Our freedom of speech comes at a price

Tracii and Neil Smith with their twin daughters Ruby, who has Down's syndrome, and Darby. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tracii and Neil Smith with their twin daughters Ruby, who has Down's syndrome, and Darby. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The right to challenge the system must not come at the cost of insulting those who can’t defend themselves, says Callum Mackinnon

THERE has been a lot of discussion around freedom of expression recently, most indicating that it is considered sacrosanct. It is what allows societies to challenge and question the systems that govern the everyday lives of their people without fear of retaliation. It is a basic freedom that empowers the individual and should be preserved at all costs.

We would suggest, however, that it does come with a level of accountability.

Down’s Syndrome Scotland (DS Scotland) has been forced into this debate many times. Great offence and hurt has often been caused to people with Down’s syndrome (DS) and their families so we have always sought to respond accordingly. It is easy to miss the impact a throwaway comment has on a section of society with whom one feels no personal affiliation. DS Scotland all too often sees the damage it can cause.

It is only by increasing the general public’s understanding of this that we can begin to tackle these attitudes more effectively. This requires active engagement from mainstream society so people do start to feel an affiliation. This is a challenge as DS has a difficult relationship with the mainstream. On one hand, people with DS have recognisable physical attributes and most people will have come across somebody with the condition. Despite this familiarity, it is telling that a lot of DS Scotland’s work goes into raising awareness, tackling negative stereotypes and defending people when they are routinely mocked or simply disregarded.

This disconnect between familiarity and understanding is perhaps why DS stereotypes, and the offensive language that surrounds them, are prevalent to this day. Mainstream comedians such as Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle have been criticised by some, including DS Scotland, for their use of words like “mong” or “retard” – both derivations of words that were once wholly acceptable in their use. With an estimated one in 1,000 children born with DS, it is sadly predictable that only a small minority think to challenge such language given the low level of awareness in the wider public. This sentiment is echoed by the fact that DS Scotland’s members are predominantly comprised of individuals with DS, their families and people with a personal connection to the work we do.

Language, however, changes over time. Terms once considered the norm are often dropped from the everyday lexicon as attitudes and society changes. Racial slurs have become wholly unacceptable, perhaps coinciding with the world’s development in a more multicultural direction. Similarly, homophobic insults, while still used as “humour”, have become less and less acceptable as our culture sees an increase in openly gay individuals in the mainstream public eye through television, film, music and, only recently, sport. Such exposure normalises sections of society previously seen as “other”.

In 2015, to see or hear racial or homophobic slurs is a shock to the system and rightly so. They were, and are still in some instances, used as a tool of oppression. They thrived in a world dominated by white, heterosexuals, where black people were treated as second class citizens and where homosexuality was a crime. When these words have become unacceptable, yet mong is used in the mainstream and only criticised by a small yet vocal few, what does this say for the opportunities of people with disabilities? What does it say about the limits we as a society put on them, consciously or otherwise?

Of course, there is a place for intelligent satire and criticism that challenges the world we live in. It is an attempt to redress the balance of power and, whether this succeeds in a palpable societal shift or merely a psychological one, it has positive value. Importantly, the targets of satire tend to be selected as they have the ability to retaliate and often do. On the other hand, when people with disabilities are targets of lazy comedy and unchecked, casual mocking, they often don’t have the opportunity to respond, either due to a lack of ability or a lack of a strong public voice.

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a fair and democratic society but it is one that is loaded with responsibility. One must question the right to make a cheap joke at a disadvantaged individual’s expense in the name of free speech. Does it outweigh another’s right to the same basic respect and dignity the perpetrator takes for granted?

When debating whether or not to use certain language, the focus should not be on whether or not we can legally do so. The focus should be on the people upon whom our language really impacts. There is a huge difference between “can” and “should” and we have the freedom to choose.

Callum Mackinnon is communications officer at Down’s Syndrome Scotland, www.dsscotland.org.uk