A friend of mine – and you know who you are – has an argument with me occasionally. The theme of the argument is this – why the hell should we get involved in other people’s affairs? What right do I, bourgeois scribbler in an obscure corner of London, have to pronounce my opinions and views to the world as if somehow, they meant a damn?
And of course, in many ways, my mate is right. The West is famous for preaching piously to the rest of the world about this and that, as if somehow we’ve got some inalienable right to command the rest of the world, and it is naturally enough, hypocritical bullshit.
“We only think we’re right,” explained my friend. “In a hundred years time, people may look back at us and laugh.”
That is generally speaking, a simple truth of history. The Victorians firmly believed themselves to be the moral leaders of civilization, so long as that civilization was male, white and played cricket. The Romans absolutely knew themselves to be the most enlightened civilization on Earth, up to and including the slaughter of slaves in the Colosseum and the invention of the vomitorium.
None-the-less, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that certain universal truths may yet stand the test of time. Treating women as inferior, for example. We’ve done it for thousands of years, and in large swathes of the world it’s still done either by habit, or as an enshrined doctrine in law. “It’s their culture,” exclaims a different friend. “Perhaps it has advantages for those women.”
Perhaps so. Perhaps some women enjoy not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, or having to cover themselves at all times – perhaps there is luxury in being reliant on men to do this for you. And perhaps some women would appreciate the choice in this matter, so they can choose their situation, and if you’re about to tell me that culturally, ‘having a choice’ wouldn’t be appropriate then I’m sorry, but this culture is wrong. Plain wrong. We’re not supposed to say it out loud, not supposed to condemn a whole way of life, stand upon our lofty perch but I would say it of any society anywhere, including my own, which is itself highly flawed. If you are depriving women of their liberty and not letting them choose freedom, then it is wrong.
Curtailing freedom of speech, curtailing the right to protest – again, let’s have the guts, just this once to stand up and say that this is wrong. I may not agree with what you have to say, I may regard it as nonsense, but so long as you’re not actively advocating violence against the innocent, or discrimination on grounds as stupid and irrational as gender, creed or colour, or actively attempting to deny MY voice, then say what you will. ‘Liberalism’ has become a dirty word, but to me, in my understanding of it, all that liberalism means is the willingness to have a debate. A proper, informed debate, not a shouting match, but a meeting of opinions and the formation of consensus, and I will defend that process to the hilt.
That said, there are also certain bits of common sense that I think are universally applicable. I’m all in favour of freedom of speech, but if you are about to go around informing us that bombings are a good idea, then frankly you need to have a good sit down with some reasonable people in a quiet corner. I applaud free debate, but when that debate is twisted and corrupted by extremist ideology, then it isn’t debate, it’s a shouting match, and gets no one anywhere.
Then there are ideas which are plain and simple stupid. Actually, offensively stupid.
Such as the American National Rifle Association’s suggestion that the best way to safeguard children of the USA, would be to put armed guards in every school. Rather than ban the sale of guns.
Sure, let’s debate, let’s have an informed discussion, but if you look at the NRA what you see is not a body willing to engage in reasonable debate, but an ideological institution rooted to one spot, regardless of the simple truths of the matter. Because that’s the problem with a free debate – it requires both sides to listen, and that is something of a rarity.
So here we are, back where we began. Sat in an obscure corner of London preaching my morals to a world which is, let’s face it, not in a hurry to hear.
But then again, if I cannot fight for other people’s freedom of speech, if my views will not change the world, I never-the-less stand by, more than anything else, MY right to speak my mind, and as I have that right, where so many do not, I think it becomes almost a responsibility, as well as a privilege, to use it.