Speech Therapy

In a blogpost I wrote in November of last year I brainstormed about all the different shapes and forms that freedom comes in. I dedicated a segment on freedom of speech, as I tried to make sense of the desire many people seemed to have to use this “freedom” to make other people feel like shit.

Rowan

In a speech from 2012 that only came to my attention in recent days, British actor and living legend Rowan Atkinson defended free speech in a way that gave the little wheels in my mind a spin. His appeal was a response to a British law at the time, that caused ridiculous arrests and offered too much room for interpretation and misuse.

Rowan Atkinson’s full speech from 2012 on the repeal of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986

Insult legalized

A conclusion that the British government was coming to was “that language or behaviour that is merely insulting should never be criminalized.” The fact that this statement needed to be made signals that up until then, insulting an officer (or his horse, apparently) was in fact something you could get arrested for.

In his speech Rowan Atkinson pointed out that “the clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult by certain parties. Ridicule is easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult. And because so many things can be interpreted as insult, it is hardly surprising that so many things have been.”

Barack

Atkinson proceeded with a proposal: “For me, the best way to increase society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it. As with childhood diseases, you can better resist those germs to which you have been exposed.” He emphasized these words by referring to Barack Obama’s 2012 UN speech, in which the former president said: “We [defend freedom of speech] because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities. (…) The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

The message these two men are trying to bring across is clear. They both stress that, when faced with intolerance and hatefulness the solution lies in more communication and more freedom, rather than the opposite. It may lead to more insults, but it will also lead to more compliments, more debate, more questions and more answers. In Atkinson’s words: “If we want a robust society, we need more robust dialogue”.

Makes sense, right?

Sacred principle

The motivation behind Rowan Atkinson and Barack Obama’s defense of freedom of speech is one I applaud. It is a sacred principle that characterizes any civilized society. Encouraging and protecting that freedom implies that insults can and will happen. And we need to learn to be OK with that.

Mr Atkinson addresses snowflakeism by bringing up the influence of social media on the way we communicate and our ability to take a joke: “The storms that surround Twitter and Facebook comment have raised some fascinating issues about free speech, which we haven’t really yet come to terms with. Firstly, that we all have to take responsibility for what we say, which is quite a good lesson to learn. But secondly, we’ve learnt how appallingly prickly and intolerant society has become of even the mildest adverse comment.”

Rowan Atkinson: “Feel free to insult me”

Clearly bothered by the rise of this phenomenon, Rowan Atkinson spoke his commentary on the troublesome British law with two banners beside him reading “Feel free to insult me”. This type of freedom is essential for comedians, as their craft lies in seeking out truths in the realm of the absurd (or absurdities within the realm of truth). Aren’t the best jokes the ones that bring a smile to your face and a slight sting to your conscience?

Bullies

Not only comedians hold freedom of speech in high regard. It is highly appreciated and respected right here within the blogger community as well, as it is pretty much what it is all about. It grants everybody equal amount of time at the microphone and once there, it ensures that every individual can speak their truth fully and fearlessly.

But in the defense of free speech, people on the receiving end of bullying, hate speech and threats are told to adopt every elementary school’s mantra “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. So we all cultivated some hard leathery skin to protect our souls from the ugly byproducts of freedom of expression.

However, what Atkinson doesn’t mention -because we never thought it would be necessary to do so-, is that even though speaking your mind can be felt as an insult to some, inflicting pain should never become a goal in itself. The tragic train wreck that was Barrack Obama’s successor demonstrated what that looks and sounds like. Also, it showed us what abuse of this sacred right can lead to.

That the solution for this cruel tendency is actually “more speech” still rings true in spite of all of this. Something I have found to be especially challenging in upholding this ideal is that those individuals that insist freedom of speech must be utilized to verbally crush their self-appointed opponents seem to have only limited patience with communication. They sling their intolerant words into the world like children send anonymous spitballs flying around from the back of a classroom. Further communication about the matter is never really possible.

Speech impairment

So, let me stress again that I really, totally, full heartedly encourage and support more dialogue within our societies and especially between people with opposing opinions. However…. It is not enough. Instead of teaching people on the receiving end of hate speech to toughen up, we also need to start asking the mudslingers WTF is wrong with them.

