No, silence is not violence

Being compelled to say things you do not believe is a menace to liberty and equality.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume


The slogan ‘Silence is Violence’, which has appeared in Black Lives Matters protests in the US, UK and around the world, is a powerful and emotive message. It is also, however, a danger to freedom of speech – the same freedom that has been central to struggles for liberty and against oppression.

In my book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, published five years ago this month, I wrote about the powerful culture of ‘You Can’t Say THAT’ in Western societies. Since then the war on any speech deemed offensive or hateful has become far more intense, as extensively criticised on spiked.

Now, in addition to ‘You Can’t Say That’, we are faced with a new order: ‘You Must Say THIS.’ The slogan ‘Silence is Violence’ does not only mean that you must speak out, but that you must follow the correct script. You are free to say exactly what everybody else is saying, and say it loud.

Free speech must always involve the right to offend, to speak what you believe to be true regardless of what others think. The flip side of free speech is that you must have the right to be silent when you choose – particularly when somebody is trying to compel you to speak as instructed. What is called ‘compelled speech’ has long been opposed by civil-liberties campaigners, notably in the US. Now it is apparently embraced by woke activists.

How did we get here? It began with the increasingly influential but misplaced idea that words are at least as bad as physical violence and should be policed as strictly. In response, it has been important to remind ourselves that free speech is simply speech; no matter how harsh or forceful words might be, they are not bullets or knives. And that speech must be free for all or for none at all.

These days things have moved on. We are now told not only that speech is violence, but also that silence is violence. The message is that if you fail to toe the line in public and don’t repeat the mantras of the Black Lives Matter movement, then you must be guilty of racism, or at least be complicit in the racist system. Young people have come under tremendous pressure to publish the approved messages and images on social media, something which has disturbed even some of those sympathetic to BLM. Even woke celebrities have come under fire for failing to use exactly the right words in their posts, as if they were expected to repeat a religious text.

(We might note in passing that, at the same time as speech is condemned as violence and silence is said to be violence, sometimes the actual violence of protesters is apparently not seen as violence, so long as you approve of what they’re protesting for.)

There currently seems to be considerable interest in the history of oppression. One aspect worthy of further enquiry might be the history of ‘compelled speech’, of being forced to say what you are told rather than what you think. Compelled speech has a long association with intolerant and totalitarian regimes, as captured in the compulsory ‘two-minute hate’ for party members to scream at Big Brother’s enemies in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Even in democratic states, there is a history of seeking to impose conformism in thought and speech, both through informal measures and the law. In America, the First Amendment to the US Constitution enshrines the right to freedom of speech. Campaigners against compelled speech have previously succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to recognise that the First Amendment also upholds the freedom not to speak, by refusing to repeat government propaganda or to toe the line of any political group.

In the past, compelled speech was commonly associated with authoritarians and traditionalists. Now it is the woke activists who want to police speech through their ‘Silence is Violence’ campaign. People are faced with the prospect of being shunned and effectively ‘cancelled’ unless they conform and repeat the right messages in public. There is no choice about what you say or think, no questions tolerated. In a sign of changed times, the American Civil Liberties Union has all-but abandoned its campaigns for free speech for all and against compelled speech.

In the face of this outburst of radical intolerance, it is surely important to insist that it is possible to be entirely opposed to racism, and at the same time to be absolutely in favour of free speech – including freedom from compelled speech.

More than that, fighting for free speech has been key to every struggle for liberation and equality. As the former slave and campaigner against slavery in America, Frederick Douglass, put it in 1860, ‘Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power… Slavery cannot tolerate free speech.’

Those who want to stand for liberty, equality and justice, on the other hand, should surely tolerate free speech — the liberty ‘to utter one’s thoughts and opinions’, or to say nothing at all, rather than repeating what you are instructed to think and say – no matter who is giving the orders.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and what they’re afraid of, is published by William Collins.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

Free speech is under attack from all sides – from illiberal laws, from a stifling climate of conformity, and from a powerful, prevailing fear of being outed as a heretic online, in the workplace, or even among friends, for uttering a dissenting thought. This is why we at spiked are stepping up our fight for speech, expanding our output and remaking the case for this most foundational liberty. But to do that we need your help. spiked – unlike so many things these days – is free. We rely on our loyal readers to fund our journalism. So if you want to support us, please do consider becoming a regular donor. Even £5 per month can be a huge help. You can find out more and sign up here. Thank you! And keep speaking freely.

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Andrew BrainNotYetDead

20th June 2020 at 8:15 pm

I agree with Mick here. While freedom of speech is essential, I do wonder what is says about me as an individual who does not subscribe to the “Silence is Violence” message. Does that mean I am a racist? Why wouldn’t I want to speak up?

