For as long as I have been following various issues, I’ve repeatedly come across various groups individuals on the conservative side of the spectrum saying that liberals on the left are denying them their right to free speech. Those decrying such “oppression” are usually the recipients of valid criticism to their statements or claims, which is itself, of course, free speech.Such behaviour appears across a lot of social issues – for example, women’s rights, religion in schools, and so on – but over the last fortnight I have seen quite a lot of claims from the right that “freedom of speech is being denied”, and this is largely due to the “controversy” that sprung up after Rory O’Neill (more famously known as the bar owner and performer Panti Bliss) pointed out that members of the LGBT community are treated with less respect than others by certain well-known individuals in the press.
I am a straight, cisgender male who has never had to experience prejudice directed at me because of my sexuality or orientation. Nor am I ever likely to experience it: I’m not a part of a minority group, and so I am exceedingly unlikely ever to be subject to abuse because of that, and as a result I will probably always see things in a slightly different way than someone who is subjected to it. Recognising one’s privilege allows people to see outside the box and take in different perspectives. I strive to learn about LGBT and women’s issues where and when I can, and I’d like to think that I now recognise the difference between denial of freedom of speech and faux-victimisation from the right.
Let’s look at the idea of freedom of speech. Most of us might see it as, arguably incorrectly, the freedom to express ourselves in whatever way we wish. Of course, we also understand there may be a moral caveat to this: don’t express yourself in such a way that it causes harm to others (such as incitement to racial hatred, for example). Maybe it’s fair to say that we impose our own limitations to free speech on a personal level, because we generally have enough cop-on to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Article 40.6.1.i of the Irish Constitution provides that the State guarantees liberty for the rights of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions, subject to public order and morality.
There is, obviously, a corollary to freedom of speech. If you exercise your right to express your opinion, you must also be prepared to allow others to express theirs, including their valid criticism of your opinion. Such criticism is not denying you your freedom of speech, and to make such a claim of victimisation is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
In the early hours of this morning I read Noel Whelan’s article in the Irish Times about liberals’ use of the word ‘homophobic’, and how it’s tantamount to the denial of free speech.
Whelan opens with a recollection of a debate he organised in UCD in 1989 in which the motion put forth was ‘That Homosexuality is Perverse and should be Discouraged’. He compares this to a tweet last week posted by RTE’s The God Slot, in which the question “Can gays be cured of being gay?”. It seems that because the debate motion in 1989 was allowed to be used, Whelan argues that the question posed by The God Slot should also be allowed.
The problem here, though, is with context. Whether or not homosexuality is “perverse” may have been a valid (and I use the word ‘valid’ loosely) question in the more conservative 80s (remember, this was before the X Case, before homosexuality was decriminalised, and not long after contraception became freely available), but now, 25 years later, we know right well that notions that homosexuality is a choice/disease/whatever is simply absurd and without any merit.
The tweet sent by The God Slot could have been phrased much better in order to get its point across, but despite this, it was also the ensuing reaction to criticism that made them fall foul of public regard. The God Slot responded to criticism to said tweet by implying that those objecting to it were engaging in “fascism dressed as liberalism”. In the piece itself on the radio show, it was explained that homosexuality cannot, of course, be cured. With this in mind I believe that the initial tweet was a mistake, phrased very badly in a manner that gives credence to the notion that homosexuality is an illness; but the subsequent handling of very valid criticism served only to dig an even bigger hole.
In this day and age, implying that your critics are denying you your right to free speech or are akin to fascists is extremely disrespectful to people who suffered – and continue to suffer – at the hands of dictators. When someone objects to your homophobic statements, you are not the victim of genocide nor are you being placed into a forced labour camp, so don’t even dare to compare yourself to these people.
So what is ‘homophobia’? Noel Whelan answers this himself in his Irish Times piece.
Homophobia is a horrible word. It is defined as “an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people”.
He then states:
The suggestion that anyone who disagrees with full equality for gays and lesbians is homophobic is surely a misuse of the word.
Nope, it’s not a misuse of the word. His first definition of homophobia is pretty bang-on. If you believe that LGBT people should be treated differently to non-LGBT people, this is an irrational aversion to homosexuality, and is, therefore, homophobia.
Nobody likes being called homophobic. It’s a pretty natural reaction to get defensive when your homophobic statements are called out. I’ve been rightly called out on homophobic phrases (“That’s so gay” – a phrase that derives from, and feeds into, the absurd notion that there’s something wrong with LGBT people) but instead of voicing my immediate defensiveness, I took it as an opportunity to think about what I said and to understand the harm such phrases cause. Rory O’Neill explained it perfectly when he was interviewed by Brendan O’Connor:
[T]he problem is with the word ‘homophobic’, people imagine that if you say “Oh he’s a homophobe” that he’s a horrible monster who goes around beating up gays you know that’s not the way it is. Homophobia can be very subtle. I mean it’s like the way you know racism is very subtle. I would say that every single person in the world is racist to some extent because that’s how we order the world in our minds. We group people. You know it’s just how our minds work so that’s okay but you need to be aware of your tendency towards racism and work against it. What it boils down to is if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe and the good thing to do is to sit, step back, recognise that you have some homophobic tendencies and work on that.
[Emphasis my own; you can watch the unedited clip here]
I find it ironic that those who are saying they should be allowed to make homophobic statements are also standing alongside those who are issuing legal threats to O’Neill. Journalist John Waters and several (all?) patrons of the Iona Institute have sent legal letters to O’Neill following the interview on the allegation that they were defamed (I recommend this piece discussing whether John Waters, Breda O’Brien, and the Iona Instituted are homophobic). Surely trying to silence people who objected to your opinion goes against the whole idea of free speech?
Whelan implies that there is some sort of debate as to whether LGBT should be treated as equals to everyone else. There is no such debate. It is not a matter of public discussion what consenting adults should or should not be allowed to do when it comes to their sexuality or private lives. Should we have a public debate on what Whelan is allowed to do in the bedroom? No, we shouldn’t. That’s preposterous. Giving LGBT equal rights will not cause the downfall of society, and the idea that legislating for equal marriage rights could be a bad thing is silly. Remember, LGBT people are real people, just like you or me, and they must be allowed to enjoy the same rights as everyone else.
The reason that liberals continually point out homophobia is because conservatives keep bringing it up – left alone I’m not sure there’d be much discussion or “debate” at all. However, the fact that people call out homophobia and then provide a differing view does not mean they are denying free speech or being “fascist masquerading as liberal”: they are simply exercising their own right to free speech to give valid criticism.
Indeed, it should be noted that it is the liberal left who are trying to keep the views of conservatives in public, not the other way around. Several people have posted screenshots of the tweets from The God Slot after they deleted them, and after RTE removed the alleged defamation on Brendan O’Connor’s show, it was the more liberal media that pushed to keep it public, through transcripts and sharing the video when it appeared elsewhere. It’s a bit confusing when conservatives claim that liberals are trying to censor them by denying them free speech. On the contrary, it is the very liberals they bemoan that are trying to uphold the essence of free speech and expression.
If you can’t handle that other people have differing opinions to you, your “deeply-held beliefs” do not give you a carte blanche to act like a child by issuing legal threats or by calling them fascists. Be thankful that you are able to voice your opinions in this country, but accept that those opinions are open to criticism because other people also have the same freedoms.
Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequence.