Former football legend Paul Gascoigne tells a racist joke at a theatre, is ordered by the courts to pay £2,500 in fines, gets publicly shamed, and will struggle to tour again (who would allow the gig?)
A tape mysteriously “emerges” in the media of Presidential nominee Donald Trump in private bragging chauvinistically about groping women. The subsequent Presidential campaign gets thrown off any political issues and becomes a competition of sleaziness where each side lowers the bar and attempts to demonise the other. Trump is just as guilty of this as Hillary Clinton as he raises the issues of husband Bill’s lewd conduct in office and lawyer Hillary’s defence of him.
Both these cases speak to a crisis of free speech. But it is not what you think it is. This crisis of free speech isn’t quite about censorship. Neither Gazza nor Trump has suffered state-imposed penalties to the extent it impinges their lives. The thing that is impinging their lives is a form of moral condemnation.
Yet moral condemnation is not always a bad thing. Any community needs morals to survive, and when those morals are transgressed, it is correct for the community to pull people up. If Gazza or Trump were simply told they were being backward and needed re-education to come up to scratch with twenty-first century society, then Gazza wouldn’t need to be publicly shamed and fined, nor the Presidential competition would need to be distracted around personal failings.
What has happened is that our fragmented society which has been atomising exponentially for many years now has such a flimsy grasp of morality that in order to express a moral belief, it throws everything against the transgressing individual: fines, public shaming, court appearances, you name it. This isn’t a morality that is assured of itself, but one that is witch-hunting its enemies.
In our age, where it is difficult for anyone to achieve power and wealth in society, people have resorted to moral condemnation as a way of gaining one-upmanship. This squalid competition for virtue sees careers ruined over ‘unwitting’ mistakes, ‘unintended’ racism, or any privately expressed view (what Trump called ‘locker room banter’).
The way to stop this madness is NOT to demand “the right to be offensive.” Neither Gazza nor Trump’s ‘rights’ have been seriously corroded by any of this, that is their rights in relation to the state, which is the only meaning rights have. Furthermore, demanding we are able to hear Gazza or Trump’s unsuppressed views is only an invitation that everyone can be as offensive as they like, regardless of social harmony. Speech is a part of the world – indeed it is the most direct way we perceive society, so being gratuitously offensive is only going to lead to the experience of harm (not physical, but suffering in the mind). There is no point in calling for the right to be offensive – the characters we are talking about really are yesterday’s figures and should not be put on a pedestal where we all passively sit by and relish how they have these ‘rights’.
The damage which is being done however to the public and private spheres through the form of moral condemnation as one-upmanship, is that society further atomises and everyone becomes scared to open their mouths. What’s needed to combat this isn’t a free-for-all of everyone venting spleen, but a new kind of society, one where moral transgressions are treated as bad things, yes, but also treated gently and sympathetically. Everyone makes mistakes now and then, and the community does have to pull us up on them. But the community shouldn’t lose sight of its own maturity and vision for a healthy society in doing so, nor should it attempt to wreck people’s livelihoods. Instead you should just calmly and sympathetically explain to the transgressor why they are wrong so they can become better people rather than just repressing them in a different way.
The situation today is that our morality has gotten loose of a broader vision of how we want to live, it has developed its own legs, and metaphorically like the Death Star, is casually blowing up planets and ships at random. Moral condemnation is prancing around without any sense of purpose to why we want morality to be like this. Instead of human beings communally relating to one another and helping each other, we have let our own morality become detached from ourselves and it has become more policeman, than sage. To regain control of morality we have to take a helicopter view of society, realise where we are going wrong, and change things through mature considered debate. A good first step in this direction would be to accept apologies.