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Free Speech?

Can we write about anything?

For all creatives, the simple answer has to be: yes.

There is, of course, a lot more to say on this issue. The whole point of any creative enterprise is that you’re hopefully pursuing something that either develops an idea of work (that already exists) or something entirely new if that is at all possible. Think about the movie that has already been made, the books written, paintings painted and songs created. What if we suddenly introduced some boundaries as to what subject matter could be covered in those? It would involve an entire cull of past creative work. And, it’s sometimes probably even important to separate the creator from the work because if we don’t, we will end up finding flaws in everyone's lives and then decide that because we are angry at the writer, we no longer value the work. It is human nature to err and believe me you’re not going to find the perfectly behaved writer or anyone else for that matter.

I’m offended!

This is something that is arguably over-debated at the moment, but I think it’s very relevant to this question. People now say, 'We have no right not to be offended.’ Despite the fact that it’s awful English, I do understand what is meant by that. However, coming from a background that was largely academic and often working with vulnerable people, I don’t really understand why anybody would say or write anything offensive on purpose. At best it's mean and cruel - and at worst, it could destroy somebody who is at the start of their career.

I’ve certainly been mindful of that in my work, even when I wrote a part biography. Like all of you, I’ve had people in my life who treated me very badly and whom I found incredibly irritating but there’s no point in me telling stories about my past, just to insult or condemn somebody so besides changing all the names, I’ve tried to remember the more positive aspects of my relationship with these people at the same time as telling the tale. I’m quite suspicious of writing that is solely there to exact revenge.

Subject matter.

Are there things that we cannot write about? If so, what would they be? Who decides? If we left this to one person or even one body of people, surely that would only reflect their own core values, personal opinions and beliefs. And added to that, how do we ever learn anything? As an educator, I’ve always believed that everything should be up for discussion.

I recently read an excellent book about DNA and the history of the human race and the detail in it was astonishing. Not least, that going back just 3500 years, we are possibly now all related to one another. But, as a scientist, he clearly had some prejudice against particular beliefs or alternate points of view. I would have liked to see some of the counterarguments as I believe the author didn’t fully understand Darwin either. That’s just my take but people do not learn much from reading a two-dimensional presentation. So, I thought it best to leave you with an excerpt from my book. ‘Be a Teacher!’ Which discusses some of the highs and lows of my 40 years at all levels in Education and in Children and Young People’s Services. It is a little controversial, but I hope you understand my point: that by banning certain topics we are not looking at or even understanding the whole picture.

‘In that vein, I must tell you about Alan. Alan was a very bright young man and I taught him for GCSE History and Art and Design. He was a bit of a rogue, nothing serious but he rarely did his own homework. His parents were well-educated and he was a well-read young man. Many of our History lessons involved debate. After all, History is a decision made from available evidence rather than being completely fact-based. Alan always had a unique point of view but it was always informed. He could oppose something but then construct an argument to back it up, he loved nothing more than to quote or recite something he had discovered to bolster his opinion.

He also believed that Adolph Hitler did great things for the German economy and infrastructure. Nothing much wrong with that. However, he had also read Mein Kampf and wished to offer a defence of Hitler’s stance against the Jews. Outrageous? Yes, of course. But, he had at least 20 people in the class on the other side of the argument. For an hour and a half, one afternoon, we debated this. Some of the class became angry at points in the lesson and I would stop it.

‘You cannot reason when you lose your temper.' My mantra was: 'Win the argument using your intellect, research and evidence.'

Of course, he didn’t have a leg to stand on but, he lost the argument because one of the girls, in particular, had brought in a metaphorical, wheelbarrow full of evidence that damned Hitler, Himmler and all others involved in the atrocities. She put forward a brilliant evidential case for the holocaust which he could not deny.

This, I still maintain, is the best way to learn. If we move to an age where we tell young people what to say and what to think, rather than let them do it themselves, we are no better than some of those extreme doctrines of the twentieth century. Believe me, history tells us that attempts to control thought and speech never bode well for society as a whole.’

Having said all that, I’m now going to slightly contradict myself because now and again good writing should also expose bad or extreme behaviour either by individuals or by states. George Orwell did this subtly by attacking Soviet Russia, and writing what seemed like a children’s story, ‘Animal Farm.’ I recently read a book that I thought was absolutely excellent. It was a new look at the death of Jack Kennedy in 1963 and I was very impressed by the amount of evidence. One of the certainties was that many people involved in those early investigations seemed to die one after the other, and it left me in no doubt that even in the 21st century, the author may still be in some danger. His bravery impressed me. Although this is bordering on journalism, it is still within the writer’s province and a very important one.

Although I try not to do this, I suppose in this article I’ve offered very much my viewpoint, and I’m sure yours would differ somewhat. I believe that there should not be anything out of bounds in terms of writing, but at the same time, it’s a little too easy to use it to go after or hurt someone.

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