Alice Ryrie

20th June 2020 at 1:06 am

How can you be so ignorant?! Silence is violence is not telling you what to say or think or act. It is not dangerous. It is reminding you that racism is real and by staying quiet and doing nothing progress is not going to be made. What don’t you get about that? No one is putting specific words into your mouth?

Terence Ballard

17th June 2020 at 2:15 am

They genuinely hate free speech and mock it by calling it “freeze peach.”

They’re fascists and they don’t even know it.

David McAdam

16th June 2020 at 4:59 pm

‘Silence is violence’? How can this be, when we are repeatedly informed by the authors of this kind of nonsense that there are no absolutes?

christopher barnard

16th June 2020 at 2:50 pm

The snag for these intolerant woke types is that people can still vote freely in the secrecy of the polling booth.

Their antics will probably ensure the continuation of their long series of electoral disappointments.

They don’t seem to realise that their hectoring, censorious and admonitory style of interaction with everyone else is not a good way of getting their votes.

They don’t seem intelligent enough for that.

Vivian Darkbloom

16th June 2020 at 5:31 pm

Christopher, I don’t think these hate groups care much for democracy; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they consider it a “white Western” imposition. The trouble for the woke is that they cannot win through the ballot box. Even the dimmest must realise that, despite the optimism over a Corbyn-led Labour Party being able to win last year’s general election. Add to that the rage of Leavers who refuse to accept the result of the EU referendum and it’s clear that they have scant regard for the electoral process.

Yes, they lack intelligence but have sizeable reserves of cunning. They know by now they cannot win elections and so resort to street theatre and “grassroots” activism, seeking to achieve power by threat of violence. As always, these are white bourgeois agitators who jump on the back of social groups with genuine concerns; first, they sought to lead the working-class who, according to Marxian theory, would rise in revolt against capitalism but were dropped when this theory didn’t come to pass. Now it is black concerns to which they have attached themselves; if this gambit works then their black “allies” will likewise be discarded once power has been seized and consolidated.

Ironically, they discarded a class analysis when it failed to produce the results they expected; hence the hate and derision directed towards working-class people; when a bougie talks about white privilege this is code for working class. Black people should beware the siren call of these genuinely privileged bourgeois who seek power only for themselves.

From Unherd: “Why the rich are revolting”:

a watson

17th June 2020 at 7:04 am

Well said. Much of the cynicism regarding democracy comes from the Labour Party, particularly in Labour Councils and local elections, and the msm, in particular the BBC.


17th June 2020 at 3:42 pm

This is all true. We have a lot of educated and frustrated people who were sold the Great University Ponzi scheme (50%) and now want the elite jobs they feel they ‘deserve’.

Thing is, there are more of them than elite jobs. So they are angry amd lash out.

James Knight

16th June 2020 at 2:46 pm

Recall the ridicule of May with her “Brexit means Brexit”. At least you could say that was true.

Constantine Sotiriou

16th June 2020 at 1:16 pm

Again. I don’t see the point in writing anymore about this. If you want to fight it stop supporting the corporations and groups that endorse it.

I think this is a rather ham fisted and patronising attempt to “change our thinking” on racism using BLM as a smoke screen and they are being played as we all are. It is another push to demonise the working class as racist and “far right” and thus wrong and you can’t be on their side. The fact it’s been so openly supported by the major organs and corporations and allowed to get anywhere where as the other side gets completely clamped down is testament to this (and I’m not condoning either, the veterans shouldn’t have got involved they were set up, the rest were idiots). The only people this will harm in the long run is the black community who should be on the same side of all the working class but the media etc etc (the middle class) will cast themselves as the heroes to keep themselves safe.

Terence Ballard

17th June 2020 at 2:19 am

They’re been trying to get the working classes to rise up for hundreds of years by telling them they’re oppressed, now they’re telling them they’re privileged and need to get on their knees.

Mor Vir

16th June 2020 at 12:07 pm

Collective bargaining in the age of BLM.

‘We want higher wages.’

‘You are r acists, admit your privilege, how dare you seek improved wages and conditions for yourselves when you live in a r acist society! Get lost, you selfish r acists! You will be put on a self-awareness course, all of you, so that you recognise your privilege and the guilt of your request.’

Michael Fereday

16th June 2020 at 11:57 am

As always, these violent protests are doing more to galvanize people’s opinions against them than for them. I have had over a dozen conversations, just this weekend, about the possibility of a huge swing to the right (which I personally would not like to see) and a ‘day of reckoning’ on the left!

