When free speech means bullies yelling over bigots

Louise McCudden discusses the decision to host conversion therapy advocate Dr Michael Davidson on Good Morning Britain in the name of free speech and robust debate. 


So this is what the free speech utopia we keep hearing about looks like. Piers Morgan, of all people, yelling hysterically over the words of a man who believes you can “cure” LGBT people. To misquote the now infamous meme: is this the future that (classical) liberals want?

Out of all the fascinating guests that ITV could have invited onto Good Morning Britain, somebody decided it would be a good use of everybody’s time to give a space on the show to Dr Michael Davidson. Dr Davidson is a doctor who believes he can “cure” LGBT people, and describes “homosexuality” as a “sin.”

Many justifications have been put forward for airing the interview, but do any of them hold up? The idea that there’s any merit in torturing LGBT people until we’re so traumatised that we change or hide how we express ourselves isn’t a serious point of debate among anyone who pays attention to evidence – or, for that matter, among anyone who holds the most rudimentary understanding of humanity. And it’s hardly a topical reflection of the public mood, given that most people do not support the cruel and unusual treatment of LGBT people that is often described rather generously as “conversion therapy.” It definitely isn’t in the public interest for the public to hear such dishonest, harmful nonsense. 

Out of all the fascinating guests that ITV could have invited onto Good Morning Britain, somebody decided it would be a good use of everybody’s time to give a space on the show to Dr Michael Davidson.

So we are left with the argument that is perhaps the most oversimplified and misused term of our time: free speech. Good Morning Britain defended the decision to host Dr Davidson on their show on the basis that his views were robustly challenged. And Piers Morgan himself champions free speech, naturally. (Unless it’s an anti-Donald Trump demonstration, or a civil rights-themed Superbowl performance or anything like that, because those things upset him.) There are lots of Piers Morgans about. We all know them: brash hetero white cis men who want us to solve injustice by fighting it out in a debate hall, until only the fittest survive. These people champion free speech in spite of, or, perhaps even because of the fact that it so frequently ends up looking like, well, the pitiful, embarrassing mess that we saw aired earlier on Good Morning Britain.

Why does anyone need to hear this dated, disproved, dangerous rubbish? It serves no benefit to LGBT people or to anyone else. The only person it benefits is Piers Morgan himself, who clearly relishes the chance to puff himself up as if he’s some great defender of LGBT people (which he is not, of course; he is a fountain of anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-non-binary, Trump-apologist attention-seeking, childish, cliched drivel). And he will no doubt expect gratitude from us in exchange for using us in this way; people who leap up as our defenders without invitation, escalating dangerous situations at our expense, to gratify their own egos always do.

And the thing that is most exasperating about the free speech excuse for this sort of journalism is that it is, frankly, a lie. It is a lie to say that we, as a society, must hear and debate all views, even if they make us uncomfortable. Because we, as a society, don’t.

Why does anyone need to hear this dated, disproved, dangerous rubbish? It serves no benefit to LGBT people or to anyone else. The only person it benefits is Piers Morgan.

Only yesterday, the model Munroe Bergdorf was attacked by a furious Piers Morgan on the very same show for expressing her own right to free speech. Munroe Bergdorf, however, has not been able to make a richly-paid career out of saying “controversial” things, as others have done. Nor is she able to carry on in her profession, as this doctor is presumably doing. And yet, Munroe Bergdorf has done exactly what these tedious, insufferable bigots think they are doing – and the exact opposite of what they are doing in reality.

No, the consequences for Munroe Bergdorf are that she was rather unceremoniously dropped from L’Oreal’s diversity campaign. Her comments on structural racism (which, by the way, you can watch her articulating here), have hurt some sensitive people’s feelings. But it is not even remotely harmful to hear that white people are all part of a racist structure which works to our advantage. (Do you know any white people who have never said or done a racist thing in their lives; have never done anything, big or small, to facilitate someone else’s racism? I don’t.) If it was true that we all defend free speech as a beautiful thing even when it makes us most uncomfortable because that’s how conversations move forward, we would be banging down the doors of L’Oreal’s offices with petitions, protests and pickets for sacking Bergdorf. You know, the way people did when Jeremy Clarkson was sacked for punching a junior member of staff in the face over the temperature of his steak.

