12 January 2015
I don't suppose that anyone reading that headline will be in any doubt as to the event that prompted it. But do I agree with the sentiment? asks John Bowen
As with so many questions the answer is not straightforward. Maybe I should start by saying that I was brought up to believe in basics like good manners and showing respect. A belief that free speech was something worthwhile was always tempered by an understanding that there was a time and a place for everything.
Through my formative years I was taught to celebrate difference; that you grew by understanding and embracing the opinions of others to help shape your own. I've said here before that I welcome people disagreeing with me because debate helps to move us and our world forward. Challenging my thinking helps me to refine what I believe in, but I know that I can never always be right. The quote in the headline is attributed to Voltaire and here is another, "Prejudice is opinion without judgement."
The ability to speak freely I still believe in, and I will always do my best to stand up for it. I abhor the modern culture of taking offence that has led to an erosion of the ability to speak one's mind, but I would never deliberately seek to offend. Back to the time-and-place principle, there are things that you might say among friends that you might not say in public. That is not hypocrisy - it is good manners.
Satire is a tricky area. It is an important part of public life, but as in any form of debate there is a bit difference between satirical wit and crude nastiness. One succeeds because it is clever and sharp, the other rarely makes a positive impact. So while I defend the right to free speech, those who use it well will influence me in a positive way, but those who don't are unlikely to advance their point of view. I started with a quote from Voltaire - here are two others that might be pertinent: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Or how about, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets." He had a way with words, for sure.
There are a lot of us on this planet and we are not all going to get on with each other. We have to be able to accept that we have our differences and live with them, but regulation will not make that happen. The plague of political correctness may have its roots in good intentions, but it has gone too far. And where did it come from? Oddly enough, its greatest proponents are the media - the very people who you would expect to be fully behind the right to free speech are the first to shout down those who step across the ever-narrowing line of what they deem acceptable. How can that be in the interests of free speech?
Taking offence is a personal decision; you choose whether or not you are offended and if you indulge yourself by taking offence, then that is your choice. But if you are not prepared to hear someone else's opinion and to accept that they should be able to express it, then I suggest that you are limiting yourself. And if you allow someone else to decide what might offend you, then you are abdicating your responsibilities to the society of which you are a member.
So where do I stand on free speech? In the same place that I learned to stand leading teams and that is that I will encourage you to speak your mind and say what you think. I will defend that view until I stop breathing, but I will also express my own opinion if I think you are going beyond the bounds of good taste. We can talk it out and if we agree to disagree, then so be it. You can be sure that I am not going to kill you, no matter how much we disagree.
Je suis Charlie? No, because I think that much of what they did was crude and cruel and so, as much as I defend their right to do what they did, their way is not mine. I would rather stand beside Ahmed Merabet.
John Bowen is an FM consultant