In a world of polarised politics and widely differing moral opinions, free speech is taking a battering and yet it is essential for democracy. On a daily basis you can witness on social media, people shutting down debate with words such as misogynist and racist, as soon as discourse veers from their comfort zone. Both sides left and right claim that their political opposites are constantly abusing free speech. ‘Black Life Matters’ supporters upset the right, but no more than how Milo Yiannopoulos continuously offends the left.
So, where do we start when discussing this thorny subject of free speech and free expression? We could start as far back as Socrates, but I guess the Magna Carta is as good a place as any. This was a ‘charter of liberties’ signed in Runneymede, England in 1215, reluctantly by King John (more accurately he used his royal seal). King John succumbed to this document primarily to stave off a rebellion from the country’s powerful barons, following a spate of unsuccessful foreign policies and heavy tax demands.
The Magna Carta was effectively the first written constitution in European history, but it primarily only benefitted the elites at the time. Two further acts; the ‘Petition of Right‘ (1628) referring to clause 39 of the Magna Carta, which states; “no free man shall be…imprisoned or dispossessed, except by the lawful judgement of his peers” and clause 40, the ‘Habeas Corpus Act‘ (1679), “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay rights or justice” had huge implications on future legal systems in both UK and the US. As far as other legal documents go the ‘Bill of Rights‘ (UK, 1689), the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man‘ (France, 1789) and the ‘First Amendment of the US bill of rights‘ (US, 1791), were all influenced by the Magna Carta. These were all attempts to secure freedom of speech and expression under the umbrella of human rights.
In a speech given at the University of Toronto in 2006, Christopher Hitchens debating in favour of freedom of speech, paraphrased three great thinkers to summarise the concept. John Milton, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine collectively suggesting that; “it’s not the right of the speaker to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something”.
Economist, philosopher and socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg surmised that “freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of a person’s view who thinks differently”. Noam Chomsky, renowned linguistic Professor and distinguished Libertarian Socialist declared; “Goebbels was in favour of free speech he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of free speech, then you are in favour of free speech precisely for views you despise”.
So why is free speech so precious? Freedom of expression for which free speech is a part of, is a fundamental human right. Our ability to express an opinion and to speak freely is essential for any society to move forward. It is imperative that in a free society we have an open exchange of ideas and that these opinions are tested and challenged. The most effective way to defeat bad ideas is by the promotion of good ones, utilising ethics and reason, rather than bans and censorship. The other important element, is the ability to listen and to hear other people’s perspectives. The only way we can test our assumptions and ideas is through discourse with people offering a differing view. Furthermore, the weight of public opinion should not be used to decide what may or may not be heard.
Many ideas in the past have been ridiculed initially, only to be proved correct; Galileo Galilei championed heliocentrism while Darwin promoted the theory of evolution. John Stuart Mill wrote in ‘On Liberty‘; “If all of mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”.
The philosopher Karl Popper talked about testing your ideas through “conjecture and refutation“. An individual offers a notion about the nature of reality and this is then tested against reality. This process allows the world to falsify the mistaken ones. The “conjecture” part of this process is the use of free speech. These opinions are offered not knowing if they are correct. It is only by witnessing which ideas withstand being refuted do we attain knowledge.
So given the perceived importance, why is freedom of speech being attacked and eroded? Well contrary to popular belief this isn’t purely a SJW endeavour, the right also use free speech as a political football. Although to be fair to the illiberal left, they do seem to have got the suppression of speech part down to an art form and that’s not a compliment. Free speech on both sides appears to be defined as speech they agree with. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt portrayed perceptions of free speech in the graphic seen below.
Recently the left have used an array of puritanical actions such as; disinviting speakers, censoring artwork and disciplining wrongdoers of arbitrarily constructed cultural appropriation rules. This behaviour has been justified by suggesting it’s done to make other speakers feel safe. I would propose that by other they mean speakers they agree with. As mentioned, the right play games too; there was an incident when a student secretly filmed Professor Olga Perez Stable Cox referring to Donald Trump in class as a white supremacist. This video was propelled across the internet where she received death threats.
