Ellie Pendry contemplates how the concept of ‘free speech’ has been co-opted by the far-right to become a contentious and toxic issue.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah has been a spectacle for the masses in these past weeks. Piers Morgan departed from Good Morning Britain in the wake of his provocative comments that he felt Meghan’s brave confession about having contemplated suicide lacked credibility. The ensuing media debate has centred around his justification that he was merely exercising free speech. Opposers express the view that Meghan is incredibly brave for voicing the trauma she has gone through, and that Piers’ comments are not constructive but simply hateful. The divisive media response is reflective of the polarised society that we live in; this is clearly an emotive topic for both sides of the house.
Post-tantrum, Piers has remarked that the reason for his outburst and condemning of Meghan Markle is down to his belief in ‘free speech’ – a term that the far-right have reappropriated, using it as an exemption for speech that directly targets minorities in society. There is a rhetoric campaigning for free speech as if it is under attack, and yet online trolls are able to spout hatred with virtually no consequences. Free speech is coddled and people’s genuine responses to it are ridiculed without consequence – “it’s political correctness gone mad!!”.
Political correctness is an idea created to work as a ‘phantom enemy’ to the far-right; it has never been specifically defined, but evokes a sense of censorship or denial of the truth. In this way, political correctness has been subverted and is now used as a weapon to brutalise and silence anyone whose opinion contradicts their own. Freedom of speech is now used as an exemption from consequence, and the political correctness rhetoric is used as a defence mechanism batting away any differing opinion. The two used in unison are a toxic combination.
Looking at Twitter after the Oprah interview, I came across this Tweet which exemplifies the narrative surrounding the latest Meghan Markle controversy:
Why is it so hard for society to believe what Meghan Markle is telling us? Perhaps it is not too simple to suggest that patriarchal structures in place mean we are conditioned to believe a man’s experience of a woman’s. Statistics speak for themselves: less than 2% of rape cases in the UK are ever prosecuted. Society believes men, not women! Piers’ privilege as a white man means that he thinks he is entitled to speak for those who are more oppressed than him, silencing them.
He shows a disregard for Meghan Markle’s feelings and yet a sincere concern for the monarchy’s reputation – ITV has an ongoing mental health campaign AND YET continued to give Piers Morgan a platform from which to voice insensitive and indignant opinions.
Piers has always thrived on inciting intense reactions to a range of public issues, whether it is gender identity, belittling mental health, or speaking over black interviewees who are talking on the black lived experience and of Black Lives Matter. Always painted as the champion of “telling it like it is”, on closer scrutiny, there are inconsistencies in his polemic.
For example, he praises Marcus Rashford whilst simultaneously berating the Conservative government one week, and denies trans people their right to identify the next. Piers is inconsistent both in the content of his opinions, supporting oppressor or oppressed, AND whether he always stays true to his principles about a person’s right to free speech. He says we have to be able to say what we like but then throws his toys out of the pram when there’s backlash towards him for doing exactly that. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from objection!
The point of free speech is, of course, to be able to say, freely, what you like about anything. But where do we draw the line? When do we say this is no longer free speech, but has instead morphed into bigoted hate speech?
Denying Meghan Markle’s experience of contemplating suicide is incredibly harmful to people who might be feeling similarly. We are living through a mental health pandemic. Just at a time where those with mental health issues need to be heard most, Piers is channelling his right to free speech to reinforce an environment in which already fragile individuals will be even less likely to voice their concerns for fear of not being believed.
Despite this, freedom of speech is essential to having societal debates so that change can be instigated. Arguably, without the discourse on subject matter such as homosexuality and racism these changes may not have been recognised.
The problem is when this incites hatred and affects people’s lived experience. Piers Morgan has a big platform from which to espouse (mostly) negative and damaging views that a lot of people hear and then believe at the tender time of 7am. Similarly, hate crime is on the rise (almost doubling in the past five years) and there is a likely correlation between this (ironic) protection of ‘free speech’ and subsequent rise in hate crime.
Piers’ hateful rhetoric is a catalyst for heightening far-right views and polarising the general masses. Debates must happen, but does the outcome always have to be so divisive?
Freedom of speech should not necessarily be censored if it is based on evidence and facts, but spewing hate speech which is rooted in myth and personal attacks is damaging and should be. Piers Morgan’s attacks on Meghan Markle have never been objective – he was offended because she cut him off. He makes it personal! Piers uses his platform on GMB to condemn Meghan for personal reasons which then creates a negative rhetoric surrounding the issue for reasons that are not grounded in fact, but merely off of a personal dislike. If this is how free speech worked for everyone then we would have a society grounded in fallacies and gossip. Arguably, we are already on the way there.
But freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequence; Piers can continue to speak freely but his platform on GMB has been removed. People are entitled to voice their opinions and it is important to have debates over pertinent issues in society. But in an increasingly polarised and hostile society which has a nasty habit of trivialising issues of race, gender and prejudice, the likes of ‘free-speech’ advocates such as Piers Morgan exacerbate this already toxic discourse.
Artwork by Amelia Elson.