Free speech: Are we getting the balance right? You spoke out and told us your views.

June 15, 2012, 4:13 PM GMT+0

Striking the right balance between protecting people’s right to speak freely, while also promoting respect, sensitivity and tolerance, seems to be a perpetual issue in the UK and other liberal democracies.

YouGov’s PoliticsLab invited you to speak out and tell us your views on freedom of speech:

Has society become too politically correct and oversensitive? OR are too many people still making racist, sexist and homophobic comments that need clamping down on?

The largest proportion of those who took part in the debate were of the opinion that political correctness has gone too far in Britain, to the detriment of public debate, and that both regular people and the media have become overly sensitive.

A smaller proportion of participants said that too many people are still making offensive remarks against certain groups, and that the right to freedom of speech should not be used to evade accountability for inciting hatred.

A very small proportion of you said you thought the balance was about right. Those who were of this view, said that while there are extreme examples on both sides, it is a natural tension in a modern democracy that is managed fairly well in Britain.

So what sort of things did participants say on this subject?

Below we look at the two opposite views represented most in this Labs discussion.

VIEWPOINT: ‘Society has become too easily offended towards people making politically incorrect comments’

  • Those of you who argued that the idea of political correctness has gone too far, said it stifles what could be constructive debate on important issues.
  • You also said that a culture of fear has taken hold, where people feel nervous about saying what is on their minds because people are too easily offended and eager to label someone as prejudiced.

Argument 1 - Political correctness stifles debate

’Political correctness' is being used to marginalise minority views in society, and by political and media elites to enforce consensus by socially stigmatising those who have alternative perspectives, in the name of tolerance” Anon

A society that dismisses the thoughts and opinions of any sector of its public is one which is unhealthy. Also, we have got to the stage where the only sector of the population able to be discriminated against or laughed at is the white male” Anon

Attempting to censor insulting comments will not get rid of them, but drive them underground and keep the underlying attitudes hidden. Allowing all the freedom to insult others is the best way to expose the hateful attitudes of some, and challenge them rather than let them hide and go unchallenged” A Williams, Teesside

“Every day there are stories in the news of people complaining that a radical extremist has made another outrageous statement. Let them speak their mind and let their words be the means by which we can decide if they should be followed, respected or ignoredRay, Somerset

How can issues be debated if we can't discuss sensitive issues? I'm not talking about people being aggressively phobic towards a group of people, but people just making controversial comments. If someone is offended then the only way to solve this is by discussion and education, not pretending people don't think in certain waysAnon

I think that political correctness is preventing people from even raising certain subjects, i.e. immigration, let alone discussing them. Freedom of speech will inevitably displease some people, and especially those who make a career out of being offended” Geoffrey, Hertfordshire

Argument 2 - Political correctness has created a culture of fear where too many are unfairly labelled as bigots

I am retired and 70 years old. In my life time laws and rules have changed and we are expected to put a lifetime of taught beliefs behind us in an instantBeliefs are to some extent ingrained, and while acceptance is expected it can be difficult to adjust. So the slip of the tongue, while not intended to hurt or belittle, is now a case for every lawyer and politician to ride on the wagon” Anon

“Children in schools just have to mention the race issue and they can get away with anything because teachers live in fear of being called a racist. This is stupid. Most people are not racist, or sexist, or anything else. Stop wrongly accusing people because of obviously innocent remarks. Our freedom of speech has been taken away from us. That is far more fascist than the regime these rules have been set up to preventAshley, Nottingham

Every day is like walking on eggshells; some people take great pleasure in sniffing out, and being allegedly offended at others' views. For this reason it inhibits social interaction; I've actually given up talking to some people because of it. The last government's decision to redefine this area was the most significant decision: they allowed racism to become entirely subjectiveAnyone can become a criminal based on the sensibilities of othersPhilip, Plymouth

There is a smug, complacent, soggy, left-of-centre middle that is rapidly becoming the only acceptable position to hold on anything. It is the tyranny of the illiberal liberal. Much of the time accepted truth is utterly false. We pretend reality is not as it is in the name of faux politenessBlognorton

