Deyka Ayan Hassan, the 21 year old student who stupidly tweeted that anyone wearing a Help For Heroes T-shirt deserved to be beheaded in the wake of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, has been sentenced to 250 hours community service. She’d gone to the police herself after receiving hundreds of abusive Tweets in response to her own threatening to kill her, rape her and burn down her home.
The facts of the matter are simple enough but my gut response to it isn’t.
The whole thing makes me uncomfortable.
Morally the standpoint of the authorities and those who participated in the original Twitter exchange is on ropey ground. It is either a criminal offense to post / write / utter an abusive Tweet / comment / joke or it isn’t. And if it is what the hell has happened to the idea of freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech is something we very rarely think about these days. I possibly only think about it so much because I am a writer. For most of us it is like the air we breathe. We take it for granted because we mistakenly believe it has always been there and will always been there. It is part of this country’s genetic make-up.
It isn’t and never has been. It is a right that was hard won by our forebears and a right that is now slowly being wrested away from us under the guise of common decency; under the guise of protecting us and responding to our sense of outrage, disgust and, ironically, our sense of justice and morality.
Yes, Deyka Ayan Hassan’s Tweet was stupid and reprehensible. A joke that backfired and wasn’t really funny in the first place. The audience for gross shock-jokes is thin at best and very choosy even when it is at large – just ask Frankie Boyle. But are we really going to arrest people for making poor quality poor taste jokes? What common good would that serve? Protecting the rest of us from our own sense of anger and sense of disgust? Excuse me, but I don’t want Mr Cameron and the law courts inserting themselves so intimately into my sensibilities, thank you very much! I’m quite happy to process my own anger and deal with my own indignation. I just want to be protected from would-be murderers, thieves and rapists (and immoral politicians and non-tax paying corporations). I can deal with crap comedians myself.
Of course, in an ideal world everyone would always say nice things about each other. We wouldn’t have hate preachers, or racists or inflammatory orators. We’d all quote Wordsworth all day long and be utterly bored witless.
This isn’t an ideal world. But having the right to freedom of speech makes it not quite as un-ideal as it could be. We can mock our politicians. Satirize those in power over us. Challenge the law and the state when they behave ridiculously and fail to serve us, the people, as they’re supposed to. That is our TRUE protection. But freedom of speech also means that other people can disrespect us, our favourite band, our hobbies, our beliefs and our country itself. They also have the right to make disgusting jokes and be verbally offensive and utter absolutely any old crap that comes out of their mouths. There is no halfway house in this folks. We either can all say what we like or we can’t.
And it would be a much darker world if we couldn’t.
I’m thinking Hitler. I’m thinking Stasi. I’m thinking police state.
The most disturbing thing though about the Deyka Ayan Hassan case is the lack of consistency. Why were those threatening her with murder and rape - far more personally offensive attacks (with no chance of any of it being “a joke”) – not also condemned to community service? Why were they allowed to be abusive and Deyka Ayan Hassan not?
Because in this case the weight of public outrage was on their side?
Well, who decides how far and exactly when that particular pendulum has swung?
Because it certainly isn’t you and it certainly isn’t me.
Is freedom of speech now dependent on the opinions of the majority? Or just those that are in power over us? Do we now need someone else’s permission and approval to divine if what we want to say is in line with our peers and therefore acceptable to say?
When that happens freedom of speech isn’t worth the paper (or blog) that it’s written on.
And that is a true abuse.