Diane Abbott’s comments on Twitter recently provoked controversy, largely because she used the phrase “white people” (enough to make any Daily Mail reader scream about double-standards) but also because she added that they “love playing divide and rule.”
Regardless of whether she is right or wrong (and an examination of history indicates that she is probably right), the reactions to her tweet were frighteningly severe. Politicians on the right and the left came out to say that a liberal society could not tolerate such racism. But what they failed to address was society’s approach to free speech.
Abbott was not calling for racist action against white people, she simply condensed a historical observation to fit the medium of a Twitter discussion. If people feel that they can accurately interpret Abbott’s 140 character message as one of prejudice, then they should do so without calling for that message to be retracted. She should be afforded the same freedom of speech, especially on her personal social networking account, that anyone else would expect.
By all means take offence, but understand that Abbott’s right to freedom of speech overrules any right you feel you may have to not be offended.
Disagree with her and debate her, but if in doing so you call for an apology, a retraction (or in the case of Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi) a resignation, on the grounds of “having caused offence,” then please understand the paradox of using your own freedom of speech to silence someone else’s.