Free speech: we live in enlightened times, right?

We like to  think we live in enlightened times. Things which were acceptable in previous ages – slavery, racism, sending children up chimneys to clean them, treating women as possessions – have all happily been, for the most part, overturned. We also have freedom of speech today: you can voice your views on anything you like, providing you’re not inciting to violence or putting people in danger.

That’s what we like to tell ourselves, and it’s total crapola. There’s an article on the subject of free speech in today’s Irish Times, and it makes the point that we kid ourselves that we protect free speech. It cites the instance of Germaine Greer being blocked as a speaker at Cardiff University because she claimed that a trans-gender woman isn’t really a woman.  “[T]his seeming open-mindedness inspires its proponents to silence those who offend against it. Certain opinions – namely those that make the forbidden distinctions – become heretical”.

iWe say “Ah yes, but that’s in England/Wales. We’re far more open to different views here.” We believe that we have evolved from the intolerance of previous ages and are outraged by the very notion of people campaigning to block speakers with whom they disagree.  Oh, really?

Then try this.  In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a pamphlet entitled A Modest Proposal. It was Swift’s response to the terrible poverty he saw around him everywhere in Ireland. He proposed that destitute mothers sell their children as food:

“a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether StewedRoastedBaked, or Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust.”

Swift goes on to argue the economic case, noting that a two-year-old child would make a poor dish, being too tough, and noting that from birth to one year a child can be fed at no expense to the state, since it is fed from its mother’s milk. He goes on to make a religious point:

“Infant’s flesh will be in Season throughout the Year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave Author, an eminent French physitian, that Fish being a prolifick Dyet, there are more Children born in Roman Catholick Countries about nine Months after Lent, than at any other Season, therefore reckoning a Year after Lent, the Markets will be more glutted than usual, because the Number of Popish Infants, is at least three to one in this Kingdom, and therefore it will have one other Collateral advantage by lessening the Number of Papists among us.”

As far as I know, there were no calls at the time for Swift to be silenced, since he had  proposed such a monstrous scheme. The people living over two hundred years ago appear to have seen that Swift was engaged in savage mockery of those who were anti-Catholic and responsible for the terrible poverty found in the Ireland of that time.

Today,  it is sufficient for an opinion to differ from accepted (or even established) wisdom on a subject, for the author/speaker to be vilified and calls made for his/her silencing on as many fronts as possible.

Free speech, as Father Jack might have said, my arse.

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