It’s time to get real about freedom of speech
Neither side in the culture war understands how crucial this liberty is to human flourishing.
I’m glad sections of the left find the free-speech crisis so funny. Or ‘free-speech crisis’, as they always put it, those sarky quote marks signalling their scepticism towards the idea that there’s a censorship problem on campus and elsewhere in society. ‘Freeze peach!’, they cry at anyone who thinks it is a bad thing that people can be No Platformed, threatened with death or sacked from their jobs for expressing the ‘wrong’ opinion. Hilarious, isn’t it?
It’s hilarious when activists piss on the door of a feminist academic’s office because they don’t like her criticisms of gender self-ID. It’s hilarious when a disabled working-class grandfather is sacked from his job at Asda because he posted a Billy Connolly skit on social media that made fun of Islam. It’s hilarious when a Labour shadow minister loses her job because she dared to raise concerns about the grooming and rape of working-class girls in various parts of England. It’s hilarious when JK Rowling is bombarded with messages saying ‘fuck you bitch’, ‘bitch I’ll kill you’ and ‘choke on my cock’ because she wrote an entirely non-prejudiced essay on trans issues. It’s all so funny. ‘FREEZE PEACH’ lol.
Make no mistake: when the cultural and media elites mock the idea of a free-speech crisis, when they insist cancel culture doesn’t exist, this is the reality they are denying. This is the abuse, demonisation and, yes, censorship that they claim is not real. Actually, it’s worse than that. These censorship deniers do not merely question the reality of these grim assaults on people’s free expression – after all, we can all see the tweets calling JK Rowling a ‘cunt’ and a ‘whore’, and we all know what urine splashed on someone’s door looks and smells like, so we know this stuff is real. No, they also implicitly justify these chilling crusades against open discussion. By refusing to describe these attacks as attacks on freedom of speech, they normalise them, they green-light them.
The censorship deniers ridicule the idea that people’s freedom of speech is under attack because they don’t care about the people whose freedom of speech is under attack. They support this censorship – of bad feminists, of old blokes who mock Islam, of people who are too right-wing – and that’s why they refuse to condemn it as censorship. It’s as simple as that.
The discussion about freedom of speech this week, and in recent months, has been frustrating. Both sides in this so-called culture war fail to see what’s at stake, fail to see why the free-speech crisis in the 21st century is so serious, and fail to appreciate why freedom of speech is so essential to human flourishing.
Most obviously, the censorship deniers, those nominally leftish people who claim there is no free-speech crisis on campus or anywhere else, just cannot be taken seriously. Such is their ideological blindness to the problem of contemporary censorship that they have become impervious even to facts and information. I know from personal experience that you can provide these people with loads of examples of ‘controversial’ individuals being No Platformed, arrested and even physically assaulted for their political or moral points of view, and it makes no difference. ‘Nope, there’s no free-speech crisis’, they’ll say.
You can tell them about the Christian pastor who was arrested in Manchester and held in a jail cell for 19 hours for saying homosexuality is a sin and they’ll say, ‘There’s no free-speech crisis’. You can tell them UK police forces are arresting nine people a day for saying offensive things online and they’ll say, ‘Still no free-speech crisis’. You can remind them that the Scottish government is currently working on legislation that would make it illegal to say certain things in your own home and they’ll say, ‘I can’t see a free-speech crisis’. You can point them to news reports about the fact that a man currently faces six months in jail for making a joke about Captain Tom Moore on Twitter and they’ll say, ‘There isn’t a free-speech crisis!’. You can tell them that NUS officials maintain an actual blacklist of organisations and individuals who should never be ‘platformed’ – including not only the likes of the BNP but also Julie Bindel and George Galloway – and they’ll say, ‘There’s no crisis. It isn’t censorship. Freeze peach!’
After a while it becomes pointless. It is classic denialism, which is difficult to engage with. What’s more, these censorship deniers wilfully underestimate how much pre-emptive censorship takes place. They will say that ‘only’ scores of people have had their invitation to speak on a campus rescinded, overlooking that many individuals are never invited in the first place, because student societies know that these individuals will never make it through the bureaucratic checks of campus officials. Saying ‘There are only a small number of disinvitations on UK campuses’ is like saying in 1950s Hollywood ‘No communists have been sacked from the movies I make’ – yes, that’s because they weren’t there to begin with; they were blacklisted.
