Five new threats to free speech today

Mick Hume’s new book examines what’s changed in the free-speech wars.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It’s funny who you can end up defending in the new free-speech wars. In the past week I have written an article about a firebrand pastor in Belfast facing a possible jail sentence for calling Islam ‘satanic’, and another about a Rangers fan in Glasgow locked up for singing a song about being ‘up to our knees in Fenian blood’.

Neither of these outrageous attacks on freedom of expression has attracted much interest from the civil-liberties lobby. Yet both cases are symptomatic of the way that the struggle for free speech has changed in recent times. There is an urgent need now to stand up for free speech as an indivisible right. The danger today is not just that we lose the free-speech wars, but that we risk surrendering our most precious liberty without a fight.

Here are a few things we need to come to terms with – themes that are developed in depth in my new book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

The silent war on free speech

Everybody in Western public life claims to support free speech in principle. Yet in practice free speech is on the endangered list. Freedom of expression today is like one of those exotic animals that everybody says they love, but that still appear to be heading inexorably towards extinction. Everywhere from the internet to the universities, from football to the theatrical stage, from out on the streets to inside our own minds, we are allowing the hard-won right to freedom of expression to be reined in and undermined.

On any day when cartoonists are not being murdered in Europe, few voices speak up for freedom. We seem to spend far more time discussing the problem with free speech and how to curb it than how to defend, never mind extend it. The Je Suis Charlie placards had not even been cleared from the streets before the discussion turned to the importance of avoiding further offence to anybody. And every little extra curb on one sort of speech encourages mission creep towards censoring another.

The freedom to think what you like and say what you think has become another empty ritual to which we just pay lip service. Even the lip service stops when somebody dares to think it is real and says something beyond the pale or the bland. People might oppose outright censorship, but a self-censoring muted conformism is the order of the day.

What’s going on? There is nothing new about free speech being threatened. The modern right to freedom of speech has been under threat since the moment it was first won. But there is something different happening today.

The danger to free speech in the West now comes not only from traditional enemies. More important today is the challenge from those who claim to support that freedom, yet seek to restrict it in practice. This is the new threat: the silent war on free speech.

It is a silent war, but not because its proponents are quiet – they are anything but. This is a silent war because nobody who expects to be taken seriously will admit that they are fundamentally against the right to free speech. Instead we have a silent war on free speech; a war that will not speak its name, fought by wannabe censors who claim that they are nothing of the sort. The result is not violent repression and brute censorship, but the demonising of dissident opinions in a crusade for conformism.

The silent war is not ostensibly aimed against free speech. It is posed instead as a worthy assault on the evils of hate speech and incitement, or on the intolerable invasion of privacy. It is presented, not as a blow against liberty, but as a defence of rights: the right to protection from offensive and hateful words and images; freedom from media harassment and internet ‘trolling’; the right of students to feel ‘comfortable’ on campus.

But whatever coded form of words they deploy, the crusaders are really saying one of two things: either ‘You can’t say that!’, if you’re attacked for what is said; or ‘You can’t say that!’ if the attack is on who said it. Or possibly, both. The priority is to crack the code and expose the silent war for what it is.

The rise of the reverse-Voltaires

Never mind the lip service paid to it ‘in principle’ by the free-speech fraudsters today. Underlying attitudes to that freedom have been turned on their head.

We are living in the age of the reverse-Voltaires. The revolutionary writer François-Marie Arouet, known by his pen name Voltaire, was a pioneer of free speech in eighteenth-century Enlightenment France. Voltaire is credited with one of the great historical sayings on the subject: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ (In fact those words that resound down the years were not written by Voltaire, but by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)

Voltaire’s principle is a clear statement of the attitude to tolerance and free speech that characterised the Enlightenment. It recognises that free speech is something more than a personal possession, something bigger than a personal opinion. Free speech is too important to be restricted, however it might be used and abused. It is a test of any free society that, with Voltaire, we allow open debate and freedom for the thought that we disagree with or even detest.

Now, however, we have the rise of the reverse-Voltaires. The cri de coeur of today’s hardcore offence-takers turns his principle inside out: ‘I know I’ll despise and be offended by whatever you are going to say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it.’ The reverse-Voltaires do not wish to dispute an idea or an argument that offends them. They would deny the other person’s right to say it in the first place.

For the reverse-Voltaires, nothing can be more important than their personal emotions, nothing is bigger than their ego or identity. The only test of whether something should be allowed is how it makes them feel (and most important, how it makes them feel about themselves). Reverse-Voltaires cannot tolerate having their opinions challenged, prejudices questioned, self-image disrespected or toes stepped on. In this they act as a cross between a hypersensitive infant and a set-in-their-ways octogenarian. The result is a demand to limit free speech in the name of their right to be protected from words.

