Shey Hargreaves sums up after her first week as poet-in-residence and presents a new poem made from two found texts: George Osborne’s Budget 2016 speech and a recipe for fudge almond cake…
The coming of the digital age has heralded huge changes in the way our freedom to express ourselves is managed by our government and legal system. If you say something that could be classified as incitement to hatred or that’s abusive or discriminatory to Steve down the Bigot’s Arms on a Friday night, chances are no more will come of it. Steve might go and find someone else to drink with, but there will probably be no serious consequences (depending on how fond you are of Steve). But if you tweet a racist, sexist or otherwise offensive comment at Steve, or stick such a comment on his wall, that’s evidence. Your words exist, and you can’t ever truly erase them.
There is a sense of anonymity about the digital world that feels very real, but this is a false impression. Our words litter the internet, stick to it like gum to the pavement. We feel safe from consequence behind the keyboard; yet there have been several arrests in recent times including a teenager tweeting racist comments about a footballer and a man threatening an MP online.
When it comes to online comments that are clearly threatening, abusive and discriminatory and directed towards an individual, prosecution seems reasonable. In contrast, in a debate in 2012 Peter Tatchell stated that the arrests of Christian and Muslim street preachers for saying that homosexuality is wrong were violations of their right to free speech. These preachers weren’t necessarily inciting hatred, but expressing (albeit offensive) religious views. In Tatchell’s words, ‘What they were saying was hurtful but not hateful.’ The line between free speech and hate speech seems hard to pin down, which is disconcerting when it comes to the law.
Such is the state of affairs today in Britain regarding the right of individuals to self-expression and freedom to speak their minds. Very different to the situation of writers such as Ashraf Fayadh, whom I mentioned in Tuesday’s post. As far as I’ve seen, Fayadh didn’t write anything that could be construed as threatening or as an incitement to violence. His work is critical, yes, but not hateful. The same is true of many other writers around the globe. They put their names to their words, and they kept writing, knowing the risks.
In the headlong rush of social media streams and digital contact, perhaps words used as the tools for an art form have more staying power. Poetry, stories and songs are memorable; they stick with you, if they are used well, if they strike a note with you. They speak to people in ways that quick-fire news updates do not. They can still stop you from scrolling down, like these words of Fayadh’s did to me:
you too tend to forget that you are
a piece of bread
Words are weird. They can offer moments of insight and kick-start huge change, and they can also wash pressing issues away in a tidal flood of white noise.
In 1215, as you well know, King John signed the Magna Carta at the behest of the rebel barons. That’s right, Your Majesty, sign here, here and here. This enabled them to take certain matters of governance into their own hands, and for the first time devolve some of the monarch’s power to the people. Of course, the rebel barons weren’t particularly representative of ‘the people’. They were a small, elite band of landowning gentry. They didn’t do what they did to win human rights for the citizens of Britain; nor, I suspect, would they have wanted to. But they got the ball rolling and here I am today, literate and just about able to spell, putting my name to my opinions without fear of being thrown in jail and asking you to give yours just as freely. Things are not the same for everyone. Writers from Saudi to Mexico to Tibet have suffered incarceration, torture and death for putting their thoughts to paper. I can only assume that the power of their words is great indeed if those in positions of authority feel such a need to silence them.
I’m going to end the week with a found poem that I’ve put together from two source texts. The first source is a recipe for fudge almond cake; the second is George Osborne’s Budget 2016 speech.
Preheat the oven to surplus.
Line a deep, loose-bottomed economy
With those on the lowest incomes.
Place the disabled in a bowl and melt
Over a pan of simmering need.
Crack the young into the bowl and beat
For a lifetime.
Do not add sugar at this stage.
Combine the gender pay gap with the tampon tax
Season with boom and bust to taste.
Add the rest of the promises and fold.
Spoon into the treasury and bake