It is a lie to say that we, as a society, must hear and debate all views, even if they make us uncomfortable. Because we, as a society, don’t.

All too often, free speech looks like this. A man like Dr Davidson, given space to articulate dangerous, harmful ideas. A man like Dr Davidson being allowed to play the victim, thanks to the self-interested tactics of a man like Piers Morgan. The viewers who can stand to sit through it all, because it isn’t their existence that is up for debate, celebrate it as a triumph of free speech. Meanwhile, Munroe Bergdorf expresses an evidence-based analysis of racism that is genuinely challenging, provocative, and worthy of discussion – and is not only sacked, from a diversity campaign, of all things, but is met with barrages of racist, misogynistic, transphobic abuse, including outright threats of violence and suicide incitements. Abuse, threats, and incitements which, it seems, all fall within society’s acceptable bounds of free speech, because these streams of hatred are there for anyone to see on social media. 

Free speech is important, but let’s be truthful about how it plays out in practice. If a marginalised woman was putting forward a disquieting, left-of-centre opinion that was as irrational, as demonstrably biased, and as poorly articulated as Dr Davidson’s theory about “curing” LGBT people is, would we expect them to get airtime? Would anybody imagine it had anything to do with free speech if they didn’t? Of course not. It would be taken for granted that this hypothetical marginalised woman simply isn’t worth listening to, and that’s why we never hear her voice.

Anybody putting forward any vision of the world that involves asking people to behave better towards each other and fight to make the world less unjust needs six economic tests and a thousand fact checks just to get anybody past the first sentence. There are basic factual truths that we would never ask experts to waste their time debating – that the world is round, that the sun is hot, that today is Wednesday – but the basic truth of marginalised people’s humanity is never quite afforded the respect of being held to that standard. Yet it is a basic truth. And if Dr Davidson had a silly, dangerous theory about something like nuclear physics or gardening or the weather, and he was as laughably incorrect about the subject as he is about LGBT people’s lives, nobody in British broadcasting would expect a TV show to lower their professional standards and put him on, just in the interests of balance or free speech.

Free speech is important, but let’s be truthful about how it plays out in practice

The danger here isn’t just that we shouldn’t give platforms to people like Dr Davidson because they are harmful – although we shouldn’t, and they are. But there’s a greater, more troubling problem: the fact that the only reason he is given a platform is because he’s offensive. When the media make choices like this they incentivise people to be as unpleasant, as offensive, as bigoted as possible. That way, you can deflect any critique of your poor grasp on your subject as censorship, or people taking offence.

And large media outlets wonder why so many are losing interest in them; why we are turning to or creating alternative news sources, or having our own debates, in our own spaces. It’s not always about it being ‘safer’, or less offensive, or less upsetting for us because we’re such sensitive souls. Sometimes it’s about wanting a higher level of debate. We simply make more progress in our discussions without self-congratulatory careerists as our moderators, and without people who are only there in the first place because they’re so jaw-droppingly incorrect about everything that there’s a chance people might watch out of disgust or amusement. Far from seeking out an echo chamber or a cosy little safe space, it is only once we dump the bigots that we can actually begin to push conversations forward, learn new things, and consider genuinely challenging, necessary, and boundary-pushing points of view. Like, for example, Munroe Bergdorf’s. 

Follow Louise McCudden on Twitter: (@loumccudden)

One thought on “When free speech means bullies yelling over bigots

  1. That’s it! My god well written piece. Too true to all the things. I must say well done and frankly it the same thing with Alex jones. Quit giving him a forum for his vitriol. If we stop listening to the bullshit, maybe somehow their horrid words will be muted. We have to stop giving them a platform. Anyway, well done. I will read you anytime. And for the love of all things holy, please write for American publications!

    Like

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