Not by going back to throwing bullies in jail for their assholery, like that former British law did.

What I would suggest is helping these verbal thugs to find other ways to express themselves. And by that I don’t mean they should just yell into a pillow every time they feel their inner douchebag playing up. I mean they should actually look into why they feel so uncontrollably angry, sad, afraid or threatened in the first place.

And yes, refraining from calling them thugs, degenerates, douchebags (or any of the words I may have used in this blog to refer to these people) would also be helpful…

Psychobabble

We are complex beings with incredible brains (and souls, I guess, if you believe in that). We are capable of thinking such deeply perplexing thoughts that we don’t know what to do with them ourselves sometimes. On top of that, the times we live in and the technology that dictates our every day lives, let’s us feel all the feels all the time!

Do you want to wallow in the pain of heartbreak? Spotify has playlists at the ready for you. Are you in a cute and cuddly mood? The Dodo channel on Youtube has an endless source of videos to match that! Angry and destructive? I’m sure Steven Seagal is still making films in some dark corner of the internet to quench that thirst.

Anyway… What I am trying to say is… Our brains need a break sometimes. Also, we need to learn talk about our feelings. For many that also means learning new words to verbalize all the things we can feel. There are so many ways to express one’s feelings!

Encouragement of expression

A thought that has been going through my mind ever since that Rowan Atkinson vid appeared on my screen is that it’s not “freedom of speech” that we should be promoting and protecting per se. Or, I mean yes, we should also be protecting that, but “speech” is just the bare minimum of what we need to master.

“Freedom of expression” comes closer, because yes, there are more ways one can express themselves than with speech!

But how about not only granting people freedom of expression but actually encouraging people to use it. How? I’m not sure how to fix the current generation of people with a “freedom of speech impairment” but maybe we can start offering lessons at elementary and secondary schools to make sure kids acquire a vocabulary to express their feelings? And let’s not forget empathy lessons, so we can use our fancy feely words to help and comfort others that are struggling to do so.

This idea is (obviously) a work in progress and I can use some help. Who’s with me?

Freedom

Freedom is such a burdened concept. I guess that’s why it needed such a ginormous statue.

The word means all kinds of things to all sorts of people. It is something individuals construct their lives around and nations promise to their people.

Everybody can agree that captivity is the opposite of freedom. However, poverty could also be seen is an antonym of freedom, as well as servitude and suppression.

In theory, freedom is something we would want everybody to have all the time, everywhere. Sadly, with our species, universal freedom has proven to be an impossibility.

The tragedy is that, when put into practice, complete and total freedom tends to translate into individuals stepping on (and over) the boundaries of others. I teased my brain about this dilemma before, but it is something that continues to puzzle and sadden me about our species.

The chapter in history embodied by POTUS-45 has also demonstrated that freedom in the hands of sociopaths and narcissists is harmful for the collective.

Freedom of religion

Every modern day western society has some mention of freedom of religion in their constitution. With it, people have basically institutionalized the principle of “agreeing to disagree”.

The rule of thumb has mostly been “When in Rome, do as the Romans”. Do not demand pork or lobster in a Jewish household, do not order beef in a Hindu establishment and expect no meat when visiting a Buddhist. As a woman; cover up some what when entering a Catholic church, cover up some more when entering a mosque. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Aside from the five major religions we count today, modern day society has made room for surprising new ideologies like Wicca, Scientology and the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. All these things have to be taken seriously in equal amounts because of the structures we have created to protect freedom of religion.

But the 21st century has been an uphill battle in this regard, with radicalism chipping away at the foundations of tolerant ideas. The terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001 were a breaking point that have continued to divide us up to this day.

Because what do you do when you are not only expected to “do like the Romans” when in Rome but also when you’re hanging out in your own house in Paris, New York or London?

Is it fair to be expected to respect the values of a religion that is not your own? How do you react if it doesn’t even matter what you do, but your mere existence is considered an insult? And what do you do when the price you are being asked to pay for disrespect is death?

How do you deal with the contradiction of protecting values like “live and let live” if doing so might mean the end of them?

