Ian Clayton column: The question of free speech

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I’ve been reading and listening to a lot to debates about free speech these past couple of weeks and I have seen the French writer and philosopher Voltaire misquoted so many times on social media that I have lost count.

It wasn’t Voltaire who said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” it was his biographer, the lesser-known English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote that famous line in an attempt to say something about the principle of freedom of speech.

The irony of the debates about free speech have been making me wonder. Why are we having these arguments at a time when we spend more energy “twittering” and avoiding talking properly to one another in order to dash off a mundane message in 140 characters?

I think free speech becomes complicated when we throw our weight behind polarised points of view on such as Facebook. When Margaret Thatcher died, a song that had been in a film 60-odd years before, called The Wicked Witch Is Dead, went straight to number one in the download charts. At the time I thought it was a bit of fun: I didn’t buy it, mainly because I don’t really know how to download things, but I did write my own poem about what I was doing at the time I heard the news.

There was a Facebook debate raging at the time about good versus bad taste over the way various people had interpreted the news of Thatcher’s demise. Some friends of mine wrote to tell me that ‘celebrating’ someone’s death in words was wrong and that I shouldn’t be gloating. I wrote back to say I was neither gloating nor celebrating, but it all caused a bit of a kerfuffle and I found myself “unfriended” by some people.

Imagine my surprise last week, then, when I discovered some of these self-same people have now decided they are called “Charlie” and have allied themselves with a French anarcho-leftist magazine that was once banned over matters of bad taste at the time of the death of President de Gaulle.

Is it just me, or are we, in our haste to take sides on matters of opinion, forgetting what we really believe in? Why do we comment on and take sides about things we know very little about? The seeds for this thinking were actually planted at the time of Wicked Witch getting to number one. When I thought about that, I realised most of the people who download music are under the age of 30, so why would they buy a song that was 60 years old and aimed at someone who was practising her politics before they were even born?

In the week when it seemed like the world had gone mad, when men with guns started to shoot cartoonists and thousands of others decided they wanted to be called Charlie, Heather and I took ourselves off to Whitby.

We blew off some cobwebs and pondered some simple pleasures of life. We didn’t look at any emails or social media for three days and it did us the world of good. Instead we went to see The Watersons, the pre-eminent family of folk music in this country, in concert.

They told authentic stories, sang lovely old songs and encouraged us to join in on the chorus of songs that have been around even before the wicked witch was dead.

There was a homespun charm about the whole thing: nobody recorded anything on smartphones, people talked and laughed with one another face to face and there were no debates about free speech, the right to have opinions or provocative tweeting. Our weekend in Whitby was full of the joys of real friendship, proper conversation and meaningful observation.

The events in Paris made me feel sad and useless. I don’t know what ordinary folk can do in the face of it all, but I guess singing, telling stories, smiling, enjoying family and building bridges across our community is a simple way to start. My neighbour, old Johnny Hope, used to say “you get your own midden in order before you start delving in other people’s middens”. I believe that still holds.

The day after I came back from Whitby, I took the bus from Wakefield to Pontefract. Nobody spoke to me and I didn’t overhear any other conversation during the journey. I got off the bus and looked through the windows. There were about ten passengers continuing their journey, every single one of them had their thumbs on the keypad of a phone.