The reverse-Voltaires are as intolerant of dissent as any old-time religionists. But where the priests of yore based their intolerance on the supposedly objective authority of a supreme God above, today’s would-be censors base theirs on the subjective wishes of their personal idol within. The champion of free speech Voltaire said (in his own words this time): ‘Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so, too.’ The mantra of the reverse-Voltaires is more like: ‘Think of yourself and don’t let others enjoy the privilege of thinking any differently.’

The three faces of censorship today

Freedom is under attack today on three fronts – from official censorship, unofficial censorship and self-censorship. Together these trends mark a counter-revolution in Western attitudes to free speech and the state.

Until a few hundred years ago intolerance was the accepted orthodoxy of the ruling elites in European society. The belief in free speech first emerged in modern Europe and then America not as an abstract ideal, but as the expression of a newly envisioned freedom in society. Freedom of speech was conceived as a way for individuals, groups and entire nations to defend their interests against overbearing political or religious authority. It was not only about people having the right to express themselves. It was also about exposing the use and abuse of power, and holding the powerful to account.

That was why the demand for free speech and a free press was at the heart of the movements for democratic government first in England, then in America, then continental Europe. It was why free speech was spoken of in terms of a battlefield defence – as a ‘bulwark’ or a ‘fortress’ in the fight against tyranny. Free speech became the weapon that men (and later, women) would wield to defy and even help defeat the authoritarian power of states.

That was then. This is now – a time when, rather than embracing the demand for free speech as a defence against the power of the state, many demand that the authorities use their powers to suppress the ‘offensive’ or ‘harmful’ speech of other people. Where once the danger was seen as the state’s control of speech, now free speech running wild is the threat proclaimed.

We might think that we live in an age when, at least in Western societies, there is less repressive government censorship than in recent memory. Yet as Philip Johnston notes, the reality is that in the non-censoring UK, ‘more people are being jailed or arrested in Britain today for what they think, believe and say than at any time since the eighteenth century’.

How can there simultaneously be both less censorship and more punishment of words? Because, the UK authorities will insist, the legal crackdown on what people say, especially online, is not state censorship of free speech at all. It is simply a positive attempt to protect people from harmful and offensive words.

The way that state curbs on speech can now be presented as positive, even liberating, measures is a sign of changing times. But it should not alter our attitude to censorship.

In the UK, once we had to deal with an authoritative nation state that might rarely but unashamedly impose political censorship in the name of defending the ‘national interest’. Now we have something more like the ‘indignation state’, which promiscuously bans words and punishes speakers as a form of therapy, to protect individuals from offensive and outrageous speech. Official censorship today presents a far softer, more people-friendly face. But it is none the better for that.

The UK state now lacks the authority boldly to censor in its own name, using the traditional excuse of ‘national security’. When it tries to do so, as with the recent attempts to outlaw ‘extremism’, it runs into trouble and opposition. More often today, the authorities claim to issue bans and pass laws on behalf of others. They insist that they are not attacking free speech, but simply protecting the vulnerable from harmful words. The state censors reluctantly, not because it hates freedom, but only because it is outraged by what it deems offensive hate speech.

Yet the official censors of our Western governments and courts are rarely the driving force behind censorship today. The authorities more often take their lead from the army of unofficial censors demanding action against allegedly dangerous speech – the leading reverse-Voltaires of public life who use online petitions and Twitterstorms to create an instant impression of mass outrage with relatively little effort or substance. These unofficial measures are often sufficient to silence the targeted forms of speech. If not, their demands for official censorship will generally find a willing ear among the UK authorities.

The perma-outraged, professionally offended reverse-Voltaires are relatively few in number. Yet they punch well above their weight in terms of influencing public debate and attitudes. It is not that most people are enthusiastic about official censorship, but many have internalised the idea that it is better not to offend than to express a controversial opinion. These are the self-censoring ‘sorry majority’, symbolised by politicians and public figures who will apologise and withdraw their remarks at the first sign of a wagging finger.

The ‘weaponisation’ of taking offence

The old children’s rhyme about how ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is not strictly true. In the real grown-up world words can certainly hurt in their way.

But the past wisdom of the playground still has something important to teach us. There is indeed a difference between sticks and stones and words, between speech and deeds, between offensive language and physical violence. There can be (as was said by many with varying degrees of sincerity after Charlie Hebdo) no right not to be offended. Or to put it another way, anyone is entitled to take offence at anything said by anybody else. But taking offence does not give them any right to take away somebody else’s freedom of speech.

Instead of free speech, however, the demand from radical campaigners these days is more often for freedom from offensive words. Measures imposed to deal with the scourge of offensive words range from formal laws against ‘hate speech’ in the UK and Europe to the informal but pervasive conformism of the you-can’t-say-that culture across the Anglo-American world.