I feel empathy is a key concept in all of this, but at this point I still only have more questions, and no answers…

Freedom of Speech

This modern era has given certain words meanings, beyond their literal definitions. Or perhaps it is not a symptom of the 21st century, but just the way language evolves… I’m thinking of how referring to someone as “politically correct” has become an insult.

On the other end of that is the way we use “freedom of speech” as a way to justify bullying or rude behavior.

After the horrific series of terrorist attacks in France of the last few weeks, I heard my dad asking the TV: “Why would you use freedom of speech to insult others, particularly if you know how sensitive they are about it?”.

I wrote something in a blogpost almost 6 years ago, after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo as a soul search of my own, investigating how much leeway should be given to satire, if it knowingly insults specific groups of people. So much has happened since then. In regards to the question my dad asked, seemingly rhetorically, my perspective has hardened.

From my point of view, humor has always been a useful tool to take painful truths out of the realm of taboo. Even back in medieval times we enjoyed the company of fools and jesters to challenge our thinking. The veil of clownish clothing and silly behavior protected them from persecution, in the same way that today TV presenters like Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah (and Arjen Lubach, in my own country) can justify all sorts of statements with the magic words “Relax. It’s satire”.

Given the fact that pioneering comedians (and cartoon shows like South Park) tread on new grounds, they should be allowed to experiment with controversial thoughts and send some gasps through a crowd. Some of those gasps will come from people who feel their values have been disrespected or misunderstood.

What satire does is shine a torch on aspects of our being that have been kept in the dark, either by design or not. The goal is not to insult, but to reveal uneasiness. Sure, it might be embarrassing. Some comedians may take it a bit far, pushing beyond mere ridicule and into the realm of bullying.

But still, I don’t think we should give it up.

If we want to save freedom of speech, we have to continue to make room for each other’s opinions. We need dialogue for that. If there’s an elephant in the room getting in the way of a conversation, no better way to help it move on than to mock someone else’s big buttock first.

Also, from experience I can say that it actually helps your self esteem to learn how to take (or make) a joke about your lesser features. Self-mockery is an excellent tool to help you become more comfortable in your own skin. I truly recommend it.

Freedom to summarize

As this blog has been a long time in the making, I have collected quite a lot of random ideas and unfinished thoughts. The leftover scribbles might get their own blogpost one day, but for the sake of readability I will not elaborate further on them in this one.

Because I do feel it is all relevant somehow, I will just include my ramblings as food-for-thought bulletpoints below.

More on Freedom of Speech

  • When does freedom of speech become hate speech?
  • Should words be punishable by law?
  • Does the expression revolving around “Sticks and Stones” stop applying after elementary school?
  • Has snowflakism broken freedom of speech or are we saying more assholey things to each other?

Freedom of Opinion

  • A modern misuse of freedom is the way groups and individuals are applying it to set science aside as “just another opinion”.
  • There is a contradiction in people using freedom as a justification for gun ownership.

Complicated socio-political screwballing

  • What does freedom mean on a macro level?
  • Do European countries have any right to tell Brazil what to do with the Amazon rainforest (and is that a limitation to its freedom)?
  • Can it be considered “aid” if it is also an encroachment of an other nation’s sovereignty?

Non-freedom / Incarceration

  • Taking away somebody’s freedom is a universal form of punishment.
  • How and why is that?
  • What does the expropriation of freedom do and mean to an individual?
  • And what does it do to the person responsible for this captivity?
  • Is incarceration enough or should a stay in jail be unpleasant in other ways as well (meaning we shouldn’t provide prisoners with TV, games, good beds, etc)?

Like I said, freedom is such a burdened concept.

Also, I think too much.


This dedication to Freedom is a contribution for my own personal A-to-Z challenge, which I will be adding to once a month. Alphabet so far:

Black Pete & his opponents

In the past, Black Pete fans were predominantly Dutch children. Now that his position and appearance have come under scrutiny, adults have started rejoining the fanclub and are standing up for him.

If you ask me though, Black Pete’s real friends are the ones that wish him to be removed from the Sinterklaas celebration all together. This blog is dedicated to those people.

Black Pete & Sylvana Simons

Sylvana Simons is one of the most controversial public figures in the Netherlands. Before she became everyone’s favorite punching bag, she was a popular TV host on the Dutch version of MTV. Her unapologetic and relentless anti-Black-Pete-stance is what earned her the number one position on the Netherlands’ unofficial most-hated-figures list.