The group responsible for this, the Orange Coast County Republicans stated that removing commentary like ‘hers’ was necessary to ensure the college’s commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusivity”. If this narrative sounds eerily familiar, it will be because it is the same language often used by the illiberal left. Studies in the US suggest that Republican students are just as likely to agree with the restriction of campus speech that is offensive or upsetting to certain groups, as the Democrats. Which brings us full circle to Haidt’s representation above. As an aside, however, it is twice as likely for Republican’s to support book bans.
Countless speakers who have differing ideas to illiberal left orthodoxy have been regularly disinvited from an array of places in the English speaking world, such as; Ben Shapiro, Germaine Greer, Kate Smurthwaite, Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon, Christina Hoff Sommers, Dave Rubin and Nigel Farage. Browsing the database for disinvited speakers on FIRE’s website (Foundation of Individual Rights in Education), I thought it would be interesting to work out which side of the political fence censors speakers the most.
I was unsurprised to find that since the beginning of 2017 the left had disapproved of speakers leading to what the UK call no-platforming on 19 occasions, while the right spat their dummy out just 5 times. The main issues for the left were race, gender and sexual orientation. While on the right, it was primarily sexual orientation and Chelsea Manning for criminal misconduct. It would make sense at this point to investigate why this is happening particularly on campus and what are the implications.
It would appear that over the last few years there has been a campaign to sanitise college campuses in an endeavour to make them clean from words, ideas and subjects that may offend or cause discomfort. This has altered the way professors teach, and the content is often shrouded in trigger warnings. Plus any one of us could be easily accused of a microaggression, such as using phrases that appear to be innocuous like, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”. All this sounds distinctly Orwellian, but Jonathan Haidt a moral psychologist, suggests this is primarily about emotional wellbeing and the protection of students from emotional harm.
It is a move to turn a college campus into a ‘safe space’ and they will punish anyone who stands in their way. The problem, he suggests is, it ill equips students for the real world, which often requires intellectual engagement with people one may well disagree with. It is also thought that this culture of censorship and the punishment of speakers could lead students to thinking patterns that could conceivably be described in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) terms as pathological. Thinking styles including; black and white thinking, catastrophising, fortune telling, overgeneralising and mental filtering. Haidt claims that all this further contributes to anxiety and depression. So where did these ideas come from, how did this illiberal attitude to free speech evolve and where is it going?
Haidt calls this punitive lack of tolerance “vindictive protectiveness”, he states that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers had more of a free range childhood, spending a greater time looking after themselves. This style of parenting became less popular in the 80’s and 90’s, as parents became more fearful. In turn, this gave rise to the ‘helicopter parent‘ or the ‘cotton wool mum’, who started to micromanage their kids during every waking moment. This was despite evidence proving that incidences of abduction, robbery, assault and homicide remained relatively stable throughout the English speaking world.
What has changed over this time is an increase in varying media outlets and the attention that is drawn to such cases. It is thought that this cultivates the feeling that there is more crime than is actually occurring. Contrary to this, unsupervised play which previous generations experienced while growing up declined from the early 90’s. This type of play allowed kids to explore the world, while making their own friends and at times enemies. They learnt how to get in and out of trouble, to test their limits and negotiate with other kids, all without being overlooked by their parents. These valuable times, that most of us just refer to as being a kid, provided a vital training ground for survival in the real world.
A study by University College London found that children who had more unsupervised time were more sociable and more active. It is believed that the decline in unsupervised play has been matched by a decrease in empathy and a rise in narcissism. This is considered hardly surprising in an environment where children have little chance to play socially. It is argued that schools cannot replace this time, as this environment is more authoritarian and non democratic, meaning that it is not conducive to learning skills such as co-operation. On top of this, these kids are also growing up in an age of increased political polarisation.
