So where have we got to, so far, in the year 2021 ? Locked in, locked down, sundered from outer family – again. And everywhere, the virus and its effects, spreading yet further, pressing wider and deeper. The masked face, still – and ever increasingly – the image of our time. In the US, a few days ago, that enormous nation’s hoodlum head of state, unmasked but covered over in a cloud of orange make-up, lies and self-worship, ordered the storming of democracy and was joyfully obeyed by his natural constituency, supported still by a large number of the Republican party, self-serving and dishonourable. In the UK, we have stumbled into the mad miasma of our Brexit future, covered in our own thick cloud of puerile mop-headed lies (“call me Boris”). History races on, in 2021.
There is so much to say, so many people saying it, some very well. What’s the point of adding yet more words here ?
I just need to comment on the phoney debate that has now opened up in America (but it goes on in the UK as well), following the banning – at long last and far too late – of Trump’s use of Twitter. It has been his principle means of spreading lies, malevolent fantasies and incitement to mayhem, unchecked and unrestrained, for the last four years and more.
So, just a few days before he is due to hand over the presidency, the direct and unmediated connection between Trump and his ardent following has finally been broken. His son and fellow-hoodlums in the Republican Party, still lurking in his slipstream, perk up. They voice “moral” indignation. They reach for the Constitution and seek to wrap and disguise themselves in those grand and ringing old words. The First Amendment. The right to Freedom of Speech. Forget the storming of the Capitol, they cry. What’s the country coming to, if freedom of speech is curtailed in this way ?
But what is freedom of speech ? What does it mean ? Does it mean licence to say whatever you like, however poisonous ? Licence to lie ? Does it mean licence deliberately to obscure, distort, replace the truth, without any responsibility for the effects and consequences of your masking, your desecration, of the facts ?
And to go one step further : what is speech itself ? To answer that question adequately cannot be done in brief, even if I were qualified to take it on. But one aspect of the answer seems essential to me and I feel duty-bound to keep pushing it. Speech – the words we say and hear in our meetings and transactions one with another – exists as a currency, just like money, a means of exchange. And inter-action through speech is foundational to all human societies, above all to democratic societies, at least as much as coinage is foundational, maybe even more so. For just as, without a sound coinage, our society would become dysfunctional and tend to break down, so the words we use and share have to be trustworthy, honourable and of true value. I don’t mean we all have to be right at all times. But I do mean we have to be basically honest in service to the truth. Otherwise, social breakdown will follow, as it did in Washington, last week.
I think this equating of language to coinage, seeing them as currencies equally basic to our wellbeing, is exact, not fanciful, even though money has a tendency to be measured as a quantity, speech more to do with quality.
Issues of quantity can be easier to measure than those of quality – and also easier to address. But how we address financial misconduct might reveal to us how better to measure, address and repudiate the abuse of our free speech.
In terms of money, abusive or anti-social behaviour comes under a wide range of titles, each seen as a crime under the law : fraud, forgery, cheating, theft. And Society is clear on how to view and what to do with citizens caught engaging in these abuses. We agree in seeing and punishing them as felons. We have a whole legal system ready to try them in court and, if they are found guilty, to punish them in various established ways.
And I say without hesitation that for any holder of public office to use his/her position deliberately to mislead the public, through words, for that person’s personal advantage, he or she has committed a crime no less material than any of those cited in the previous paragraph. In fact all those crime definitions are equally applicable in this case. For a politician to lie to people in order falsely to win their support is precisely an act of fraud, and of forgery, and of cheating, and of theft – theft in broad daylight., brazen and unashamed. A sovereign people, or the representatives of that people, cannot make the major and hugely difficult decisions required of them in a complex world unless they are “properly informed.”
In the UK, the sixth of Lord Nolan’s “Seven Principles of Conduct in Public Life”, says very simply : ”Holders of Public Office should be truthful.” Mr Johnson, (“call me Boris”) our present Prime Minister, calls those principles “precious” even while he ignores the sixth one on a serial basis.
Mr Johnson can afford to do so, because the principles are toothless, especially so long as Mr Johnson himself, as Prime minister, is left responsible for their implementation (Mr Johnson is on public record as having been sacked twice in the past for lying – an outrageous record which should debar him from public office of any kind).
That is why, here in the UK, I support Plaid Cymru and Compassion in Politics in their campaigns to make lying in politics illegal. Mr Johnson cannot be left as final arbiter of ethical political behaviour when Mr Johnson’s only gauge and measure of what is right is his own immediate self-interest, whatever the cost to others.
And that is why, over there in the USA, Mr Trump has not been deprived of free speech at all. Belatedly, he has been deprived of his power to abuse free speech and his fellow-Americans, stealing from them the truth, brazenly abusing his office and his nation in doing so. Yes, free speech is the sacred right of all of us. But it is a temple vulnerable to desecration. It needs protecting from the likes of Mr Trump and our Mr Johnson and their respective dodgy acolytes. There are in fact too many of the likes of Mr Trump and Mr Johnson prominent in our times. They are low felons. We need to stop voting low felons into power. Too many of us seem to prefer their lies and their self-worship to our reality. We need to cure ourselves of that deadly mistake. And we need to name, shame and penalise these liars.