PAMPHLETEERING AT THE SALTIRE SOCIETY
I wasn't expecting to have to censor myself at an event on freedom of expression. But just at the moment when the words fuck and off coalesced in my brain, I suddenly remembered there was a wee girl of about four in the audience. Having to search for the more discreet alternative of Get lost was a reminder that freedom of expression is not an absolute and that all societies have boundaries.
The event was at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh, the launch of a new pamphlet, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland, written by me and the novelist, Alan Bissett. Where Scotland's boundaries will be at this crucial moment in our history, the moment when we must choose what we'll be as a nation, was what Alan and I had to wrestle with in the pamphlet, a new joint venture between Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society, who aim to stimulate debate about important issues in our culture. Ours was the third in a series. (The other two are A Plea for a Secular Scotland by Dr Richard Holloway and The Artist and Nationality by Meagan Delahunt.)
I hadn't met Alan Bissett before we started our dialogue, though knew he'd be fun as he describes himself on Twitter as your friendly neighbourhood Falkirk novelist. It was like meeting Tigger. As a child I refused to let my mum read me AA Milne's books, which I considered silly, (Ed. This seems like a rather draconian act of censorship from a champion of free expression.) but Alan, warm, unquenchably enthusiastic, and eminently likable, made the concept of the bouncy Tigger seem absolutely plausible.
We met up in a couple of trendy Glasgow cafes and chewed over Leveson, the McCluskey Report, phone hacking and football chants as well as halloumi salad and tiger prawns in garlic butter. PEN President Drew Campbell directed the discussion, otherwise known as refereeing.
Actually our views weren't so far apart that we had major disagreements, but we did initially approach the subject from different viewpoints. As a former journalist who often saw her best work dropped or altered for economic reasons, I'm dead against state regulation of the press—we censor ourselves enough already. Alan, on the other hand, was deeply concerned about some of the grotesqueries committed by the tabloids prior to the Leveson Inquiry. 'But freedom of expression is like a thread on your jumper,' he said. 'The more you unravel, the more you see how important it is.'
Just how important was flagged up by our chair for the event, PEN President Drew Campbell, who had recently attended PEN International's Congress in Reykjavik. He relayed the inspiring news that PEN America has instigated legal proceedings against the US government for breaking the Constitution by illegally spying on its own citizens. A number of European PEN centres, including Scottish PEN, are exploring European law for the possibility of pursuing their own governments for similar abuses of power. If there's one thing the Bissett and I agree on, it's that we don't trust governments.
Perhaps because the Saltire Society thoughtfully included a glass of wine in the price of the ticket, our audience needed no invitation to indulge in their own freedom of expression. 'Hmm, I thought we'd just have a question and answer at the end,' said Drew Campbell. He was wearing a tie for the first time since I've known him, but a tartan one in deference to the Saltire Society.
Richard Holloway made the point that laws are a blunt instrument in dealing with matters of freedom of expression, one we make in the pamphlet too. More startling was the fact that UEFA had consulted him about whether football supporters' songs were hate speech. I'm still trying to get my head around the thought of the former bishop standing on the terraces with a meat pie in his hand.
Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre commented that freedom of expression is not an absolute and is defined by each society at a particular point in time, which is why it's so important to us now, at the moment when Scotland will make itself anew, whatever choice it makes about independence.
There was much discussion on the future of the internet, with Ruth, the mother of the little girl who raised standards among some of us, deeply worried about the amount of pornography constantly being directed at us. Alan Bissett agreed. 'I'm particularly concerned with the pornification of mainstream society, since much of what we call pornography is in fact misogyny,' he said. 'But I can't work out how to resolve that with freedom of expression.'
My fellow pamphleteer had been the victim of extreme internet abuse, with some radical feminists objecting to him writing about the late Andrea Dworkin, whom he impersonates in his show, Ban This Filth! For daring to embody a female icon (otherwise known as acting) they had even branded him a rapist. Ironically, he was performing later that day in aid of the Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre. Depending on his audience's reaction, he might or might not be stripping off. Pornography or art, who gets to decide? Sounded like it might be Alan himself, working out where the boundaries were with his particular audience.
If the multiplicity of voices at the pamphlet launch is anything to go by, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland is only a starting point for discussion. In Scottish PEN we're proud to be taking part in it and to be working alongside the Saltire Society.
'It feels like a natural fit,' said Jim Tough, the Society's Executive Director.
It feels too like an exciting opportunity for us in Scotland. Not many countries have the chance to consider the basic freedoms they want in their society. We do. I hope people will read all of the pamphlets—and keep talking.