Words Are Changing Meaning Again; Now Democracy Means We Have To Shut Up

June 28, 2016

by Martin Odoni

You know, I am fairly sure that during the referendum campaigns on leaving the European Union, freedom of speech was still being classed as an integral part of ‘democracy’, part of its definition, no less. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, as people can only be informed if others are free to tell them the facts. Indeed, freedom of speech was so integral to the process that it was being presented as a strange sort of higher power, one of such magnitude that it made lying acceptable. No matter how many times a politician of either camp – Leave or Remain but mainly Leave – was caught spreading a lie or wild exaggeration, attempts to correct the misleading information would be dismissed on the basis of the liar still being allowed to say it because, “HEY!  FREEDOM OF SPEECH!

There were times during these encounters when I wanted to point out that freedom of speech works both ways. One person is free to make an assertion, another is free to respond, and indeed probably has a duty to respond if they have better information.

But since the announcement of the referendum result on Friday morning, I have come to realise, the definition seems to have altered. Leave campaigners appear to have decided that they have the right to alter the meaning of democracy, because they won the vote. So now, the cornerstone of the newly-redefined ‘democracy’ appears to be, “Just shut up, you whingers!”

How do I draw this conclusion? Well, I know very well that I am not the only person in the UK who, over the last few days, has read the following sentences, or at least, passages very much like them; –

“Look, cry baby, just grow up and accept that the vote’s over, will you? You lost, and now you can’t take it. It’s how democracy works, you sore loser – the will of the majority, and the majority has said we should leave the EU! Democracy, see? So shut up and live with it!”

(Former Dr Who actor, Peter Davison, has had just one example of such an exchange on his Twitter feed.)

So there you have it, democracy meant freedom of speech last week, it means shut up this week.

I do not wish to imply that every Leave supporter, or even the majority of them, is/are guilty of this yobbish triumphalism, but there are quite a lot of them doing it. After they spent weeks invoking freedom of speech to defend people who lie to the public, they suddenly seem very reluctant to allow their opponents the right to speak. Not even when all they want to do is point out that the referendum result has caused precisely the problems all the experts had warned, or that the leaders of the Leave campaigns have backtracked on heavily-implied promises made beforehand. Apparently, discussion of such issues is ‘immature’, ‘bad sportsmanship’, or ‘whinging’, because “Democracy!” To explain why one might think ‘Brexit’ is a mistake is anti-democratic.

In fairness, there have been a lot of nasty, generalised remarks in the other direction about Leave campaigners ‘all being stupid’. But if freedom of speech extends to freedom of lying, why should it not extend to freedom of insult?

If we have to say that this is democracy, it is not, in any event, healthy democracy. At a time when so many issues are pressing, and when elected representatives appear too ‘busy’ to discuss them, the task is left to the rest of us. In some respects, it does not matter who won last week, or how we got into this mess. All that matters is we are in a mess, and solutions need to be found.

“Shut up!” will not provide them.

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