I grew up during the Cold War (b.1956) and right up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, ‘freedom of speech’ really mattered. A common refrain in public discourse was the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” attributed to Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
The narrative was that the Nazis and the Soviet Union were brutal totalitarian systems that used torture and violence to narrowly restrict what was sayable in public spaces and that they did so in under to maintain control by eradicating anyone who disagreed with what the regime’s rulers were doing.
This was contrasted with Karl Popper’s idea of the ‘open society’ illustrated by the Western democracies that allowed free speech and thus prospered both economically and morally. The idea was that a free society was dependent upon free speech.; that no institutional power or social group had the right to decide which things were sayable and which were not; that free speech was the single most important moniker of freedom itself; that the right to openly express your political, economic, moral and scientific ideas without legal or social restriction IS freedom.
It was also argued that freedom of speech had pragmatic, instrumental benefits that arose from the diversity of voices and ideas that inevitably arose in a society allowing free speech. New ideas are often confusing, disruptive, controversial, socially transgressive and threaten the established power structures, and the normal response of those in control of human societies is to try to prevent the spread of these new ideas. Thus a healthy society tolerates the expression of ideas that initially make us uncomfortable because that is how progressive change comes about. If what is sayable at any given time in history had always been determined by the existing power structures and/or by the existing social norms, then we’d all still be living in caves and worshipping the sun.
It was however also acknowledged that there is a paradox implicit in the classic liberal expression of free speech, which is that ‘free speech gives freedom to the enemies of freedom to express their ideas freely. ‘Free speech’ gives people the right to argue and campaign against free speech.
In the Seventies this paradox led some to argue that the enemies of freedom should not be allowed a ‘platform’ to spread their anti freedom ideas. I was always uncomfortable with this idea because I could see that for every person that thought the fascist right should be silenced there was another person who thought the communist left should be silenced… and I was of the left. I could see that my right to express to my non-mainstream, left-wing, political ideas was actually dependent upon the right of the NF to express their filthy right-wing ideas. This is what is meant by the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It means that freedom of speech has to apply to all or it applies to none. As soon as we start to ban certain types of speech then free speech no longer exists and we move into a situation where we are only arguing about the extent of the restrictions and who should make them… and before you know it we are back to a world in which only certain ideas can be expressed.
And that is indeed the world we live in today. A world in which people can lose their livelihoods and be publicly vilified because they express ideas that are unpopular with some other people.
We live today under a sort of liberal, cultural totalitarianism. The cultural wars that so many on the alt-right bang on about are unfortunately actually real. What is sometimes called “political correctness gone mad” is in fact a reality. The almost entirely admirable desire to rid our public discourse of the sexist and racist discrimination and prejudice that was so common in the post war era has flipped into a form of extreme liberal intolerance… a paradox if there ever was one… and I speak as a lefty who has fought all my life against sexism and racism and all forms of prejudice and oppression.
But it is manifestly obvious today that political correctness has gone mad. A few months ago an Australian sportsman lost his place on his national team because he expressed his personal values regarding same-sex marriage and homosexuality. The ideas that he expressed have been mainstream in the Western world for at least 2,000 years and were based on the religious text of the world’s most widespread religion. Our own country is constitutionally connected to this religious text because the UK is constitutionally a Christian country with the Church Of England being the established religion of the country.
Now don’t get me wrong I regard the statements of Israel Folau about same-sex marriage and homosexuality as ludicrous. They are based on a Bronze Age religious text and are neither rationally or morally defensible. But in a supposedly free country like Australia should he lose his job because he holds such views? If so then to what extent can Australia be called a ‘free’ country? In my view it obviously can’t because if the expression of certain social, political, economic, religious and moral ideas is forbidden they contradict liberal ideas of diversity then it is not open or free it is a liberal totalitarian state.
I regard the social and political ideas of Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon, Marine Le Penn, Matteo Salvini, Trump, Johnson, Katie Hopkins, Israel Folau et al, as irrational and hateful. But they I am sure would say the same about my beliefs. Who is to adjudicate between us? What public or institutional body could possibly have the legitimacy to say that my ideas are sayable but Katie Hopkins are not or vice versa? And it is the vice versa that is crucially important here.
My right to express my beliefs is dependent upon Katie Hopkins right to express her beliefs. And if you are on the left and doubt what I say, think about McCarthyism in 1950’s USA where the expression of even mildly social democratic views could result in blacklisting and the ending of a career. Or closer to home think about what has happened to those of us who support the Palestinian cause. There has been a concerted, and currently successful, attempt to brand any and all criticism of Israel as being antiSemitic, i.e. racist. This has resulted in many life-time warriors in the battle against racism being vilified as racists and being removed from political posts and having their livelihoods taken from them. All because they criticised the way a government of Western European immigrants treats an indigenous people! This is the dark flip side of the fight against prejudice and oppression. Any campaign for tolerance and diversity that is intolerant of alternative views is self-defeating because it cannot in any meaningful way claim to uphold its own core values of tolerance and diversity.
We have laws in place to punish those who incite violence and/or hatred. We have laws in place to punish violence, verbal abuse, rape and sexual assault. We have laws in place that outlaw discrimination based on age, disability, gender, sexuality, creed or religion. These laws have widespread public support and have been approved by elected governments and are both justified and legitimate. If anyone is found to break these laws they can and often do, receive the strictest appropriate sentence. But should simply expressing views that some of us regard as obnoxious result in public shaming and loss of livelihood?
And this paradoxical liberal intolerance has contributed hugely to the political shambles the UK is currently experiencing. Millions of people who hold views they regard as the very signifiers of their moral virtue (patriotism, duty, church attendance, abiding by the rules, social cohesion, adherence to traditional sexual codes of conduct) find themselves vilified on a daily basis as being ignorant, sexist, racists. During the Brexit cultural wars Remainers relentlessly portrayed anyone who expressed even vaguely Eurosceptic views as being ignorant, racists. Expressing scepticism about the EU was regarded by Remainers as an indicator of a hidden racism even when it was not expressed in racist terms. (Just as many Jews ‘read’ any criticism of Israel as indicating an underlying anti-Semitism even when that criticism is not anti-Semitic).
When lives, relationships and careers can be destroyed merely on the basis of an accusation then we have descended into a form of liberal Stalinism. Innocence until proven guilty is as important as freedom of speech and although I despise the views of men and women like Katie Hopkins and Israel Folau but I absolutely defend their right to express those views.