‘Every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.’ It is 350 years since Spinoza, the great Dutchman of the Enlightenment, wrote those simple but profound words. And yet every man (and woman) is still not at liberty to think what he or she likes, far less say it. It is for this reason that, today, spiked is kicking off a transatlantic liberty-loving online magazine and real-world campaign called Free Speech Now! - to put the case for unfettered freedom of thought and speech; to carry the Spinoza spirit into the modern age; to make the case anew for allowing everyone to say what he thinks, as honestly and frankly as he likes.
It is true that, unlike in Spinoza’s day, no one in the twenty-first century is dragged to ‘the scaffold’ and ‘put to death’ for saying out loud what lurks in his heart - at least not in the Western world. But right now, right here, in the apparently democratic West, people are being arrested, fined, shamed, censored, cut off, cast out of polite society, and even jailed for the supposed crime of thinking what they like and saying what they think. You might not be hanged by the neck anymore for speaking your mind, but you do risk being hung out to dry, by coppers, the courts, censorious Twittermobs and other self-elected guardians of the allegedly right way of thinking and correct way of speaking.
Ours is an age in which a pastor, in Sweden, can be sentenced to a month in jail for preaching to his own flock in his own church that homosexuality is a sin. In which British football fans can be arrested for referring to themselves as Yids. In which those who too stingingly criticise the Islamic ritual slaughter of animals can be convicted of committing a hate crime. In which Britain’s leading liberal writers and arts people can, sans shame, put their names to a letter calling for state regulation of the press, the very scourge their cultural forebears risked their heads fighting against. In which students in both Britain and America have become bizarrely ban-happy, censoring songs, newspapers and speakers that rile their minds. In which offence-taking has become the central organising principle of much of the political sphere, nurturing virtual gangs of the ostentatiously outraged who have successfully purged from public life articles, adverts and arguments that upset them - a modern-day version of what Spinoza called ‘quarrelsome mobs’, the ‘real disturbers of the peace’.
Freedom of speech is in a bad way. Yes, politicians pay lip service to it; the EU celebrates it as a core Euro-value; constitutions guaranteeing it abound on campuses. But in everyday life, in the real, rowdy public square, in the actual, psychical academy, political world and sphere of publishing and the press, freedom of speech is increasingly treated as a negotiable commodity, as something that can be qualified by all sorts of rules, regulations or - a modern favourite - ‘responsibilities’. So the EU proudly trumpets its commitment to freedom of speech but then says this freedom can be curtailed by various ‘formalities, conditions, restrictions and penalties’. Someone needs to buy the Brussels brigade a dictionary so that they might look up what the word freedom means. Those who want to speak freely might not be killed by the hangman anymore - but their liberty, their thoughts and ideas, are too often killed with qualifications.
The lack of a serious, deep commitment to freedom of speech is generating new forms of intolerance. And not just religious intolerance of the blasphemous, though that undoubtedly still exists (adverts in Europe have been banned for upsetting Christians and books in Britain and America have been shelved for fear that they might offend Muslims). We also have new forms of secular intolerance, with governmental scientists calling for ‘gross intolerance’ of those who promote quackery and serious magazines proposing the imprisonment of those who ‘deny’ climate change. Just as you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre, so you shouldn’t be free to ‘yell “balderdash” at 10,883 scientific journal articles a year, all saying the same thing’, said a hip online mag this week. In other words, thou shalt not blaspheme against the eco-gospel. Where once mankind struggled hard for the right to ridicule religious truths, now we must fight equally hard for the right to shout balderdash at climate-change theories, and any other modern orthodoxy that winds us up, makes us mad, or which we just don’t like the sound of.