Sunday, 12 April 2015

How free is free speech?

As a poet, I’m all in favour of free speech. But I much prefer to be paid for it.

It’s an old joke, but one that has become worryingly topical. In all seriousness, I can’t remember a time in my career as a poet when the issue of free speech has generated such fierce argument.

The impact of the Charlie Hebdo murders has been felt worldwide. A great many of my fellow poets feel that the attacks were attacks on the very idea of free speech – an assault on everyone’s freedom to express their political, social and religious views, in verse or at the ballot box. It’s not just the political activists that have felt this way. Some of the most mild-mannered writers I know have been the most vehement in their expressions of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, and with persecuted poets and satirists the world over.

There are others who feel equally strongly that the cartoons which incited the massacre were hardly dispassionate political critiques. They point to a deeply embedded racist tendency within certain sectors of French culture – to a society which regularly gives a quarter of its votes to a neo-Nazi political party – and ask whether the cartoons were not simply pandering to this tendency, rather than engaging in genuine cultural discourse. They question whether it might have suited the establishment to use the facade of free speech to excuse collusion in the dissemination of material which another society might view as propaganda.

All of this has got me wondering: how free is our speech? Do we, as poets, have an inviolable right to express what we believe? Or are there times when that right could – or even should – be curtailed?

The question raises its head in absurd ways, as well as horrific ones. A couple of months back, I was at a poetry slam where the opening contestant had the temerity to make a derogatory reference to UKIP leader Nigel Farage. All poets have their hate figures, and as they go, Farage is a sitting target – the ridiculous, readily caricaturable but ultimately rather unsettling face of a political movement that’s not a million miles from those French neo-Nazis I mentioned earlier.

I cheered along with everyone else. Or nearly everyone. A certain writing acquaintance, who was sitting not far from me, took what I can only describe as extreme umbrage at the reference. Not only did he get up and ostentatiously walk out – but straight afterwards he buttonholed the poet and harangued him at length about the “offensive” nature of his poem.

Personally, I regard UKIP’s political views as far more offensive than the poem that ridiculed them. I asked myself what my response would have been if it had been a poem from Satires which had provoked the audience member’s ire. I would probably have said, “I’m glad you were offended – because at least I’ve made you think.” I once had a football kicked in my face whilst performing a poem in praise of immigration. I count that among my proudest poetic moments. Where such matters are concerned, I’d rather be booed than met with indifference.

But what would happen if the boot was on the other foot? If a poet came to one of my events, and performed a poem that was blatantly racist, or homophobic, or misogynistic?

At The Speakers’ Corner we have a liberal, open door policy when it comes to our open mic. The principle is that we don’t censor; people can bring 5 minutes’ worth of any material they like, and anyone can sign up to perform. So far, during my tenure as MC, no one has abused the privilege. Some of our more “humorous” poets sail a bit close to the wind at times in their comments on the opposite sex, but generally we know these performers well enough to be sure that no malice is intended, and that the sheer cheek of what they are saying is all part of the act. Occasionally, people have performed work that has been sufficiently heavy with expletives or sexual references to offend some of our more mildly spoken regulars. None of this has ever given me grounds to censor a performer.

But the thing is, I know there is a limit. I don’t want racists, or homophobes, or rape apologists to take advantage of the free speech that’s offered at Speakers’ Corner to publicise themselves, or their views. Actually, I suspect that if we ever get this type of thing at Speakers’ Corner, the audience will do my job for me and shut the idiot up before they say something we will all regret.

I’m constantly thankful that I live in a society where I am free to use my art to express my political and social opinions. I don’t face assassination by drug cartels, as Javier Silicia did. I don’t (yet) face imprisonment without trial and torture, as Ayat al-Gormezi did. If the price I have to pay for freedom of speech is a football in the face now and again, it’s a small price in the grand scheme of things.

But ultimately, as an MC, I still have to make decisions about how far to allow my performers the freedom of speech that I profess to uphold. I’ve never (so far) had to censor a performer, but there will come a day when I have to seriously consider it. And that’s not a responsibility I ever wish to take lightly.

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