary, Jacqui Smith, who barred from Britain hundreds of people deemed not ‘conducive to the public good’. Such bogeymen have ranged from Muslim preachers to an American ‘shock jock’, from neo-Nazis to an Israeli politician. May used the same rhetoric as Smith, helping to make Naik’s crackpot views seem somehow mysterious and dangerously persuasive when they are nothing of the sort.
Nowhere is the clampdown on extreme views felt more acutely than in universities. These institutions should ideally be offering young people a unique chance to engage in free-flowing debate, to listen to – and question – everything. Yet in 2010, academia continued its transformation into the frontline of the ‘war against terror’. With universities viewed as hotbeds of ‘radicalisation’, higher education lecturers have been co-opted into keeping students in check. And student bodies, too, have been all too willing to ‘no platform’ ideas deemed too wacky, un-PC, or too potentially harmful for public airing.
Many people have internalised the idea that they have the right to decide on behalf of others what is acceptable or what is not – and that they should be thanked for doing so. So in 2010, eight people complained that an advert showing a pregnant nun with a tub of ice-cream, beneath which it said ‘Immaculate Conception’, was in poor taste. The Advertising Standards Authority duly banned it.
For others, the expression ‘the means justify the ends’ has no bounds. Take the National Health Service smoking cessation group. It recently demanded that children should be banned from watching films like 101 Dalmatians and Lord of the Rings because they show people smoking. In this instance, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) said banning was inappropriate. Yet in other cases, the BBFC has seen fit to cut and slash movies in the name of protecting adults from supposedly harmful images. Forty-nine scenes were cut out from the political horror flick A Serbian Film, severely compromising, in the view of the filmmakers, the movie’s message. The BBFC also gave a fairly tough 15 certificate to the British film Made in Dagenham simply because it featured swearing factory workers.
All of which begs the question: who the f**k do these prudes think they are? They are little more than jumped-up, self-styled guardians of morality who think they know better than the rest of us.
Whether it’s the government sending a message about what opinions are acceptable, the Advertising Standards Authority upholding the complaints of tiny, easily offended minorities, or the BBFC determining what kind of violent scenes or foul words audiences can stomach – today censorship is repeatedly dressed up as being for our benefit. And that’s one idea we should seriously challenge in 2011.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked
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