I’m going to try and express this opinion without threatening anyone. I am writing this one whilst quite tired and am improvising and writing from the gut. It will be a weaker, but heartier mix of anecdote, admission, question, and answer.
So, a debate about the freedom of expression, (not speech), begins with two unconnected and dull stories from today. Story one: a lunch break at work heavily featured a long old debate about the freedom of speech. Do we even have it? What are the limits? Etc. It is the kind of debate you would expect the managers of a Students Union to have.
Seven or eight hours later, (I have not been precise with the maths), I was on a train. After a long day, I absent mindedly put my feet up. It was a late trian, it was not exactly busy. The populace on it was sparse. A man of some generational gap next to me glared at me with disgust. I promptly obeyed and shoved my legs into a space between one of those odd little platform-like non-tables by the windows of those chiltern railway trains.
After some discomfort, I decided that a patronising glare was not authority over me putting the toes of my feet near some cheap fluff. This was in the corner of a six-seater segment, and the initial secondary character was two seats over, furiously inputting some data to his laptop, that, with all the best will in the world, is not due to have a long-term impact on humankind. Opposite him was a younger man than he, but still considerably older than me and just as weary in his outlook.
As I had been delayed from an important skype conference call that I was due to make, I was communicating with people the whole time. Maybe their paranoia and my own self-awareness lead both parties to suspect the other of being aware, but the awareness was there.
But Wengler, where’s your freedom of speech debate in all this?! Good point. I daringly allowed my feet to change from the leg-crumpling position to that of a slithering against the chair opposite again.
Should I have done that? Perhaps not. I noticed the man angrily shake his head, as this action had clearly offended him.
‘You can shake your head all you want Sir, but its none of your business what I do with my feet’, my brain decides I am destined to say out loud.
Out come the earphones. Out comes the arrogant politics student understanding of philosophy and questioning his traditional values of ettiquette. Out I spour an array of comments about this man’s lack of recognition of freedom. Then out come the personal remarks.
‘You have no respect, what about the people who are going to use that after you’ve shoved your dirty feet all over them?’ He emphasised. I was cheap here, retorting by showing my shoes to be clean, only two days old, and then cleaned them in front of him to make my point. ‘What gives you the authority to try and tell me off as if I were a child?’ Something along the lines of ‘you have no respect’ and then a ‘are you educated?’ as shot out by him. ‘Yes, I’ve just completed my masters.’ I lied. I could have just done that though. Well, actually I could not have, but this man has not researched my complete background story to argue with that, and who is he to determine my character upon a couple of random facts that can easily be overturned?
‘You’ll never get a job with your attitude.’ He says, developing his argument back at last to try and give me a sense of repurcussion! That’s personal.
‘I’m a manager at a university and lead several teams.’ I truthfully tell him, all but offering a file with my job description.
‘You’re a manager and you behave like this?’, and it goes on like this. Others get involved, on both sides of the train and occasionally on both sides of this thing that others are calling a debate, believe it or not.
I’m off from the point now. It ended up with me explaining that I had just finished another day with needless amounts of overtime and illness, etc, and a a surprisingly constructive suggestion to put my coat on the chair from the man, so that my feet would not impact the chair. He backed down. The whole train’s silence had been effected.
My ramblings about the lack of value to things like tradition had rocketed to the other parts of the carriage. ‘So what if its a tradition?’ I overheard someone say as the debate travelled. That’s where my pride comes in. I have hopefully transformed these people, temporarily, into people who actually care and vocalise!
The fact is, I was in the wrong. I should not have put my feet in the chair. My opinion that I want to dress up as a fact is comprised of: a) The man should not be passive-aggressively looking at me, trying to impoach upon my freedom to make a mistake like that b) The man should feel free to say so out loud, and then not fear me speaking out loud. Something I utterly hate about commuting is the silence on the trains. On the underground, people elbow eachother and punch eachother and stamp on eachother to get a space so that they can suffacate on their way to a job that they secretly hate.
In recent days, controversially, I have introduced vocalisations to the underground such as ‘excuse me’, and ‘don’t push’, and ‘don’t elbow me, there’s no need for that.’ The reason I am so shocked and indignant that our fear of eachother is something we need to get over is that half-way through my dialogue with the man upset about my one-off leaniance on my feet, the third character, as mentioned earlier, said to me ‘put your feet down or I’ll make you put your feet down.’ Now, I am exagerrating when I suggest that is a threat of assault, but its’ not far off from ‘do you want to take this outside?’ (which, smartly, the man stopped himself saying mid-sentence, as taking it outside would have been absurdist on a train).
However, this man also tried to coin the phrase ‘its not a debate mate.’ Why not? I am not saying that our society is inhibited by the lack of confrontation. That is a good thing. What I would like to say is that the visible and tangible shockwaves that I felt reverberating around the train should not have been there just because I engaged some people in an unholy dialogue about my lack of respect for a rubbish seat.
So, when some people feature Mohammad on a magazine cover, and his message is of forgiveness, not confrontation, let’s not get angry. Let’s reconcile. Yes, I am really going to try and link this whole thing to Charlie Hebdo. We don’t have freedom of speech in the west; we regulate it. We say that you may not say offensive items or hatred-inciscive items of agenda. That’s a crime. Most people act like its an offensive thing to even challenge them.
Where did the happy-go-lucky attitude of ‘strangers are just friends you haven’t made yet’ philosophy go?
Can we not assume that any attempt to communicate is a way of reaching out?
I started on the wrong foot with this man.
Maybe I should have been friendlier. Maybe I could have been, but I let the joy of conflict and the pointlessness of offense get the better of me.
This man was offended by me putting my potentially dirty shoes near the cushion of the seat. The other man was not interested until I challenged the him. I challenged the pair of them, made them uncomfortable, and received a threat. I have always been taught to challenge authority. This man was not authority, claimed to be it, and did not like being challenged. He should have claimed to be authority, and been it. He should have stood up and tried to have me punished or fined for my actions. Then I might have had respect and been defeated. However, he half-heartedly took on the conflict and his point was ultimately disproven by his lack of care.
Imagine if we as a society permitted hate speech or threatening behaviour in a way unprotected by the law. People would not cope. Maybe I’m being over the top on this one. Was I in the right for trying to defend dirtying a chair with shoes? Probably not? Am I in the wrong for trying to engage strangers with the idea that there is more to each other than avoidance and fear?
Am I in the wrong for talking out loud on trains and upsetting people who don’t really believe in their own cynicism? I hope not.