Mor Vir

16th June 2020 at 11:57 am

The ‘holy’ Inquisition.

‘Confess it, UK is a r acist society!’


‘Your denial proves that you are a r acist! Admit it!’


Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, a bit like a witch trial.

Mike Coops

16th June 2020 at 11:23 am

silence makes us hear and listen to others, if that is defined as violence then have a word with yourselves.

Jimbob McGinty

16th June 2020 at 2:36 pm

“a wise old owl perched in an oak,
the more he listened the less he spoke,
the less he spoke the more he heard,
Why cant we be more like that wise old bird?’


‘It is always necessary to speak the truth. It is rarely necessary to speak’


‘Better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought of a fool, than open it and remove all doubt’

Silence is Violence my bum. Its only coz they rhyme and fit well on the side of a cardboard box that its caught on with the mantra chanters.. take that away and its just nonsense.

Sentient 6

16th June 2020 at 11:14 am

How do we stop this madness? Would some sort of petition pro-free speech directed at the parliament help?

L Strange

16th June 2020 at 12:23 pm

Well, it hasn’t before. There was one a couple of years back – it was rejected.

Gorge On the Gopher

16th June 2020 at 10:42 am

Silence is golden. But not like a shower.

Jonathan Marshall

16th June 2020 at 2:15 pm

Oh dear!

Christopher Tyson

16th June 2020 at 10:35 am

‘He convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still’, sounds a bit ineffectual today but I still like it. ‘Zero tolerance’ has been with us for maybe a couple of decades now, it was a radical thing, it was good intolerance, intolerance of things you don’t like, whereas ‘intolerance’ is intolerance of things you do like.
Today’s radicals are not convinced by the idea that we should tolerate opinions that we disagree with, even ‘racism’. If someone holds particular views that we find abhorrent, but does not act on these views to the detriment of others, these views are their own business. Today’s radical demand that these views are renounced and seek to dredge your unconscious to root out any traces of ‘racism’ or other inappropriate thoughts or opinions. The idea that ‘racism’ should be stamped out and erased from the world, is bizarre, authoritarian and dangerous. ‘Racism’ is not an object that can be destroyed, today’s radicals acknowledge this with their re-definition of racism as systemic. That means that they know it’s there, but they don’t no where it is or what it is. The futile and damaging attempt to eliminate racism, can only result in an expanding intervention in personal relationships behaviour, thought and free expression. This has been going on in colleges and work places for many years, and still has not achieved the desired outcomes. Rather than re-considering their methods, radicals want more of the same, they believe that they have not be militant enough, or that the roots of racism are even deeper than they feared, that they have to dig deeper to root it out, deeper into you unconscious mind.

Christopher Tyson

16th June 2020 at 10:54 am

Young people have often been extreme, they have challenged and sought to overthrow the opinions of their elders. Today’s radicals, however, are kicking at an open door, acting out all what they have learned in their mandatory black history classes. MacPherson nailed ‘institutional racism’ and encouraged the view that racism was whatever anyone thought it was, ‘systemic racism’ is now the racism of choice, I have proposed ‘miscellaneous racism’ for any racism that may have been missed.
In Saturday’s Times, the former newspaper of the establishment, dedicated a two spread sheet to
BBC insider, Professor David Olusoga OBE, where he expressed his exhilaration over the criminal damage of a statue in Bristol of a man that most of us outside of Bristol have never heard of.
The point is that the supposed rebels are well supported within the establishment and have been given tacit approval for their conduct, the anti-racist measures that they are calling for are already in place.
Adolescents in the past have generally outgrown their radicalism, and conformed, for some of us that has been a source of disappointment. However adolescent radicalism is now part of the mainstream, and it is the establishment’s uncritical support and patronage for these views that is the problem, bolshie student have a certain charm and they are not really the problem.


18th June 2020 at 12:57 am

I am astonished that a history professor could even condone, much less “ be exhilarated” over destruction of history.

christopher barnard

16th June 2020 at 10:04 am

Regimes like the Nazis and the Soviets were not content with silence. They demanded overt displays of support.

L Strange

16th June 2020 at 12:26 pm

Yes, compliance with, or obedience to, their arbitrarily decided ‘rules’ isn’t enough. They demand that we actively join in their harassment and bullying of others.

George Whale

16th June 2020 at 9:52 am

“YouTube is automatically deleting any comments about ‘black lives matter violence'”

a watson

16th June 2020 at 9:18 am

Showing dissent regarding immigration policy and, especially, housing policy if you are working class and white in the London Labour Party or Trade Unions will get you accused of being racist, fascist and a little Englander. In other words if you dare to express an opinion being working class you will face nasty opprobrium and worse. They despise British culture and white working class history.

