Friday, 4 December 2009

The Baynham Test

I've been working on the text bit of the interactive poetry session I'm going to do for the Human Rights Day gig at Newcastle Library on the 12th of December. This is really weird because I thought there wouldn't be a lot of writing and me talking, and so far the combined intro, links etc comes to three pages. I'll be trimming, that's for sure. But one of the things I've been thinking about, one of the challenges, is this: how do we keep an event in which we invite people to collaborate and write a poem based on the idea of saying that which they're afraid to say, and stop it descending into an 'I'm afraid to say I hate the Muzzies but I can't because of political correctness gawn maaaaaad' hate-fest?

And then it occurred to me that you can't fake fear. Here's part of the text I've written up for the presentation bit, addressing this issue, and proposing an idea of how we can assess the risk-value of peoples' free speech:

There’s an idea, widespread in this country, that defending the rights of minorities to live without fear is bullying and a curtailment of free speech. And that’s crap. It’s a lie perpetuated by liars who have a vested interest in keeping it going to sell newspapers, and that’s it. First of all, from the earliest time free speech and free expression were recognised as rights it has always been understood that they don’t include the right to make life hell for vulnerable minorities, or to spread hatred and prejudice. And for another, how often do you see the same boring people droning on about ‘political correctness’ and how it tries to silence them, week in, week out? If there really was a group trying to silence them, don’t you think they’d, well, be silent? It’s a crock and most people know it. Don’t believe what you read in the Mail or the Sun: only 19% of people trust those papers, and with good reason.

I propose a test we can use, on ourselves and anyone who pretends to be standing up for free speech: let’s call it the Ian Baynham test, because he’s the example I’m going to use. When he challenged three thugs about the homophobic abuse they were spouting, he knew he was taking a genuine risk, that the situation could turn violent and he could get hurt. In that situation he would have genuinely, emotionally, felt afraid. He would shake and feel the blood draining from his bodily core to his extremities as his fight-or-flight reflex kicked in. Now, when Richard Littlejohn sits in his mansion in Florida and writes another nonsense column about political correctness, or when Tony Horne says in that hilarious way of his that ‘we’re not allowed to say ‘gypsy’ anymore’, do you think they feel like that? Do you think they feel that they run a genuine risk in what they’re saying? No. That’s the test. Fear is an emotion. It can’t be faked. So – what real things, things which actually exist, try to frighten us out of expressing ourselves?

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. As some of you may have worked out, I’m not exactly the most macho guy going. An alpha male is not me. And because of this I fear taking the bus late at night, because I know there are people who object to the way I express myself in terms of my appearance and body language, and there’s a risk that these people might beat me up. And that, genuinely, makes me feel afraid. I’m vulnerable in that situation. I feel that tightness in the stomach, that lightening in the head, that urge to run away. And that’s how I know that’s a genuine fear, not one I’ve made up.

What things make you afraid to speak up, readers?


  1. The environment where I feel most vulnerable, most fearful, is when I'm in a predominantly male environment, with a certain type of male. The kind who ignore personal space boundaries, who touch as I back away, who ask graphically personal questions in a crowded space. My fight or flight response kicks in. I'm not a frail person, but adrenaline doesn't know that.

  2. Oh God yeah, inappropriate touching is a really intimidating and annoying thing. I work in a bookshop, and the number of customers who seem to think that because you're helping them find a book they can grab your arm or slap you on the back is astonishing. These days I tend to disengage by jerking away from them violently and staring the buggers down. I'm all for good customer service, but if people want something they can stroke and nuzzle to their heart's content they can buy a damn kitten!

  3. fear? i feel fear more often than these days- when walking down the street and there's agroup of young people in tracksuits, when i'm in my home even and a gang of such people are climbing on the school roof, shouting and pissing on my garage door. its my home, im doing nothing wrong, but my heart is pounding with the knowledge that i can either sit there and do nothing or ask them to move on- if i do the latter the will shout at me indignantly as if its their right to intimidate people.

  4. Oh God, that's awful. Has it got that bad round your way? I hate that feeling when you hear that kind of crap going on outside. Pissing on your garage door? Evil little bastards.