Sylvana Simons, the Netherlands’ favorite racial punching bag.

I dedicated a blog to her about a year and a half ago and some things have changed since then. The biggest change, as far as Ms Simons’ position goes, is that she has decided to focus her energy on local politics, starting in her hometown of Amsterdam.

This move wasn’t fully of her own making, given that no senate seat was granted to her after national elections in 2017. I must admit that I did not vote for her at the time either, all though I did consider it. In the end, I am happy it worked out this way, as this result means she doesn’t come up in hateful memes, harsh opinion columns and racist caricatures as often as before.

“If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is definitiely a quote that comes to mind when I think of Ms Simons. This lady is pretty much fireproof. I never saw her back down from any discussion, nor did she ever pull her punches. She was a crucial spark and if it wasn’t for her, I doubt we would actually be talking about alternative ways to celebrate Sinterklaas at all.

What we need now though, is someone who can ease those flames down a bit and lead the discussion in a more compassionate way. The fire doesn’t need to die out. It does need to be fanned in a more controlled fashion so that it doesn’t burn down the house.

Fighting fire with fire. Burning down the house.

It’s not fair to Ms Simons to say she wouldn’t be capable of fulfilling such a role. I do believe however that my compatriots would never appreciate her attempts and that therefore there is no useful part for her to play in the debate at this point. She is invited to the afterparty though.

Black Pete & Jerry Afriyie

What Jenny Douwes is for the pro-Pete-movement, Jerry Afriyie is for the anti-Pete-movement. More specifically, he is the face of the protest organization “Kick out Zwarte Piet” and sister organization “Nederland wordt beter”. 

Jerry is the son of Ghanian parents and came to the Netherlands at the age of ten. I haven’t decided yet if the fact that he is still seen as an outsider (whereas Sylvana was very much seen as a traitor stabbing us in the back) actually helps him or is getting in his way. When speaking of the Dutch he does always use the first-person plural.

He has explained in interviews how his first memories of the Sinterklaas celebrations were actually purely positive ones.

Jerry Afriyie during KOZP demonstration in Rotterdam. Photo by BART MAAT

It was all fun and games, until other kids started calling him Black Pete as an insult. He realized he was actually the butt of the joke and that all was not right in this children’s celebration. He then heard from other people that children sometimes came home crying and asked to be scrubbed “clean” as their black tone was supposedly caused by chimney soot.

As he grew up, he became more vocal about this and has described having heated discussions about the matter in highschool. He ended up joining Nederland wordt beter, which can be translated both as the imperative “Netherlands, be better” and the hopeful “Netherlands shall be better”. According to its own website, the organizations incentive is as follows:

Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter focuses on a future without racism and exclusion. We believe that this can only be achieved by recognising the influence of the history of colonialism and slavery on contemporary society and on all Dutch people. The foundation works towards spreading more knowledge about the consequences of the Dutch history of colonialism and slavery.

Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter organisation is a collective of parents, poets, artists, teachers, students, academics, bloggers, filmmakers, and historians. They are contributing voluntarily to make a better Netherlands.

Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter aims to dissolve itself in 2025. We assume that the following goals will be achieved by then.

https://www.nederlandwordtbeter.nl/en/organisation/ [23-11-2018]

To people who say, “but this is what we’ve always done and nobody has ever had a problem with it”, mr Afriyie says that ignorance of the past can be forgiven, but now that we know better we must do better.

He has compared it to someone treading on someone else’s foot without noticing. When the other says “hey, you stepped on my foot and that hurt” you can choose to say “gee, I hadn’t noticed but I’m so sorry I hurt you” or you can proceed to step on it again and then say “If you were standing where I was stepping then you must have been in the way and you are just way to sensitive anyway”.

All though his confrontations with police have led to him being barred from his profession in security management, mr Afriyie will not back down. He insists that he pushes on out of love for the country and not out of disdain for it, as his opponents suggest.

He has said it is normal and understandable that this generation is finding it hard to cope with the idea that what we have been doing all along is hurtful and wrong. He says it’s fine that people blame him for causing unnecessary discomfort.

To that his response is that he is not accountable to this generation, but to the next one…