Rude Words Are Overrated

Civil Society, Uncivil People

I don’t believe I would disrupt someone’s funeral. I know that I wouldn’t use a four-letter word in a protest placard because I’ve been on demonstrations and that is not an option I ever considered. It should be possible to confront people without affronting people.

But in a choice between the two — permitting protest by callous people, and police arresting those who try to protest — it has to be free speech that we choose.

UK laws that require protestors to be polite and inoffensive are catch-all clauses for banning free speech, and if it comes to the crunch: I want my freedoms, not ways for police to detain us.

Still, it is a false binary: we shouldn’t be asked to decide in those terms. This imaginary choice is the result of four decades in which more people have taken offence, more people have sought to give it, and civility has taken a battering. Our experiment into whether or not you can have civil society with an uncivil people perhaps is reaching conclusions.

It’s still worth remembering that in the eighteenth century, Pitt, the prime minister, was attacked in his carriage by a mob. There is quite a distance between violent attack and coarse tweet or placard. I wouldn’t shout abuse at a man I didn’t know on the day of his mother’s funeral, but I wouldn’t ban democratic liberties, either.

The rabbi Hugo Gryn said once, “You have a right to speak your mind; you have also to mind your speech.” That’s just decent — the kind of decency which, as much as any formal freedoms, holds society together. People had whatever civil rights the law granted them — whatever human rights the laws should have given them — but they also had the natural virtue of prudence for deciding when and how to exercise their rights.

It was at the start of “political correctness” that Hugo Gryn made his point, in the 1980s (on the radio), and what Robert Hughes called “the culture of complaint” has certainly taken off since then. It was almost as though people started to assume that others would decide everything for them, even their own conscience, went onto autopilot when it came to their reactions, and lost interest in their own agency.

Throughout, classical liberals defended free speech against self-righteous mobs “shutting people down”, because you can be self-righteous even when your cause is right. Rights may not need to be exercised at every opportunity, but they do need to be defended whenever they are attacked.

And if originally it was the traditional Right who deplored the collapse in manners — the Social Affairs Unit once produced a whole series of books on it, books like Gentility Recalled — the Left had long felt that, in a way, because to them class produced a complex of manners designed to shut the powerless out: the Leftist dalliance with gauche behaviour goes back very far.

Yet it should not take a genius to see — and it should be something on which Left, Right and centre can unite — that the less we show human decency to each other, and mercy to opponents, the less mercy, and the more shut-downs of liberty and discussions, we can expect. Already we live in a world in which an expression on your face can be held against you — not in a playground, but in the adult world which has to pay its bills.

Laws must be repealed which make people liable to arrest when other, supposedly equal citizens might feel uncomfortable. Laws which open trade unionists or protestors to repression if ever they make (what others think is) too much noise, should be rowed back.

I wish that the Brexit Megaphone Man and today’s protestors on 12th September 2022 had not pushed this issue to its limits; I wish that our society had not become so cruel and crass, and that even public figures might bury their dead in peace. But it is at its limit that freedom must be defended — or it will have been lost.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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