Neil McNicholas: We need free speech... but also respect as Brexit debate intensifies

IN his column 'Time for civility in the Anna Soubry debate' on Friday last, Bill Carmichael very measuredly defended the right of people in a democracy such as ours to freely express their opinion.

Tory MP Anna Soubry has been the subject of venomous abuse for her stance on Brexit.
Tory MP Anna Soubry has been the subject of venomous abuse for her stance on Brexit.

At the same time, he wrote that “we should be able to exchange strongly-held views in a mutually respectful way without resorting to insults”, referring to the Brexit-related verbal abuse directed at MP Anna Soubry by protesters last week.

Mr Carmichael’s words in defence of freedom of speech were still in my mind when I then turned to the sports page and read that Watford striker Troy Deeney was facing a Football Association charge following comments he had made about the refereeing of his side’s game against Bournemouth.

Not for the first time I was left wondering who the FA thinks it is when they can charge and punish players and managers for expressing their opinion about match officials. When and how they make such opinions known is one thing, but surely they have every right to do so?

Whilst condemning the way in which protesters verbally attacked Anna Soubry, Bill Carmichael wrote: “I am immensely glad I live in a country where ordinary people can shout insults at their elected representatives without fear of the consequences.”

His point, I’m sure, wasn’t to defend the right to shout insults, but rather the right of people to express their opinion in a free and democratic society. But then it would seem the Football Association is a law unto itself and it will indeed charge and punish any player or manager who exercises their democratic right to freedom of speech. Amazing really.

What we have been witnessing across the road from the Houses of Parliament, and within the circus that calls itself the Commons, and in television interviews and exchanges since the Brexit referendum, has been unedifying in the extreme.

It has gone way beyond the usual playground behaviour that has already become an accepted part of British politics, and moved on to a whole new sphere of the puerile. The people of this country are supposed to be able to look to (we might once have said look up to) our elected representatives for political guidance and leadership, but that ship sailed long ago. Everyone needs to put their heads down on their desks for five minutes – or maybe even until after March 29.

English writer Evelyn Hall in her biography of Voltaire (and consequently the quote is often mistakenly attributed to him rather than to her) wrote: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The fact that we disagree with someone doesn’t condone being disrespectful or discourteous toward them.

This page of The Yorkshire Post is titled “Opinion” and invites precisely that: comments and opinions on whatever subjects might be exercising contributors. The same is true of the Letters page opposite. In their letters, readers are free to submit their thoughts and opinions on what they may have read (as well as on anything else that is current of course), but it should be just that: their opinion on the subject itself and not a personal criticism of the original contributor – which sadly is often the case.

The democratic right to freedom of speech shouldn’t involve the feeling that we are somehow raising our heads above a parapet with all the personal risks that might involve.

What we seem to be losing is a sense of the difference between the right to freedom of speech and the sort of self-expression that goes beyond the bounds of decency and respect – two qualities that are sadly lacking in our society today. Just watch any of the TV soap operas to see what I mean. The so-called Dark Ages may not have been quite as “dark” and uncivilised as we tend to assume, and the so-called enlightened times in which we live are proving to be not nearly as enlightened as we may think, especially when we look at the way we treat one another.

Life-saving techniques teach that if someone is drowning you should throw them something to help keep them afloat but never jump in the water with them because, in their panic and their efforts to keep their heads above water, they will climb all over you and put you at risk of drowning. Political self-survival seems 
to be the name of the game at the moment and far too many principles 
and values are disappearing below the surface in the process.

Neil McNicholas is a 
parish priest in Yarm.