The silencing of dissent – and why more government powers to control speech are the last thing we need.
It feels like everything is going wrong recently. Between 2014 and 2019, the police forces in England and Wales have recorded almost 120 000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’. Once upon a time, this country gave us the biggest proponents of liberalism, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Now, we prosecute people who say words other people disagree with.
There are progressively more and more disaffected liberals who either have been noticing the problem the ‘cancel culture’ creates for a while, or have just realised this recently. Many are advocating against it. They birthed books that covered the issue in detail – we have The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray, which covers the recent ‘madness’ regarding the critical race theory, political correctness and this odd hybrid of sensitivity and authoritarianism that is so common among the most ardent far-left supporters. We also have The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which intellectually explains what is currently going wrong with the left-wing activist movements and overzealous young people. We might even look at Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History written in 2020 by Alexander Adams – the problem with iconoclasm and identity politics links back once again to the illiberalism so pervasive these days.
Similar to the aforementioned titles, Andrew Doyle’s new book Free Speech and Why it Matters deals with similar subjects. I think the main difference is that Andrew doesn’t do ‘gotcha’. He wrote this book with a clear determination to convince people that they should care about free speech. And he does so eloquently, calling to the liberal soul of those who have rejected liberalism on behalf of authoritarianism. He often quotes the greatest liberal thinkers – John Stuart Mill, John Milton and Thomas Hobbes. He does so with empathy and understanding that is not often found when dealing with this new occurrence.
At some point, we should stop and ask ourselves if what we’re doing is just. Sometimes I wonder if people who had their hand in making other people lose their employment ever regret their actions? People who got fired often said something accidentally or were just misunderstood. Shouldn’t we put rather a bigger focus on debating our adversaries?
Similarly, one of the biggest issues right now is the so-called ‘guilt by association. Frankly, I couldn’t care less what my friends are doing in their spare time – as long as they’re cool with me, they will still be my friends. It seems that this is now frowned upon.
I don’t think we should live in a society where we fear for our livelihoods because of the things we say. This is very similar to the religious outrage in the Fifties and Sixties regarding the films or books that used ‘obscene’ language or scenes. How is banning Lady Chatterley’s Lover different to the recent event where one of the members of Mumford and Sons had to leave the band because he tweeted in support of Andy Ngo’s new book about Antifa? Come on.
The clear consequences of this are already visible – the Tory government has introduced a Free Speech champion, someone who needs to ensure that the free speech practises are being upheld at universities. But is more state overreach the correct response to this problem? On one hand, we have the state enforcing free speech, on the other side, we have the state limiting free speech with their hate speech laws. Altogether, that’s too much state involvement in the matters of speech. It’s our right, and it’s something we should hold dear. You can’t enforce it on others, but you surely can try to help people understand why it’s needed.
As Doyle mentions in his book, this is not the right or left issue – free speech should be in our interest regardless of our political inclinations. One of the most saddening changes in recent years is what happened to ACLU – once a bastion of free speech, now very selective in their interpretation of what that entails. They used to defend anyone, regardless of their views, because they understood that if you ban extreme opinions, they will simply go underground. None of us wants that. Free speech is only truly free if it is applied to even the most unsavoury of ideas.
Even the most recent events in the wake of Sarah Everard killing prove that this is more important than ever. The vigil that took place after her death was broken up by the police and people were arrested. Then, the government pushed through a harsh policing bill that severely restricts the right to protest, as well as suggesting that plain-clothed police officers should patrol bars and restaurants. This all leads us towards a police state. It always starts with censorship.
Will the people who indulge in this sensitive authoritarianism read this book? I have my doubts. But if at least some people will give it a read, there may be some hope for the future.
I say we need to retake what’s ours. Say what you believe in, write what you think and don’t let anyone stop you. The fight against censorship never ends and the artists, the writers, the creative elite must do what they do best – go against the state and the people who try to tell you what to do.
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