Englishwoman Emma West in the middle of her racist rant on a London tram

Column Let the extremists speak - if only so we can fight back

This week, regular columnist Lisa McInerney argues that everyone is entitled to their opinion – because it gives us a chance to stand up against odious claptrap.

IT’S EASY TO find yourself at the wrong end of a lost hour contemplating what constitutes a culture of entitlement. We’re convinced we have one here, that it ranks in our national identity alongside Guinness, misty vistas, and inadvertently leaving the immersion on.

It’s been blamed for everything from our economic meltdown to the hubcaps that gild our rural ditches. I can’t help picturing this “culture” as a semi-sentient miasma that whispers to our egos and turns us all into brats who demand three foreign holidays a year and the right to park on the footpath when it’s raining. The opposite end of the scale, of course, is the hand-wringing Irish-Mammyism of denying the trappings to those of us who fall short of full approval.

“Some cheek on yer wan with her new curtains,” we huff,” when her husband hasn’t had a job in two years. Far from blackout blinds she was reared!”

From sneaky parking privileges to the right to bear soft furnishings, we’re obsessed with who thinks they’re owed what, and who’s got more than they were owed.

The entitlement we’re most convinced of – and I’d imagine this is the same for most other first world societies – is the entitlement to an opinion. I’m not being derogatory of this. How could I be? A columnist who frowns at the right to an opinion is as wretched a creature as a prohibitionist publican. It takes all sorts to make a world, so the world is full of vociferous disagreement on bugbears, bogeymen and sacred cows. And there’s education, enlightenment, and sometimes tons of fun to be had in exploring others’ opinions.

But the entitlement to an opinion often obscures the responsibility to make it informed, and the social obligation to elaborate when challenged. “I’m entitled to my opinion,” has become the full stop clogging any debate that threatens inflammation or hints at impending ridicule. And that’s frustrating when you’ve got reasons that prove your opponent’s stubborn stance misinformed, but, well, it’s true.

People are entitled to their opinions, no matter how off-the-wall. Unless it comes down to blatant direction or threat, as in the case of incitement to hatred, we have the right to express ourselves. Yes, even if we think TDs don’t get paid enough, or that we all came off the spaceship of an intergalactic warlord named Xenu.

It’s most difficult to concede that everyone’s entitled to express their opinions publicly when the views proffered are contrary to public opinion.

Pope Benedict XVI recently said that social policies which undermine marriage between a man and a woman “threaten the future of humanity itself”. That the British have been “ethnically cleansed” from their own country is an absurdity spewed by BNP Leader Nick Griffin, who is due to speak at UCC next month.

“Isn’t there any legal way,” you might wonder, ” that we can shut this eejit up?”

Is the Pope, a man revered by millions of people, entitled to express his opinion that bestowing traditional privilege on non-traditional families – made up of equal citizens – could be the downfall of us all? Is Mr Griffin, a prominent political figure, entitled to stir up fear amongst his countrymen that they were silently colonised by foreign leeches when they were looking the other way? “Isn’t there any legal way,” you might wonder, as you hear a foreign celibate condemn your very existence for the umpteenth time, or witness a pompous buffoon imply that migration is akin to genocide, “that we can shut this eejit up?”

Well, we could, but at what cost? Personally, I’d be happiest if our prestigious universities didn’t give a platform to coiffed balloons like Mr Griffin, because I worry that doing so validates racism. Personally, I’d rather the Pope’s religious beliefs were broadcast only to his devoted, and not spread all over international media like a review of some sort of medieval soap opera. But personal preferences don’t – shouldn’t – come into it. The entitlement to personal opinion belongs not just to the measured and mannered, but to the vacuous loudmouth, the sexist joker, the sneering elitist… to the religious leader in Rome, and the nationalist in the UK.

Let them speak. They’re entitled to speak. And yes, they’ll probably bolster the prejudices of some of those who give an ear, and make some bigots even more insufferable.

You can’t prevent it. But you can certainly register your disagreement.

Because this is the flip-side of the zealot’s right to his opinion. We must accept that the price we pay for free speech is that hate and fallacy will be broadcast alongside fresh ideas and healthy perspective.

If people like Pope Benedict and Nick Griffin are to broadcast opinions that are morally lopsided, blinkered, or even potentially dangerous, if they will not honour their responsibility to make these opinions balanced, then it is the responsibility of those who disagree with them to make their voices heard. Extremists don’t thrive on debate.

People exercised their right to their opinion and called Ms West out for being a hateful moron

Take Emma West, the English woman who was filmed screaming racial abuse at fellow passengers on a London tram. Uploaded to YouTube, the video was viewed over 11 million times, the backlash was vicious and immediate, and West was swiftly arrested and charged with public order offenses. There’s no doubt that West had a startlingly ugly attitude, but likely she believed she had the right to publicly express her jingoistic anger at non-nationals and British blacks. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, right? It’s free speech. And free speech is how we know a huge proportion of the population of her precious country disagreed with her odious claptrap. People exercised their right to their opinion, and called Ms West out for being a hateful moron. The concept of free speech is what exposed that nastiness, and what sent it up, and what – hopefully, in time – will exorcise it.

Turned out that Emma West’s entitlement to an opinion didn’t entitle her to dole out racial abuse whenever she felt like it. The vitriol she had cultivated in her own social circle was swiftly doused by the revulsion of wider society.

So it goes here at home. How often have we heard someone congratulating an extreme viewpoint by suggesting “Sure, it was what everyone was thinking, but too afraid to say”? That everyone’s entitled to their opinion is a tenet which inspires most fervent conviction in those who believe they should be allowed to bash everyone they don’t quite like the look of. And the easiest reaction is to keep quiet, or look bored… to refuse to feed the troll. Maybe it’s true that there’s no arguing with people blinded by prejudice. But while you may not change their minds, you can certainly make them feel a little lonelier.

As the motto (almost) goes, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to make a total prat of yourself saying it.”

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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