Michel Houllebeq

16th June 2020 at 1:41 pm

Very true – a visit to any London council housing office/estate quickly reveals who is getting the very scarce and much sought after social housing in London. And it’s not the indigenous white working class. The need for an interpreter service is a clue of who is. That one policy has broken up 10000s of White English communities in the city and led to thier minority status having to leave. This is a huge story that is never mentioned or written about – but it is in effect a replacement of the population due to social housing policy in the UK.

a watson

17th June 2020 at 9:30 am

Yes. Another side of the need to silence local working class opposition by London Labour councils is the huge profits to be made by allowing foreign investors and their property developer friends to build housing as a lucrative investment. The housing built is far too expensive for the ordinary white working class. None of these wealthy Labour crooks will talk about housing in London and the way London and white working class London has suffered because of their policies.

Michael Green

16th June 2020 at 9:11 am

‘Silence is violence’ and ‘cancel culture’, reveal that wokeness is an authoritarian, tyrannical movement.

Sam Ford

16th June 2020 at 8:53 am


George Haworth

16th June 2020 at 7:29 am

I’m of the opinion that unless you have a personal insight that you can honestly say is original, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut, listen and pay attention. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyones time regurgitating stuff. I’d rather be classed as ‘violent’ than knowingly plagiarise other peoples soundbites regardless of what side of the fence they are coming from.

L Strange

16th June 2020 at 1:34 am

“Those who want to stand for liberty, equality and justice, on the other hand, should surely tolerate free speech”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? BLM and all of their fellow travellers on the self-described ‘progressive’ Left don’t believe in, let alone stand for, liberty, equality or justice.

Michael Byrne

16th June 2020 at 2:28 am

Totally agree they want to shame people into submission and force people to think and say things that sounds like oppression to me. People should be free to voice whatever opinion they have and people should also listen and respect it. My opinion is that unfortunately these young woke dont have a culture and religion of their own hence they are trying to force their new illiberal identities on people

Mor Vir

16th June 2020 at 12:45 am

It is another facet of the current re-emergence of quasi-religious mentality and practice.

– The credo, the obligatory communal profession of belief.

– And ‘Qui tacet, consentit’, the obligation to speak out against perceived wrong-doers and -thinkers.

– Even ‘chain takfi r’, he who does not condemn he who does not condemn is condemned, and so is he who does not condemn him ad infinitum. I S is notorious for that, it is all about the enforcement of universal conformity and submission to the group narrative.

It is the imposition of ‘group think’ and coerced conformity, the regimentation of society in belief and practice. It is entirely ordered to the material interests of the capitalist state, and it is passed off as ‘morality’.

The state misses the conformity of religion and the militarisation of society, the good old days when citizens knew their place, said what they were expected to say, believed what they were expected to believe and did what they were expected to do, and woe betide anyone who did not, they were for the stocks or worse.

That ‘liberals’, even ‘anarchists’ are supposedly involved in this BLM is frankly laughable. The ‘left’ are practically squaddies of the authoritarian British state these days.

Mor Vir

16th June 2020 at 1:01 am

In summary, it is enforced social control over what citizens think, feel, say and do, and who and what they condemn. It is control over the interior and the exterior person, and enforced control of the person to exert control over another to make them feel ‘guilty’ too. It should have no place in a liberal society.

Ironic that it should be promoted by a group supposedly concerned with slavery, because that is exactly what it is, not merely economic slavery but mental and social slavery. UK is totally losing it.

John D Henry

16th June 2020 at 1:27 am

Well said Mor Vir. I might add that the current vogue for ‘virtual signalling’ and shaming the non conformists, largely works because of the collective power of social media to get people the sack from their employment. The self employed (like myself) and retired are generally immune from this threat. I recently posted a politically neutral piece on my Facebook page warning of the dangers of pulling down statues; I have seen first hand where cultural destruction can lead as did active service in Bosnia, whilst in the Royal Navy. My employed friends and family told me they daren’t even tick a like for my article, though they were in agreement. The only mantra allowed is to support BLM, though a thoroughly Marxist anti capitalist organisations. Ironically BLM don’t appear to care about all blacks – black police, black military, black right wing, and B on B murders are well off their care radar.

John Little

16th June 2020 at 12:44 am

Silence is NOT violence. SILENCE IS A RIGHT!

Jimbob McGinty

16th June 2020 at 2:37 pm

at least it was until the 1994 CJA

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