The main motive for writing my book Trigger Warning last year was the fear that we were in danger, not just of losing the new free-speech wars in the West, but of surrendering our most precious liberty without a fight. Almost a year later there have been heartening signs of resistance, with important voices speaking up for free speech. Yet the attacks on freedom of expression just keep on coming, on an almost-daily basis. It is hoped that the new cut-down concise edition of Trigger Warning – what we might call the ‘hand-grenade edition’ – will provide some fresh ammunition for the next round of fighting.
Trigger Warning began by identifying two phenomena of the modern age. One is the free-speech fraud, whereby every politician and public figure makes ritualistic displays of support for free speech ‘in principle’, before adding the ‘buts’ that allow them to attack and undermine that priceless freedom in practice. These double standards were on graphic display across the Western world after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.
The other is what the book calls ‘the silent war on free speech’. It is silent not because its proponents are quiet – they are anything but. This is a silent war because few people (outside the online IS supporters’ club) will openly admit that they are against free speech. Instead, the silent war is posed not as an attack on freedom of speech at all, but as a worthy assault on the evils of hate speech and incitement. It is presented not as a blow against liberty, but as a defence of rights. For example, the right of students to feel comfortable in a campus Safe Space. And, most importantly, everywhere from the internet to the universities, the right to be protected from offensive words and images.
In the 11 months since the book was published, it appears that more people in the Anglo-American world have begun to recognise the dangers of these trends and to voice their concerns about attacks on free speech. Politicians, celebrities and comedians from President Barack Obama downwards have criticised the fashion for politically correct censorship and debate-neutering Safe Spaces. Meanwhile, spiked’s campaign against campus censorship has begun to win the support of a new generation of liberty-loving students in the UK and the US.
Yet despite these welcome developments, the silent war on free speech continues to rage. The new threat to freedom of expression in the West today comes not from jackbooted political censorship or blasphemy laws. The more insidious threat comes from a powerful culture of conformism, which crusades to silence any ideas or opinions deemed offensive behind banners inscribed with the motto of our age: ‘You Can’t Say That!’ It has become the fashion for these crusaders not only to declare themselves offended by what somebody else says, but to use the offence card to demand that they be prevented from saying it.