When you sign a contract to publish a book, you learn that there are some things that you can say in print and other things that you can’t. You can’t say things that are untrue and which might hurt someone else’s reputation if other people read and believed them. You can’t break the law, incite hatred or make suggestions that people do things that might injure or hurt them. If you want to include named examples of other people’s work you must gain their consent to do so. Even if you are anonymous, these rules will still apply. What you have written lives on, whether it is in print form or online, and it can very easily come back to haunt you at a later date. You can think whatever you like, no one can stop you doing that even if they would rather you didn’t think the things that you think, but you cannot write (or say) whatever you want – there are laws about such things. When you become a published author, this aspect is usually written into the contract that you sign at the start of the publishing process. You agree that you will help defend a case if someone decides to take your publishers to court for something you wrote. If you sign a lot of publishing contracts you start to think more deeply about what this means. And you realise that free speech does not mean that you can say whatever the hell you like.
This is a complex area, though, hedged around with questions about what is referred to as ‘political correctness’. (I guess I am not even one to talk, given that there’s a rude word in the title of one of my books.) Social media companies are certainly struggling to manage their platforms and to work out what can and cannot be said. Every day people say things that wouldn’t stand muster in a court of law, if anyone was minded to or had the money to challenge what has been said. Daily we see horrific content posted online – death threats, hatred, racist and sexist abuse. But it’s more subtle than that, as well. Already there’s a kind of low level acceptance that it’s okay to say pretty much anything you like, especially if you are someone who wants publicity for yourself or your views. (And anyway, you can always apologise later, if you find yourself at the point where you need to talk about your ‘regret’.) When I was young, we said things in the playground that we would not dream of saying today. But society changes over time, as does what passes for polite conversation in the mediums of the time. While people will always exploit the power of shock to market their work, and being rude has the power to make us laugh, we should not forget that what we say online may have an impact on the people who read it, and on our future careers.
I’m not a fan of the idea of ‘no excuses’ for children – if there is any time in our lives when we are entitled to make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, it’s when we are children. But once we are fully grown – when we get to over the age of 40, say – I think it is fair to expect that we should have learned most of our lessons and reached a certain level of maturity. That, if we are going to present ourselves as a role model to children, we should know how and when to keep our mouths shut. And that sometimes the sheer weight of numbers of the horrible and abusive things that we have said has to be too much. So I am waiting to see if our government has the guts to do what is good and right and principled when it comes to Toby Young. Because I want them to send the message that what he said is never okay in education. And that no matter what you heard about free speech and all, you can’t always say what you want.