David Cameron has been forced to apologise for stating in an interview that sitting near Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was like “having someone with Tourette’s sitting opposite you.” Whilst the casual reader will know what Cameron means when he says this, does this represent an indictment against the freedom of speech?
Despite the giant press machine that Downing Street employs, along with the spin-doctors that ensure PR success, there are inevitably going to be times where the censor does not work on every spoken word. There will be times where a certain phrase will pop up in the Prime Minister’s head, but, heeding the good advice of his aides, he will choose to make a different comment. The problem that people in Cameron’s position face when they make a statement like this is that, due to their prominent public position, more attention is focused on their every word; often literally. Yet Cameron didn’t think he was saying anything particularly offensive; if anything, it was a rather amusing description of Ed Ball’s behaviour in Parliament. And, having watched Mr Balls at Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs), I have to agree that the Shadow Chancellor has a rather unrestrained and abusive air about him. To say that he has Tourette’s would be an excuse for what this man considers reasonable debate. But here, I fall into the same trap as the Prime Minister. I am singling out a disease which affects many people in the UK, and then I am further isolating one particular characteristic which, when applied to describe someone’s behaviour, casts an unfavourable and perhaps mocking spotlight onto someone. In this sense, I am callously using a horrible and debilitating disease to make a crude point. It may be funny, and it may make people laugh at what you say, but is it an abuse of the right to freedom of speech?
It appears that, when having slighted someone or something, a representative of that organisation or person will demand an apology. The problem with this is when a word or phrase becomes so deeply ingrained within our consciousness that we forget its origins and meaning. I have no doubt that, if Cameron had said Ed Balls looked like a victim of the Black Death, a spokesperson for the Black Death Victims Association would have stood up and demanded an apology. Comedians thrive off shocking people; Frankie Boyle even received attention from BBC’s Newsnight for lewd and frankly disgusting jokes that insulted the Queen in hitherto unknown ways. These are the people from whom we draw our cues from, repeat their jokes, laugh at them – all as a result of the freedom of speech. Politicians are much more hesitant. Recently, Diane Abbott drew attention to the colonial attitudes of white people, and stated their likeness for divide and rule. This is undoubtedly true, because the Holy Roman, British and American (well, modern colonialism for the US) have pretty much dominated most of the world … and they have all been of fair skin. Yet, because of her public position, an off-the-cuff comment like this makes news agendas.
An example of this is from personal experience. Before I came to University, among my armoury of phrases was the saying, “that’s gay.” In popular use, it is spoken to describe something with a negative connotation, and the use of it didn’t cause me to think twice. It was only when I reached University, where I made my first gay friends, that I realised that what I was saying was actually offensive. I spent time with a gay couple, socialising and playing board games. Even with something as petty as a dice roll, if the wrong amount resulted, my exasperated “that’s gay” would verbalise my frustrations with the game. For the first time, I became acutely aware that my choice of phrasing was offensive against the sexuality of these two guys. They were extremely polite, and I apologised, even though they weren’t particularly offended; that phrase was almost common currency, after all.
Clearly, this example illustrates the fact that the use of phrases like “that’s gay” can be taken badly in the wrong context. However, the topic of freedom of speech is far too complex to wrap up in one article. After reading this article, I doubt that anyone will change the way they talk; I certainly wouldn’t. But surely freedom of speech should not be interpreted to mean freedom to abuse, insult and manipulate words for cheap gain. The English language has been enriched and added to by centuries from other languages, and we have millions of words in our dictionaries. Consider the fact that the average person has around 20,000 words in their vocabulary. Don’t you think it’s time to learn a few more?