Let everyone think what he likes and say what he thinks
Why spiked is launching a campaign for unfettered freedom of speech.
‘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.
People with the ‘wrong’ views are being silenced, sometimes by the law, sometimes by the mob; sometimes by jail time, sometimes under pressure to conform, to recant their apparently ridiculous views on anything from global warming to gay marriage and effectively to allow their own minds to ‘lie wholly at the disposition of another’, as Spinoza described earlier attempts to stifle free thought in favour of imposing orthodox non-thinking. This new censoriousness is bad for two reasons. Firstly, because it prevents people from saying what they think, from expressing their beliefs or ideas or plain old prejudices in a public forum, which it should be everybody’s right in a free, democratic society to do. And secondly, because it prevents the rest of us, the potential audience to the silenced speech, from making up our minds about what is true and good, and what isn’t. It makes us effectively into child-like charges of the state or some other body of the self-righteous, who have assumed the authority to think on our behalf – to decide on our behalf what is right, and therefore can be published, and to decide on our behalf what is wrong, and thus must be silenced. The new illiberalism commits the double offence of shutting up those who have something to say and shutting down the critical faculties of everyone else, discouraging debate in favour of promoting only those ideas that small groups of people have predetermined to be good, right, scientifically or politically correct, and safe for the little people to consume.
We need a new fight for freedom of speech. We need a new campaign in defence of this most important of liberties. We need a renewed commitment to the freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and the press, and one which is consistent – which defends these freedoms not only for writers and the right-on, as too many free-speech campaign groups narrowly devote themselves to doing, but also for so-called deniers, for the politically weird, for those who are offensive or outrageous or disturbing. For it is only by having unfettered freedom of speech that we can guarantee an open and lively public sphere in which bad claims or ideas might be intellectually beaten, and the truth, a real truth, arrived at. This is the kind of campaign spiked is launching today. Through its online hub that will be packed with free-minded content, through its roaming real-world campaign of debate and agitation against campus censorship, and through its public debates in both Europe and the US, Free Speech Now! will argue that freedom of speech is always – always – a good thing, the most important thing in public life, in fact. So tuck in, read and share the freedom manifesto, mull over our essays, join our student campaign, and spread the word far and wide about why words and ideas – whatever their nature – should never be censored.
Some people say freedom of speech is more complicated than people like us at spiked appreciate. But it really isn’t. It is possibly the most straightforward of political issues. Here at Free Speech Now!, you will find no formalities, restrictions or restraints being added to our call for freedom of speech; no ifs or buts; no erming or ahhing; just this: Every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.