Do we still live in a country that defends the right to free speech? Every day, public figures are criticised and often sacked for using the wrong word and people are denigrated for being unintentionally ‘hateful’. Many feel that they are tip-toeing through a mine field when speaking in public. However, everyone agrees that free speech is a bedrock of a free society, so how do we make sense of it all?

Listen carefully

Speaking used to be a way for us to communicate our private thoughts to others. We also listened, in an attempt to understand what others were saying. This was known, in the olden days, as something called ‘conversation’.

However, rapid cultural changes urge us to become sensitive to the words that people use, rather than the meaning that they aim to convey. We may now hear less, but we listen more closely to mistakes that people make when speaking.

To listen well, we must attune ourselves to ‘trigger words’ by using ‘active listening’. ‘BAME’ is appropriate but, ‘black’ should be a trigger. ‘Person with a womb’ or ‘womb person’ is less triggering that the once-popular ‘woman’. ‘Queer’ should be avoided, whereas ‘queer’ (the intonation is important here) is passable.

We must stop trying to ‘understand’ other people and instead concentrate hard to identify trigger words. Only when we learn how to be offended by inappropriate terminology can we achieve true understanding.

Acceptable conversation

The opposite of ‘trigger’ words are ‘acceptability’ words. You can use these words to convey that you are someone who ‘gets it’ – that you are a responsible person who can be trusted with authority and invited to dinner. Using these words shows that you are educated, informed and part of the modern establishment.

Try to use ‘acceptability’ words in everyday conversation. They include:

‘Sustainable’ – This shows that you believe that modern life is unsustainable, and that other people need to change their lifestyles, in order that yours can be sustained indefinitely.

‘Inclusion’ – Using this word shows that you care about including excluded people in an inclusive way, although probably not for dinner.

‘Equality’ – Using this word, in relation to your own life, shows that you have been badly treated and that you didn’t get that promotion and given a pay rise because of [insert appropriate sex, race, sexuality].

Know your rights

Free speech may be a birth-right, but it is also a responsibility. We must earn our right to be listened to. Only when we say things that are socially acceptable, can we reasonably expect to be heard by others.

To have the right to be heard in public, we must first demonstrate that we understand the rules. Many well-intentioned people have made the irresponsible mistake of expressing scepticism on issues that are settled. These include:

  • The communal benefits of banning human interaction during Covid lockdowns
  • The societal benefits of bankrupting people’s businesses, the health benefits of protecting the NHS from patients
  • The environmental benefits of covering the countryside in solar panels and wind turbines

We have the right to speak. But, only when we express the right thoughts do we earn the right to be heard in public.

Show Respect

Some people simply tolerate views with which they disagree. However, these people are not truly listening. It is important that we demonstrate to others that they have been heard by showing the appropriate ‘respect’.

When the staff at the Guardian demanded that the journalist, Suzanne Moore, was sacked, they simply wanted her to demonstrate that they ‘respect’ their views. When The Godfather, Don Corleone, experienced difficulty in communicating his needs to subordinates or rivals, he merely asked that they ‘show respect’.

Respect is a fluid concept that we must adapt to fit the views being expressed. This was appropriately demonstrated by staff at Penguin Random House, the publisher of Mein Kampf, who allegedly cried when a book by an author they could not respect was unveiled for publication. It was unclear whether staff were shedding tears of despair over the views of Dr Jordan Peterson or tears of joy at the prospect of millions of book sales. Either way, their employer ‘respected’ their feelings and pressed ahead with publication.

Remember, we are free to say what we like, but only if people like what we say can we be free to speak.