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Sinead O’Connor and the death of free speech


OVER the Christmas break I watched a documentary on the late Sinead O’Connor, or Saint Sinead if you live in Ireland.  

O’Connor is best known for her haunting voice on Nothing Compares 2 U and for ripping up a photo of the then Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. She was arguably one of the original victims of the cancel culture, as her actions triggered hundreds of complaints from viewers, criticism from institutions ranging from the Catholic Church to the Anti-Defamation League and celebrities such as Joe Pesci and Madonna, who both mocked the performance on SNL later that season. Two weeks after her SNL appearance, O’Connor was booed at a tribute concert for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

I am not going to pretend that Sinead O’Connor was my cup of tea. No doubt if I was an adult at the time she tore that photo up, I would have supported that particular cancellation effort, with my Down with This Sort of Thing placard hoisted high. But I am always interested in looking back on the people who were considered counter-cultural ten or 20 years ago and then became the mainstream culture later. On balance I think Sinead was a pretty courageous person, she had her issues, but courage is always worth examining.

There was one clip in that documentary however, that caught my attention. Sinead was in the middle of the then culture war. She had objected to the American national anthem being played at one of her concerts, this created blowback, and then there was the photo frenzy. She pointed out that there was a big censorship movement in the United States at the time, that artists in particular were being censured and attacked and she thought this was wrong. (I am paraphrasing but that was its essence.)

Sinead O’Connor was correct on this. This was an era when the right still had a grip on the culture. Politicians and parents were objecting (rightly) to the video games and the explicit rap lyrics which were coming on to the scene. It was an era of parental advisory stickers (the original trigger warning) and some library blacklists.

This era was summed up by the rapper Eminem, in his (I must admit) very clever song White America:

America! Ha ha ha! We love you

How many people are proud to be citizens

Of this beautiful country of ours, the stripes and the stars

For the rights that men have died for to protect?

The women and men who have broke their necks

For the freedom of speech the United States government has sworn to uphold . . . or so we’re told.

He ends by saying that he would like to march up the steps of the White House, burn the flag and replace it with a Parental Advisory sticker. (Burning the flag in the United States has long been seen as ‘symbolic speech’ protected under the First Amendment).

Why I am talking about these people, Sinead O’Connor and some lad called Eminem? I point to them to demonstrate that once upon a time, a long time ago, the censorship movement did indeed come from the right, and it was the left who called for free speech. If conservatives could cancel someone they would. Plenty of liberal politicians were in on it too, but it came mainly from the right, often the Christian right. That is when we/they had cultural power.

The liberals, especially liberal artists, were outraged by this. This was censorship, this was an attack on free speech, they correctly argued. Everyone should have freedom of speech, everyone.

Interestingly, or perhaps you might say predictably, once the so-called liberals grabbed hold of the culture, they really put the cancel into cancel culture.

I cannot believe how censorious our culture is now. Look at the Irish government and their attempt to censor inconvenient views in the form of their wretched Hate Speech Bill. 

Everyone is terrified of discussing even basic subjects. Ordinary people are frightened of being called racist, right-wing or fascist or anti-vax, or a conspiracy theorist. That’s how the left operate these days; label it, shut it down, shame and cancel.

The spying and the snitching are everywhere. People rat on their Facebook friends about posts they have seen, leading to their friends losing their jobs. Can you imagine doing something like that, jeopardising someone’s livelihood over a Facebook post? The cruelty of it, the downright nastiness of it.

This isn’t about being kind or decent, or protecting vulnerable people. It is about power. How to get it, how to use it, and how to shape the culture using that power. The hypocrisy of the liberals is obvious. They have transformed into an incredibly authoritarian and censorious bunch of people, far worse than the conservatives in the 80s and 90s.

This is where we are now. For the left, it’s freedom of speech for me, but not for thee.

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