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Freedom of speech could be dangerous

CHRIS MORVAN Sunday, August 13 2017

If there is one thing the internet and social media have made clear it is that, just as there is always someone out there who shares your opinions, there is also someone who disagrees and, with the false courage of anonymity and unreachability, is not afraid to tell you. You can’t do right for doing wrong. You’re an idiot and so is everyone else, in some way, in someone’s opinion.

The positive side of the interactive world is that everybody gets a chance to express their views. People, whose lack of education means they can’t really write and would therefore never be given the chance to express themselves if they had to go through official channels, are free to throw together a few words and dismiss the perfectly reasonable thoughts of someone else whose only crime is to be different.

There was a story doing the rounds on Facebook last week about a man who posted pictures of himself and his wife in swimming costumes.

The object of the exercise was to show that, a) she was a curvy woman (by no means fat, in fact, but she was no stick insect) and b) that he liked her that way. This is in a world where thin is good and there is something called fat-shaming in which people are criticised for being “overweight,” This man was encouraging other women of his wife’s build, telling them that they are okay – more than okay, in his book.

It struck a chord with me because this column has occasionally wandered down that path too, particularly in praise of the Caribbean’s substantial female figures who are sometimes described as “thick.” This man’s detractors accused him of being patronising, supporting a group that is hardly a minority and doing it to draw attention to himself and show what a great guy he was. How dare he, this self-appointed champion of people who didn’t need championing? It’s impossible to tell where the criticism came from, because these critics don’t introduce themselves.

They step out of the shadows, slap someone in the face and disappear again. They probably don’t see themselves as the kind of bullies for whom the internet has adopted a name, “trolls,” But give the man a break, for goodness’ sake. He loves his wife and he finds her and her millions of fleshy peers attractive, that’s all. Like (I suspect) many people, I sometimes find myself considering withdrawing from the online world because of the unthinking vitriol that exists there.

Some of my Facebook friends come out with all sorts of claptrap which they wouldn’t do in person, and it’s usually the left-leaning ones who are loudest , those who think it’s a bad old world run by some sort of unscrupulous elite and everyone’s lying to you and out to rip you off.

Before, during and just after the recent UK election I had to scroll past endless anti-imperialist diatribes from people whose whole life seems to be based on opposing things, rather than being in power and implementing unpopular measures, as successful politicians must.

After the Labour party had failed to get anywhere enough votes to win but had gleefully watched the Conservatives struggling to stay afloat, an old friend of mine, who had been campaigning for Labour through his social media presence, thanked Jeremy Corbyn for restoring his faith in human nature. And I’m not saying he’s wrong if he really feels that way. It just gatecrashes my quiet little sessions where I like to see what people have been doing.

As brainless as those cats-are-lovely and dogs-are-so-clever posts might be, at least they’re not grabbing me by the lapels and shouting slogans in my face.

As a sideline, the same loudly opinionated group have gone past casual, lazy atheism and into a positive anti-religion stance where law-abiding church-goers are as bad as suicide bombers–and they seem unable keep their opinions to themselves.

But to disagree with such critics is to incite their contempt and be called a “religious nutter.” As Sir Winston Churchill said, “Everyone is in favour of free speech…. but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” We do, of course, have the option of unfriending people but that seems like such a drastic step when all you want is a little respect.

On a wider note, this freedom of speech, or rather this availability of a platform to push views at people, has a more sinister side: it gives a voice to extremists of all stripes.

How can the diplomats do their job of defusing potential conflicts when the guy next door to you, the one with the chip on his shoulder, is shooting his mouth off for all to hear?

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