From the point of view of the reverse-Voltaires, the beauty of this line of attack is that offensiveness is in the eye of the offended beholder. Whether or not you consider any speech offensive is an entirely subjective judgement, based on your feelings. Nobody else can disagree and tell you that you are not offended. For you to say ‘You have offended me’ thus becomes an apparently unanswerable argument for censorship. Determined to prevent and punish the expression of anything with which they disagree, the new censors have homed in on offensive speech as an easy target against which to assert their moral superiority.

As Richard King, author of On Offence, observes, going on the offensive has been part of political struggles since ancient times: ‘The word offend derives from offendere, a Latin word meaning “to strike against”.’ Offensive arguments that strike against your opponents have long been the normal ammunition of a political fight. Things are different in politics today, however: ‘In the 21st century, it isn’t only offence, but also the taking of offence that is weaponised – that is, used to strike against opponents.’

This habit of offence-taking hypersensitivity has become so normalised it might be hard to remember what a change it represents from the past. The sticks-and-stones rhyme captured the attitude that most adults once wanted to impart to their children: that in growing up in a free society you had to learn to cope with the rough and tumble of other people’s words and opinions without shedding too many tears.

Once upon a time, the taking and giving of offence was seen as an inevitable part of a full life. Back in 1838, the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle published a short biography of the novelist Sir Walter Scott. Discussing how to present the life of a great man without making him appear too much like a plaster saint, Carlyle captured an important truth about life in a free and dynamic society when he wrote that: ‘No man lives without jostling or being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offence. His life is like a battle, insofar as it is an entity at all.’
Elbowing through the world, giving and receiving offence, treating life like a battle? Today the cry would surely go up (probably via Twitter) to lock that man away, or at the very least take away his smartphone privileges.

The attempt to de-normalise any speech which somebody finds offensive is having a stultifying effect on public debate, encouraging an atmosphere of tame conformism and mute self-censorship. The biggest victim is not the one who is taking offence; it is the rest of us, robbed of the opportunity for open-minded discussion and free debate that offers our best hope of getting at the truth and deciding a way forward on controversial issues.

When free speech is seen as extremism

The combined effects of official censorship, unofficial censorship and self-censorship have helped to create an atmosphere in which standing up for a fundamental right – free speech – can be seen as extremism.

In the US, the First Amendment to the constitution states baldly that ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. Those 14 words set a global gold standard for free-speech law that has still to be equalled anywhere in the world more than 200 years later.

Some of us in UK get called ‘First Amendment fundamentalists’ for arguing that we could do with a First Amendment-style hands-off attitude to free speech over here. It is not meant to be a compliment, but to imply that there is something of the dangerous extremist about embracing the spirit of the First Amendment. That is a sign of the times.

Yet from the point of view of this free-speech fundamentalist it is arguable that even the First Amendment does not take us far enough. Even in its own legalistic terms, it leaves the interpretation of freedom for the whole of American society in the hands of the nine Supreme Court justices. It is for them alone to judge, for example, whether what somebody says crosses the line from protected speech to ‘fighting words’ which are granted lower protection.

Once you step outside the legal confines of the courtroom, the power of the First Amendment to protect free speech in America is severely limited. The constitutional ban on legal censorship by the state has not prevented the proliferation of informal censorship and bans across US college campuses, for example.

Those who imagine the US is safe from all this thanks to the all-important First Amendment forget that, even in America, the cultural tide appears to be turning against free speech. We might all do well to recall the words of the US judge Learned Hand who, speaking in 1944 at a wartime rally for liberty in New York’s Central Park, warned against investing ‘false hopes’ in the paper constitution and the courts to protect freedom: ‘Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.’

Free speech may not have died in the hearts of the men and women of the West, but it is ailing badly. The combination of official censorship, unofficial censorship and self-censorship is reducing the scope for debate, creating a climate of stultifying conformism and the fear of straying from the straight and ever more narrow. Free speech is left looking like a ‘free-range’ chicken, fenced in and approaching its use-by date. If we want to live in a truly tolerant world we should reject every demand to cage, censor, parole or punish speech. No matter how sympathetic a case the censors make, and however much you might abhor the words others use.

Our society has forgotten why free speech should count above other concerns. It is now considered almost unimaginable that anybody could support free speech without a long list of exceptions.

However it is presented and excused, the result of infringing on free speech is always to close down discussion and bland everything out in a world of grey conformism. No doubt the awful truth is that a world in which we enjoy free speech will contain ugly, difficult and hurtful ideas as well good and inspiring ones. But the alternative to free speech is inevitably worse. That is why free speech is always a price worth paying, and much too important to pay mere lip service to.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by Harper Collins. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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