CentreForum Liberal Hero of the Week #50: Peter Tatchell

by Stephen Tall on October 13, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero - peter tatchell

Peter Tatchell

political campaigner
Reason: for supporting free speech and its positive use

Free speech matters. Here’s George Washington: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

The Internet offers a free speech paradox. Instantly any one of us can broadcast our thoughts, whether profound or shallow, polite or obscene, outrageous or banal, to the whole world. What could be more liberating? Yet the Internet can also see free speech blocked by authoritarian state/corporate censors, abused by those wishing to intimidate and bully, or cowed by fear of causing offence and provoking a Twitterstorm.

We live in a self-censoring age. All of us recognise that words can hurt. Most of us avoid giving needless offence by deciding not to use terms we realise others will find insulting. Political correctness is, usually, little more than politeness by another name. That is our choice. We avoid casually hateful speech because we want to show empathy, to be liked, and because we recognise avoiding it is a generally Good Thing.

Context and motive, though, are crucial.

Childhood polio-sufferer Ian Dury’s 1981 song Spasticus Autisticus, written as an anthem for the disabled, was banned from the radio because the lyrics were deemed offensive (“I wibble when I piddle ‘cos my middle is a riddle”).

Chris Rock, a black comedian, regularly uses the word ‘nigger’ (“Can white people say nigger?”), as did white comedian Lenny Bruce before him (“if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say … “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school”).

In recent weeks, Spurs fans have got into trouble with the police for trying to reclaim the word ‘yid’, taking on the anti-Semites who use it to insult. To his credit, David Cameron has drawn the fair distinction: “There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult.”

And so has Peter Tatchell this week, making clear, eloquently and insistently via Twitter, the importance of context and motive in how we choose to use free speech:

For championing free speech, and the way in which it can be used proudly to defeat those who abuse it, Peter Tatchell is my 50th Liberal Hero of the Week.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.