The Free Speech Backlash

By Jake Wilde

The British public want something different from their politics. Over the last three elections they have sent the message: We don’t really want any of you.

On paper Cameron should have won a clear victory in both 2010 and 2015, and May should have romped home in June. Yet on each occasion the margin of Tory victory was slender at best. At some point the Conservative Party must surely reflect upon their anti-Midas touch, and they must do so before they make another mistake that threatens the security and prosperity of the country. The outcomes of Cameron’s unnecessary referendum and May’s unnecessary election should be enough to deter the Tories from further foolishness, but that doesn’t mean it will. Boris continues to lurk, promising a further degradation of how we talk to and behave with each other.

Labour, despite hoovering up every crank and zealot to their left, have succeeded only in proving that it is possible to do badly and still convince yourself you did well, as long as your expectations are that of tinpot revolutionaries, not a serious party of government. The outcome of last month’s election is that the Labour Party is now firmly in the grip of the far left, with the party’s response to Chuka Umunna’s attempts to find some common ground with the majority of Labour voters underlining how little the far left have changed over the decades. The applauding of Corbyn, the non-response to the bullying of Luciana Berger, Keir Starmer’s preposterous six tests – whatever the Labour moderates’ plan is, it’s clearly so cunning that I’m starting to suspect it involves a fox.

One of the reasons for the public wanting change is the degradation of our political discourse. Over the last few years, and especially over the last twelve months or so, the way people talk to each other, at each other, is bordering on dystopian. Orwell famously offered a vision of the future that was “a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. The implication was that the boot symbolised the state, but most of us these days recognise the boot as the internet, stamping on our faces through social media and fake or propagandised news.

Daniel Van Boom, CNET Sydney’s Asia News Editor, wrote recently about the effect of Mean World Syndrome on our online interactions as part of an interesting series of articles on internet hate for CNET. His basic hypothesis, which I entirely agree with, is that it is nigh on impossible to hold a reasoned and reasonable discussion on the internet with someone who disagrees with you and that it’s not surprising that this has now spilled over into the real world. He uses recent well-known examples from North America, such as Ben Shapiro on ‘safe spaces’, Christina Hoff Sommers on ‘feminist myths’ and Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State College, but all of us have enough of our experiences to draw upon, whether that’s attending a Constituency Labour Party AGM, the discomfort at discovering a relative’s real reason for voting for Brexit, or just venturing too far away from the cat gifs. It’s a good article but the offered solution is to appeal to reason, which is where we came in. In a world in which the extremes are dominant and riot police are required because of someone’s words it seems unlikely that appealing to people’s better nature will succeed. However there is a general sense that something must change, and either we the people do it, or the state does it.

The current inquiry into the abuse of parliamentary candidates could go in two possible directions. The first is that the evidence is shrugged off as ‘part of the job’, or that there’s a descent into a hierarchy of victimhood, or whataboutery, or worse, that the details are devoured with prurient glee. The second is that the details of the abuse are so shocking, so unacceptable, that society turns upon the abusers. At some point reason dictates that we, as a society, will reach the moment where the demand for action becomes overwhelming. When even BBC reporters need bodyguards we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Could it be this, could this be the tipping point?

If so, what is it that we ought to be hoping for?

One possible outcome sees a tightening of the law, where the burden of proof over intent to harm is reduced, where rights to online privacy are eroded, with routine criminalisation for online abuse and custodial sentences for those on demonstrations that turn violent. We might also see the state join in with the practice of no-platforming, or force broadcasters to do so. This would be a mistake, a hugely counter-productive mistake.

Christopher Hitchens described himself as a First Amendment absolutist, a position I share. Hitchens said, “That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.”

A better outcome is to have a society that values freedom of speech, protects it absolutely, discards the ridiculous notion of hate speech and gives people ownership of the discourse in their society. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Have the debate in the open, not in dark corners. I want to know what views you hold because only then can I truly decide if I want to listen to you. Just as the debate over the EU referendum revealed those who hold racially prejudiced views so has Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party revealed the extent of antisemitism on the left. It is horrifying, but I’m glad I know. For not only does this sunlight identify those who hold those horrifying views but also those who make excuses for them.

Only one response will widen the centre ground and push the extremists back to obscurity. Some will wish to use their freedom of speech to spread messages of hatred, be that about other races, religions, sexual orientations or political views. Some will want to bully, to intimidate, to silence their opposition. These people are a tiny minority. If we act collectively we can drown them out, push them back to the edges, and then consign them to their rightful location under a rock.

The important principle is that freedom of speech is protected. We have no need to be afraid of the hatemongers if, collectively, we are clear that their bullying, their discriminatory language, their support of tyrants, and their opposition to our liberal democratic values is rejected by society at large.

We can draw a distinction between those expressing their views and those seeking to encourage criminal or even terrorist behaviour. Directing others to commit criminal acts, or making direct threats to an individual or group are criminal acts. It does not matter whether they are performed online or face to face. These are not exercises in free speech and our laws can cope with them already.

If we build a consensus about a new standard of acceptable conduct for citizens, a standard that we would be happy to be held to ourselves and thus would reasonably expect others to be held to as well, then we can solve the problem. Not restriction through legal instrument, but through personal choice. We can, we must, challenge the extremists wherever and whenever we find them, whoever they are. 

We know that society’s attitudes evolve and that evolution can, of itself, have a corresponding effect on behaviour. Some such behaviours, such as seat belt use, not drink driving and the reduction in smoking, may have started with legislation but have been made effective by us, by society. Others, such as our attitude towards marriage equality, blasphemy and deference, have changed primarily through our exposure to a broader range of human interaction, and understanding that difference shouldn’t be feared, opposed or fought against. Others still, such as domestic violence or child abuse, have moved from unspoken normality to universal condemnation. As a society we need to similarly transform our attitudes towards the political hatemongers, rejecting them, ostracising them and signalling that such behaviour is unacceptable.

Just as so many activities and practices that used to be acceptable are no longer then let us do the same with public, political abuse. As Justice Brandeis put it, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” The consequence of us doing so will be a new politics, a revival of traditional British liberalism, and genuine political choice in the centre ground.

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