I encounter things which deeply offend me on an almost daily basis, but there's no law or bleeding hearts to stop them. Being offended by things is part of life, and the minorities whose delicate sensibilities the liberals claim are offended should get over it. After all, people who can still be called an ‘old hag’, ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’, ‘boring’, etc., have to live with such things without collapsing into a state and going to court” Anon

My next door neighbour is an 86 year old staunch racist; she is a product of her time and has led a sheltered 'rich white' life. We often have great discussions, and although I may not agree with all she says her views are valid and show just how much society has changed. No-one likes change, and in her lifetime she has seen the demographics, race, creed, and rights of all these people overtake her own. Rightly so, she feels outnumbered in her own country and due to her age has no qualms in voicing this opinion. This is free speech at its best because she is entitled to her opinion and we should respect itDaz, Cheshire

VIEWPOINT: ‘Too many people still making racist, sexist and homophobic comments’

  • Those who argued that is still too much racism, sexism and homophobia in society, said that people who make offensive remarks should be more harshly criticised, and held to account for what they’ve said.
  • You also told us that the right to freedom of speech should not act as a shield for those who incite hatred, including anonymously online, and that in some cases people making offensive comments should be prosecuted.

Argument 1 - People need to be held accountable for what they say

Despite our country being incredibly multicultural, there are still those who make remarks that can lead to ignorance and bigoted intolerance of others. These views must be reprimanded, and those who make them educated about why such intolerance is unfounded. To ignore such views is not an option in this society” Olly M, Newquay

“Even if a comment is not aimed directly at an individual, the words still hurt, and cause misery and pain. Pulling people up on their bigoted comments draws attention to this very serious problem in our societyNicola E, London

I think that when you have groups of Muslim extremists shouting hate at soldiers returning from service in Afghanistan, they should not only be criticised for it but punished for treason. Likewise, when there are groups of white skinheads screaming at Muslim women, they should not only be criticised but punished for inciting racial hatredAnon

“Of course people should be criticised for making offensive comments. Anyone saying ‘political correctness has gone too far’ has clearly never been on the receiving end of bigotry and is deeply lacking any sense of empathyAnon

The recent Rio Ferdinand fiasco illustrates this really well. John Terry is the one in the penalty box for allegedly making racist remarks, or is he? Rio is the one left out of the England squad while Terry's trial is delayed so he can take part in Euro2012, and when Rio expresses that this is unfair he is tagged as the problem by some pretty strongly opinionated people who claim he has proven that he would have been a troublemaker if included … It seems you can say whatever you like that is offensive and almost the entire nation will become your defence, if only to stress that there is no racism in the UK, and those who feel they have been discriminated against are too keen to play the race cardNatsai Z, Nottingham

“There shouldn't be any legal restrictions on what people say, but there should be more, louder, harder and specific criticism of people when they do say things that promote or maintain negative treatment or consideration of particular groupsThis is the responsibility of every individual, and shouldn't be delegated just to the media or other institutionsAnon

Argument 2 - People should not be able to hide behind freedom of speech

Racism, sexism and homophobia are irrational and divisive and generally such comments are not made in any sort of active discussion, but in simple negation. Freedom of speech is not and should not be an absolute rightMalcolm, Frome

Free speech is overrated. In the dreadful world of tweeting and texting, any notion of responsibility for one's actions seems to have disappeared. As a consequence, some curtailment of this supposed ‘freedom’ is inevitable – and absolutely necessary” Anon

Simply making a comment then hiding behind freedom of speech or religion to defend themselves or shield themselves from criticism is at odds with the principleLei, Wales

With the rise of social media, particularly Twitter, people seem to be losing touch with personal accountability, and too many offensive comments are made with no expectation of repercussion. Extremist politics have also been frighteningly prevalent globally in the last few years, and sending a strong zero-tolerance message about offensive language and behaviour may discourage others from partaking in itEmily P, Scotland

Certain subjects should be off-limits, when the person being laughed at or criticised is a victim of a crime or has some kind of disability or impairment in particularAnon

“People are actively seeking out groups they can safely victimise in order to boost their own fading sense of self-worth. Until we can stop this drive to find people to victimise then we should continue to push the message that bullying and verbal assault is a crimeDee D, Yorkshire

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