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Free Speech: Where’s The Line Drawn?

Some might argue John Stuart Mills’ quote, “I detest what you say, I defend to the death your right to say it” could have been written for the likes of Nick Griffin. I’m not one of them. I found Griffin’s recent remark about the Haiti relief efforts,“Sending aid to rioting ingrates while our own people die is stinking elite hypocrisy” totally outrageous. Rioting ingrates? The lack of regard for human suffering here is unbelievable. Also, as Griffin is (depressingly) part of public office, I found the remark – not to mention the fact the BNP exists – tantamount to inciting racial hatred, which is why I support the Hope Not Hate campaign.

Supporting their work however inevitably makes me a target for others’ accusations that I am “playing into the hands” of people like Griffin. Many will argue that certain viewpoints (like Griffin’s) are revolting – but if we don’t let those few “loonies” express them, they will argue they’re being “silenced”, which ultimately makes the situation worse. I always wonder on the latter, because it seems so-called “loonies” are holding all the cards, forcing us to listen to their crap when I thought we lived in a democracy and it was rule of the majority (and I like to think “loonies” are in the minority). There’s also the point I was taught by my parents to turn a blind eye is as bad as taking part in what I despise; I believe I should stand up for what I believe in and to oppose those who abuse others; for others to suggest I should keep my mouth shut *in case* I encourage those I oppose seems a violation of my own right to free speech.

Free speech is something that rears its head again and again in the writing community. There appears to be the thought that if we *can’t* say EXACTLY what we like, however we like, whenever we like, we can’t actually *be* writers. But I don’t believe anyone who has ever been abused on the basis of so-called “free speech” automatically wants it repealed; this is as simplistic as saying all those who support free speech (no matter what) support the abuse of women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and so on. As with many a philosophical standpoint, lines in the sand are drawn too wide on this issue, too frequently – we have one side of the scale or the other. There’s little point in relating and debating those two extremes with relation to writing; it’s the black/white politics of the teenager, when freedom of speech in writing [and what exactly that means] surely has to reside squarely in the grey area of the issue. There is no easy answer and to swing from one end of the pendulum to the other makes little sense.

A few years ago, I wrote about a writer’s responsibility on this blog and garnered the most responses I ever had (though these days it would be sure to be “diluted” by Twitter, Facebook and the growing number of people who email me directly). I was surprised by the number of people who thought the ONLY responsibility a writer has is “to tell a good story”. The reason for this is simple: no one in the writing community would imagine a film (or TV show) is *just* that – we can all appreciate that media artefacts can confirm or deny certain viewpoints (including our own, in writing them), just as television advertising has its own effect. No writer is surely going to argue films and television are a passive viewing experience with no effect on the audience whatsoever, yet those writers commenting in the post who thought a good story their *only* responsibility seemed to think their own POVs, norms and values did not come through in how they constructed their stories for the reader and thus the potential audience (something else I’ve written about on this blog in fact).

Responsibility and what it means is equally as difficult to debate as free speech, so said writers weren’t *wrong*, but I do think some idea of what is “right” (or not) needs consideration before one embarks on certain elements of plot, character, worldview, etc. Writing *anything*, with no thoughts for potential consequences does not equal a “good story” to me. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I am always depressed by the plethora of specs that include rape scenes. It’s not that I object to stories *about* rape: films like The Accused and The General’s Daughter have cracked this taboo subject and, in my eyes, represented its true horror and effects dramatically, yet responsibly. Instead, what I object to is the frequency in which women are casually abused in scripts, as if it’s something that can be *expected*: the actual rape or abuse isn’t even part of the main story, it’s just a beat, as if “this is what we get”. This doesn’t just disquiet me, it frightens me. By the way, I don’t think the men (and it usually is men, sorry guys) writing these scenes are “evil”. They might want to be controversial (the irony being too many are trying the same thing!) or they might think it’s not a big issue – “it’s just a story” – but the end result is the same.

And now we return to free speech (you were waiting, I know – bear with me) because it could be argued these offending scripts *should* be written and some people believe that 100%. I don’t. I think there are some stories that actually don’t need to be told and what’s more, the rest of society think so too: we don’t see a stack of rape scenes on television and whilst I think we still see too many in film, in comparison to the number on the spec pile, those on the silver screen pale in significance. Forget censorship by governing bodies like the BFFC; simple empathy for our common (wo)man prevails. 99.9% of the time commissioners and producers aren’t looking for scripts involving the casual abuse of women, any more than they’re looking for scripts involving casual racism and/or the abuse of the vulnerable or disabled. So the end question then has to be to the writers who want to include these elements in their stories, if nothing else – why bother?? It’s a fruitless exercise. We want drama, we want conflict – we DON’T want abuse.

So actually, when it comes to free speech and drawing the line, I would argue most of the time it’s drawn long before the media product even gets to us: in our national consciousness. Sure some repugnant stuff will get through, either as part of the DIY film revolution, the internet or because some producer or commissioner is a weirdo. This will never change. But mercifully, the rule of the majority and its belief in what is “acceptable” usually prevails when it comes to fiction.

And why? Because free speech without any sense of responsibility or empathy is just abuse.

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9 thoughts on “Free Speech: Where’s The Line Drawn?”

  1. Very nearly started a post on the pro's and cons of the confirmation bias of popular culture, but I've been told that I have to do this thing called "paid work" today.

