Free to Agree

It is now regarded as established fact that free speech is at risk in most Western countries. Most news outlets are shaking their heads at this trend now. Hopefully this will precipitate actual change. If it does, we have Extinction Rebellion to thank. By attacking the newspapers rather than vulnerable private individuals they brought the establishment into the fray, and the establishment has a heavy right-hook. Some of these leftist environmentalists might start to appreciate Mr Chesterton’s old comment: “We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.”

But free speech still remains a debate in our society for the first time in a considerable while. To a certain extent, restrictions of free speech has been labelled ‘the future’. This is a method progressives use regularly, assigning concepts like abortion or irreligion ‘modern’, despite the fact it has no conceivable connection to material progress. This makes any rejection of those principles old-fashioned and renders critical arguments moot. With the free-speech issue, one can see this unfold. Countries like Germany, Canada and Sweden have banned certain ‘hate-speech’ and have been praised as progressive all over the West. The SNP suggested one of the most terrifyingly draconian censorship laws I have ever heard, yet the Independent readership applauded their dedication to ‘progress’. What that means I am still unsure.

Blind support of anything arbitrarily filed under ‘progress’ is frustrating. More frustrating is people who either don’t actually agree with censorship, or at least abhor admitting they do, trying to argue that restricting people’s speech is not restricting free speech. The arguments are often staggering. There is the argument that ‘hate speech’ is exempt from protection; no one explains who defines the borders of ‘hate speech’. The answer would, of course, have to be the government and the legal establishment. Somehow the concept of free speech becomes a little flaccid when it can be restricted and limited by the organisations one particularly wants the freedom to criticise. When even criticism of immigration can be classified as hate, one can see where this goes. Government would be able to dictate policy on a range of subjects and ban opposition on the grounds of hate.

One of my favourite arguments, however, is the idea that ‘free speech does not mean consequence-free speech’. I wonder what it is these people think free speech means. Do they have an image of Nazi Germany in mind where citizens are all bound into dog muzzles to prevent them talking? Unless they have erroneously picked up that impression somewhere, they must think that Nazi Germany did have free speech. You were free to say whatever you liked, with the small consequence that you were likely to get a swift jackboot to the face. Of course free speech means consequence-free speech or it doesn’t mean anything at all. If someone can be subjected to assaults, intimidation, bullying, sacking or harassment for what they say, then one cannot seriously imply they were free to say it. If, by consequences, you mean some witty or insightful speech in return, then of course. But as soon as speech is met with physical violence the line has been crossed.

Not enough effort is made to convince the enemies of free speech of its importance. People take it as a given that it is ‘progressive’ to limit speech in the right way and the conservatives oppose it because they oppose progress. That should not be the way it is considered. Both sides, and everyone in between, benefits from free speech; the best way to safeguard it is to convince them of that. The most important fallacy, I think, is the idea that these general ideas don’t apply to them, because their ideas are ‘right’ and ‘good’. When I described the actions of the jackbooted Nazi in the paragraph above, I lost any left-winger that may have been reading. The restrictions to speech made by the Nazi weren’t bad because they were restrictions, they were bad because of what they restricted. When they see a mob kicking a man in the chin for a hat or a bumper sticker, they don’t see it in the same light as an SA man kicking a democrat, for the simple reason that the SA is bad and the democrat is good, whereas, in their situation, the kickee is bad and the kicker is good.

I blame this mentality, the inability to see the bigger picture, on two-dimensional media. It’s a bit of stereotype for the right-winger to attack media for what it’s done to the young, but I think it’s true. In films and television, the bad-guy is always so obviously the bad-guy that even he admits it. The real world isn’t like that. Should you go back in time and ask a Nazi or a Stalinist why they felt they had the right to silence other people, I can guarantee the answer would not be ‘because we’re evil’. No, like everyone else, these people thought they were right. They thought they were making the world a better place and those other people, with their dreadful opinions, were making it a worse place. Thus, they had to be silenced. It is frustrating talking to people about things like this, because the argument always descends in a conversation about why the Stalinist is wrong and why the speaker is right. That is not the point. I know you think you’re right. I know you think the Stalinist and the Nazi are wrong. My point is that, as correct as you think you may be, there are others that disagree with you. And to them, you are the same as that SA man. How arrogant could a person be to think that, in the whole world, in all of history past, present and future, they alone have strolled upon the ultimate political and social truth. You are going to stop people dissenting because you think your morality, in this snapshot of time, in this tiny corner of the Earth, has achieved perfection. Nothing will ever prove you wrong, no one will ever look at you as you look at the Stalinist. In a certain way, it reminds me of the proposal in the Victorian period to close the patent office because everything had already been invented. We need no more dissent, because you, with your sociology degree from some provincial polytechnic, are able to dictate what is and is not acceptable to say.