The other side, the government side, is not up to scratch, either. Far from it. If the government wants to pass legislation that would fine universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech, and send a Free Speech Champion on to campuses to defend open debate, I don’t have a problem with that. (I don’t think it will work, but that’s another matter.) But at the same time, this government maintains vast reams of hate-speech and public-order legislation that actively limit what people can say.
If this government were serious about freedom of speech, it wouldn’t only wag its finger at the undoubtedly authoritarian millennials and Gen Zers who run student politics. It would also dismantle laws that mean people can be arrested for making jokes online. It would re-examine ‘religious hatred’ legislation and the chilling impact it can have on playwrighting and comedy. It would overthrow Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to be ‘grossly offensive’ on the internet. It would scrap Prevent, the anti-radicalisation strategy that has led to numerous illiberal intrusions into people’s reading habits, speech and thoughts. You cannot expect to be taken seriously on the issue of No Platforming on campus when you are responsible for a state that No Platforms people across society.
This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the free-speech debate this week: it has focused too much on the problem of censorship on campus. The anti-woke side in the culture war has become too obsessed with individual instances of academics or campaigners being No Platformed on campus, often to the neglect of the broader, sweeping, society-wide culture of conformism, enforced both by legislation and by social pressure, that has nurtured depressing levels of self-censorship and which stymies the kind of honest, open, experimental debate society needs if it is to progress and develop.
The cultural pressure to conform to the new orthodoxies, and to silence our inner dissenter, is palpable. Sometimes it is overbearing. A society in which you can be sacked for criticising Islam is not a free society. A society in which you can be arrested for making an off-colour joke or for taking part in a rude chant at a football match is not a free society. A society in which women are threatened with rape and punched in the face for criticising gender self-ID is not a free society. A society in which you can be hounded for days on end for refusing to take the knee to Black Lives Matter is not a free society. A society in which people silence their own views on issues like immigration and transgenderism – as a recent survey suggests that people do – is not a free society.
All of these things, and more, point to a very real free-speech crisis. To a society in which threats and law are used to circumscribe what people may think and say, and in which, as a consequence, fear trumps self-expression. A society where many people would rather stay silent than be called a cunt and a whore by armies of modern-day McCarthyites, as they saw happen to JK Rowling when she said what they think.
It is undeniable that we live in a society where freedom of expression is in crisis. Whether we are being censored by the state, by self-styled guardians of correct-thinking, by mobs or by ourselves, we are being censored. And this matters. It matters because, at both the individual level and the social level, freedom of speech is essential to human flourishing.
Freedom of speech gives real power to the individual. It liberates us not only to express our own views – which is of course incredibly important – but also to listen to the views of everyone else and to use our mental and moral muscles to decide for ourselves if what they are saying is right or wrong. Freedom of speech is the foundation stone of moral autonomy. It demands that we take ourselves seriously, weigh things up, make moral judgements, and correct error as we find it. Censorship, by contrast, infantilises us, weakening our mental and moral muscles by inviting us to rely instead on the judgements of our superiors; on those who will decide on our behalf what we may see, what we may read, and what we should think. As John Milton said, in ‘disexercising and blunting our abilities’, censorship represents a ‘discouragement of all learning’. ‘Our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs.’
And freedom of speech is good for society, too. It is the condition for true public discussion, the means with which we can collectively decide on common goods and arrive at something like the truth. What’s more, freedom of speech creates the space for daring thought, experimental ideas, eccentricity, and, consequently, progress. Virtually every idea we take for granted today – that slavery is bad, that the Earth is not at the centre of the solar system, that women are equal to men – started life as a blasphemous thought. It was freedom of speech, especially the freedom of speech of a few brave souls, that allowed, over time, for these blasphemies to be accepted as truths. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘All great truths begin as blasphemy’.
Censorship serves one purpose only: to protect orthodoxies, to safeguard the status quo, to preserve power. Anyone who is interested in challenging these things should stand up for freedom of speech, on campus, in the workplace, in society, in art, in culture. Here’s Shaw again: ‘All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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