It’s a full house in Town Hall for the panel on Free Speech & Cultural Appropriation. Hardly surprising given the panel; Marlon James, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Shashi Tharoor, Louise de Bernières and Han Yujoo.
The discussion begins by asking is the freedom of expression absolute?
Shashi says “I wish I could say yes but I won’t.” He doe believe, however, that if you “leave it to society to draw their own lives you often find yourself surrendering to the most intolerant.” He says that in India, more and more groups are campaigning for “the right to be offended.”
Marlon is rather fittingly, wearing a t-shirt in tribute to William Burrowes ‘The Naked Lunch’ – a book that was banned in many countries and still is in some.
He believes that “venue and forum is not absolute but I do believe in free speech.”
Yassmin states that there “already are caveats on free speech so it isn’t absolute.”
Louis mentions a well known Voltaire quote “I don’t agree with what you have to say but I will defend to death your right to say it.”
His father served in the army during World War II and it is “deeply ingrained” in him that free speech is an absolute. He says that “where it goes wrong is when people do it in seriously bad manner without respect to the sensitivity of other people.”
“I claim the right [to free speech] but not the right to bad manners” he adds, which the audience laughs at. He references how he doesn’t engage with social media as he “doesn’t see the point to it”. To him, it just seems to be a place filled with horrible people.
Quick out the gates, Yassmin says “I think people have always been that bad but now theres more platforms.”
Louis then agrees, saying “If you read Voltaire’s memoirs it’s an absolute list of people behaving like bitches”, which elicits more laughter from the engaged audience.
For Sharad, a public life means he’s more vulnerable to abuse. But what he finds odd are the “unpleasantly nasty people” who reach at you from behind their computers, but then are really nice in real life.
He adds that while people have a right to free speech, “if they’re being totally offensive you don’t have to subject yourself [to their abuse].”
Using a metaphor of shouting fire in a theatre as a joke and then causing deaths through a stampede of people trying to get out, he says a line needs to be drawn about where your right to free speech affects other people.
But who gets to make that decision?
Switching back to the subject of social media, Yassmin feels their is a generational disconnect in understanding its importance. “It’s hard to exist in a public space for young people without social media.”
She also says that in talking about freedom of speech, “we ignore the context we are having these conversations.” It’s ignoring the kind of people who get this freedom.
“There are histories that affect people, colonisation, inherent power structures, current power structures… those in power get to decide who says what most of the time. She adds that they will defend free speech, but not for those who they disagree with.
In Australia where she lives, she said free speech is valued, except when it comes to a muslim saying something. Then “free speech doesn’t apply to you, missy.”
Marlon believes that “One of reasons Trump could move so well [in terms of increased popularity] is because we have a reductionist way with ideas.”
He says he is all for freedom of speech until someone starts defending un-defendable ideas.
Sharid replies that “They have a right to say what they say and you have a right to not hear it.”
At this point, Yassmin interjects. “But that ignores the context of people who do have the ability to stop people saying things because of structural power..”
“Minorities can be silenced very effectively… They do not have access to media, political power, to big business to do same thing. It’s not a level playing field. If we have this conversation like the world is fair, it blinds us to reality.”
It’s a powerful and succinct point.
“I come into every conversation with a lifetime of certain types of discrimination and privilege and we forget that context” she adds.
The issue of fake news naturally arises and Sharid gives a horrifying example of the effects it can have.
“Fake news was saying that people in the North East of India were assaulting and killing muslims.” The organisation used pictures of victims from a cyclone disaster and portrayed them as victims of this fake attack.
There was an “immediate backlash”. Muslims began threatening North Easterners muslims you had “upwards of a million people fleeing their home to escape from something they had never done.”
The panel then moves onto the subject of satire, referencing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon and subsequent attack.
Did the publication have a right to publish that?
Yassmin says that while they did have that right, “you should punch up.”
“If there is a group in society that has less privilege than you, punching down isn’t funny. Its lazy… thats just bullying. Where as if you punch up, that’s maybe how you take a bit of power back.”
Marlon agrees. “I would rather you punch up but I still support your right to punch down. It’s always easy to defend satire when you’re on the right side of it.”
He says that there is a general guidance that “people with a history of oppressing a certain set of people don’t get to make jokes about them – but I don’t know if thats something i want to enforce.”
Yassmin says the oppressed are “always having to just be copping it on the chin.”
She thinks that satirists “want to make fun” but then not be criticised. “I never advocate for violence, but they get upset when there are critics and you’re like ‘mate you’re being rude’ [about people].”
Marlon thinks that “one of funniest things about political correct people is how thin skinned” people can be.
“You get the right freedom of speech, but you do not get the privilege of escaping critique.”
As the discussion moves along to cultural appropriation, Louis says “I don’t see how it’s possible to be in arts without being an appropriator.”
He adds that “not one of my books I could’ve published if I had been hypersensitive” as the “whole point [of fiction] is to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else and put yourself in their place and have their experience by proxy.”
Yassmin doesn’t disagree with his summary, but says the problem lies in “when characters are not white men or women, they [writers] fall back” on stereotypes.
“Someone like me does not ever get to see fully developed characters I can every relate to. There’s not that many writers of colour in the Western World because of the structures we live in. The only characters of muslim women are either oppressed or jihadis.”
She feels that these writers are lazy. “They [authors] don’t wanna give characters depths.”
Marlon identifies with where Yassmin is coming from. “Nobody is stopping you writing horribly” he says but “If you’re not trying to reflect it at least respect it.”
He references the Heart of Darkness,” instead of reflection or embodying a character”, Conrad “merely projects his fears…and then reacts to them.”
It’s not only in literature that there is mis-representation. “Iggy Azalea doesn’t even know words she’s saying!” Marlon says, followed by more audience laughter.
These reinforcements and appropriations have “a real impact on our lives” Yassmin says.
Authors can rely on stereotypes to create black or ethnic characters, people that you “may not have experiences with” but you read about.
“Then you think maybe there’s a bit a truth [in what they’ve read] and take that perception” and when they do meet that person, “engage with them on that level” they’ve read about.
“Writers have a responsibility” she adds.
It’s a complex discussion and one that doesn’t have an easily resolved answer. It needs to take into account a number of factors; from race and background to intention and context. It’s an issue that is only going to become more relevant as more and more of our conversations take place in a digital context; an arena that doesn’t always allow for nuance in a very grey area.