Perhaps a simpler argument is to think about precedent. If you are able to ban certain speech because it disagrees with your ideology, what if I get into power? Of course, I would be a ‘bad’ actor so you may regard it as though it’s completely different. But at the very least, if the majority of people in the UK are socially right-wing (and I think they are), then it is your ideology that is under threat. If I could ban any prejudice or incitement to violence I could close nearly every left-wing twitter channel going. The Quran would certainly be banned. The communist manifesto specifically calls for a violent overthrow of the system; I think that would go on the pyre as well. When one is trying to make vague definitions of acceptability, try to run some of your own thoughts or ideologies through the algorithm and see how they come out. It may give you new perspective.

The right have the opposite issue. I believe in full freedom of speech, as most right-wingers do. But again, one must run some ideologies through the algorithm to take it to its natural conclusion. If you believe that people should be allowed to criticise the nation at large for social failings, one cannot then arrest an Islamist for preaching that the West is decadent and sinful. If you can imagine him preaching on your street corner and still agree he should have the right, good. But if you don’t, re-evaluate your policy on freedom of speech.

My opinion about freedom of speech is built on this moral principle. It is impossible, and wildly arrogant, to claim I am the final thinker, that I have stumbled across the perfect ideology. I have no moral authority to ban speech. I could ban actions which I regard unpleasant, but as long as speech remains free my opinions can be open to scrutiny and, if my ideology is found wanting, it can be replaced. Banning speech is an attempt to preserve the world in your image. Whether you are on the left or the right, it is intensely conservative, an attempt to force compliance and end innovation. But there is another reason I support it that might be more convincing, and that is the practical reason.

There seems to be a common opinion swimming around that speakers stoke up fear and hate. That they make arguments and convince people there is a problem when there isn’t one. This is an opinion that can only have come from journalists and politicians; people wildly overestimating their own influence. When Jonathan Haidt writes about people’s political opinions, he says that it is people’s unconscious that makes a decision, they have instant preference for one idea or another. Their conscious merely tries to make arguments to explain a decision they’ve already made. If this is true, then the role of the commentator is even more superfluous. It acts as a third level, a source of information that the conscious can use to bolster its existing opinion, which is in turn only there to bolster an unconscious position they have already formed. If anyone reads this article at all, I have no doubt that the vast majority had already agreed with me before they started reading. If they haven’t, they will merely be reading so they can scoff or shake their heads. That is the reality. Silencing commentators will do nothing to stop people coming to the same conclusions themselves. All it really does is force the opinions out of the public sphere.

This is dangerous for a couple of reasons. The first is that it causes frustration. A beast is dangerous when it is cornered and silencing a man is a similar action. If he can’t speak his mind, he feels he has no control over events and no means to influence them. This is how people are driven to violence; desperation and powerlessness. Allowing people to discuss their concerns is a pressure valve. It allows people to think that their opinion matters and is being considered, whether it is or not. The second is that, if we accept my point that silencing the conversation does not mean killing the opinion, all that restrictions in speech do is force the conversation underground. Rather than the idea being stated public and refuted by those who disagree, it is instead whispered to likeminded friends and discussed without scrutiny. In a strange way, it is almost like progressives are silencing themselves too. By forcing dissenters out of the public sphere, they are guaranteeing that these people will be exposed to less of the orthodox opinion and are, therefore, more likely to deepen into their ideology than be taken out of it. Banning right-wing speech does not just deepen the progressive echo chamber, but the conservative one too.

It is worth remembering, though, that I am only using the progressives as an example here because they are the current drivers behind laws restricting speech. They are not the first to do this, and they certainly will not be the last. Whether they are in power or not, the right must consider this concept as well. If one were to silence Islamists or Communists, you would not be killing their ideology, you would merely be locking it behind closed doors. And it is in secrecy that any sect is at its most dangerous and its most dogmatic.

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