    So I'll just say: "Relying on 'public taste' protects from extremism but supports embedded privelige. Discuss."

  2. So nothing is perfect – what's new Pete! I'm not going to apologise for not wanting the casual abuse of women in film. In real terms, I think we've taken a step back when it comes to feminism in the last ten years, so I'll take what we can get.

    Also, I'll see your "embedded privilege" and raise you so-called "positive discrimination". Women and BME filmmakers get opportunities they didn't get even 20 years ago. Again: not perfect – they *should* be part of the mainstream – but at least their voices are being heard in ways they weren't before.

  3. I think 'embedded privelage' and 'postive discrimination' is a different debate. The question about free speech is a simple one -whether it's okay to be allowed to say whatever you want, regardles of how offensive, just because you can hide behind and scream 'free speech.' The answer on the other hand is anything but simple.

    I've written a number of times about this topic on my blog, because I feel it's something that, as writers, we have to constantly grapple with. If anyone is interested, click here

  4. Thanks for the link Jez, will check it out.

    As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday and several times preceding this post, I was unfortunate enough to read a script recently that both sickened AND frightened me, it was that offensive. As a script reader of many years' experience yourself though, you must have read at least one script you've found morally offensive/shocking?

  5. Free speech only exists in an environment of responsibility.

    I will defend the right of a responsible person to believe in and say what they like.

    On the other hand I withdrew my support for Hate not Hope precisely because their emails encourage hate – towards the racists. And that's not good enough.

    I refuse to hate them, though I would certainly stand against them if required.

    My first comment, of course, indicates that I do believe that writers have a moral responsibility in relation to what they write.

    (Aren't we good little responsible writers then?)

  6. Hope Not Hate encourages hate towards the racists? Not from where I'm standing. On that basis, anything that opposes anything is "hatred" which, frankly, I find rather mad, especially when in the last election there were people who genuinely thought a vote for the BNP was a protest against mainstream party sleaze, without realising exactly what the BNP stands for.

    Anyway, for anyone interested in the campaign, here's their latest email:

    Dear Lucy,

    By now, you'd think I'd be used to Nick Griffin's outrageous remarks.

    But the BNP leader's recent comments about the Haiti relief efforts were truly appalling. Griffin said, "Sending aid to rioting ingrates while our own people die is stinking elite hypocrisy."

    Calling suffering Haitians "rioting ingrates" is pure heartlessness, and now I'm more committed than ever to stopping this man from becoming an MP in Barking and his party from winning council seats across the country.

    We're planning to fight back on 13 February with a national Day of Action which will deliver over 500,000 pieces of anti-BNP literature. But for this to happen, we need to raise £15,000 – can you donate to help us stop the BNP?

    Based on the London Assembly elections, Griffin could become an MP with a swing of just 3.8%. Donate now to stop him:

    The response to the earthquake in Haiti has brought out the best in us, with many thousands of people contributing money and time to help the Haitian people.

    It has also revealed Griffin's callous disregard for human life and lack of any sense of compassion or justice. The thought of him winning a seat in Westminster horrifies me.

    But it is a reality we may wake up to in a few months time. On Feb 13th we'll be working hard to stop this happening: in our key battlegrounds – Barking, Dagenham and Stoke-on-Trent – we'll be delivering special newspapers. On top of this we'll be delivering over 400,000 leaflets across the country. We're aiming to distribute over 500,000 pieces of literature in total – can you donate £5 to our cause to make this happen?

    We don't have big corporate sponsors or millionaire funders – what we have is you. Please contribute £5 or whatever you can afford to help pay for our Day of Action:

    We have proved time and again that when we organise against the BNP we stop the BNP. The maths are simple – but I need your support to make sure we can put this infrastructure in place. Please donate whatever you can afford now:

    Thank you.

    Nick Lowles

  7. Interesting posts from Steve and reply from yourself. It indicates how delicate a balance moral ambiguity can be. I don't know much about Hope Not Hate but without question there are elements on the far left, who are of course anti fascist, and like to pretend to be liberal, but have policies and viewpoints that are just as disgusting as their far right counterparts.

    With regards to script reading – I haven't actually. I've read scripts with a level of violence that I have personally felt as being excessive. But nothing that I would catergorise as offensive.

    Like I've told you before – I think you get all the crazies!

  8. It's a lot easier to think up what the WORST thing to happen to a character would be, rather than sweat to figure out what's the most useful and interesting thing to happen next. Could be that's the reason why there's loads of rape in specs…?

    And it's kind of consoling that (most) rape-heavy scripts aren't being produced?

    Reading through the stacks of comments on that linked post, it's depressing how writers are saying that writing a story is enough – it doesn't have to be meaningful. That's such a copout! All stories have meaning – that's just a way to distance oneself from having to answer for the meaning of one's stories.

  9. I'm with you on the abuse problem. I can't tell you the number of times I've had arguments over character motivations when people have suggested 'I know, how about his wife/girlfriend was raped and now he wants revenge'. It's like a shorthand excuse for justifiable violence in action films but a worrying amount of people don't seem to have a problem with that.

    On the subject of most offensive scripts, I read one in which all the women in the film were abused whenever they were on screen, most of all the lead female character who (if they ever got it made which they thankfully haven't) was going to be played by the woman who wrote the script. They refused to change any of it.

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