Think of what happened recently in the US election or Brexit. This isn’t helped by social media, which doesn’t often provide the conduit for robust debate. Interactions on this medium usually consist of allies providing an echo chamber or an enemy to yell at or a dissenter to discredit. Civil discourse on these platforms are a rare thing to behold. With all this in mind it isn’t surprising that when young adults arrive on campus they seem to require more protection, while being hostile to people with ideological and philosophical differences.
Relatively recently phrases such as, “words are violence”, “invalidating my existence” or “my truth” particularly on college campuses have entered our vernacular. These comments are what is collectively called ‘concept creep‘ and are generally used to shut down debate. To expand on this, here are a couple of real examples of concept creep; a mother leaves her son in the car while she pops into a store and is charged with contributing to his delinquency, or a statue of a man in his underpants causes emotional trauma.
The question we should be asking is, how the hell did we get here and who is reinforcing these concepts? Professor of psychology Nick Haslam argues that terms like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorders and addiction have all expanded their meanings (horizontal creep). Additionally the threshold of behaviour qualifying for one of these terms has been steadily lowered (vertical creep).
It is declared that these changes reflect an increased sensitivity to harm. Lisa Feldman Barrett a psychologist from Northeastern University has endeavoured to defend the words=violence equation. Her hypothesis proposes, if words can cause stress (which they can), and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm (and it can), then it seems that certain types of speech can be a form of violence”. This suggests, ‘A’ causes ‘B’, ‘B’ causes ‘C’, and therefore ‘A’ causes ‘C’. With this in mind, insert the phrase “gossiping about a rival” and try again, yes it can cause stress, but that doesn’t turn it into violence.
An English Professor at New York University, Ulrich Baer, justifies shutting down speech of speakers some students might not like, by saying, “When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good”. One could argue that rejecting an idea that has been proposed would be more than sufficient to maintain an individual’s humanity. So how are words violence?
Violence is a physical act, if someone punches me in the face, I can feel a physical force. That’s not the same as being berated by a combination of words, no matter how forceful. It is suggested that much of this has roots in 1960’s postmodernist philosophy that was studied extensively in the 80’s and 90’s. In our case we can refer to Lyotard’s idea of mini-narratives over meta-narratives. Which in short, argues that personal experiences are more important than empirical evidence.
Using a similar phrase from a previous paragraph, which we hear in debates, “who is anyone to deny my truth and what I feel”. Alarm bells should be ringing at “my truth”, it’s either truth or opinion, there is no such thing as “my truth”, that is as erroneous as “alternative facts”. But according to some academics and their students, there appears no such thing as one truth. It is posited that this is no more than a construct of the Euro-west and is a myth.
Postmodernist ideas are in stark contrast to science and the Enlightenment, that they despise and of which I am rather fond of. The Enlightenment period stressed the value of; reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought, as opposed to dogma, blind faith and superstition. Worryingly it seems, particularly in academia to be regressing away from logic, reason and science.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that students, with minimal life experience, who have been overprotected at home, exposed to questionable ideas such as postmodernism, while engaging in self-indulgent, narcissistic identity politics would be so afraid of free speech and open debate. It would be foolish, however, to think an attack on free speech exists purely within academic institutions. We have seen more and more laws in varying countries clamping down on so called ‘hate speech’. Hate speech is a difficult one to pin down, mainly because, who sets the parameters of what ‘hate speech’ actually is? In the US freedom of expression is protected by the 1st Amendment and this largely includes hate speech.
There are times when hate speech falls into a current 1st Amendment exception, such as; a particular racist may speak to incite imminent violence on a particular group or may be interpreted as immediate threat to do harm. But generally it works quite well, however, some countries have specific hate speech laws. Let’s take the UK as an example. So what is defined as a hate crime? Well, according to the Crown Prosecution Service a hate crime can be; “verbal abuse, intimidation, harassment, threats, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property”.
They go on to say, “any offense that is perceived by the victim, or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person of disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; or a person who is transgender or is perceived to be transgender”. There seems to be a lot of perceptions here and a distinct lack of facts, which indicates a hate crime could be pretty much anything, both real or imagined.
One problem with this is, the CPS draws parallels between online abuse and actions taking place in person. This is another example of ‘concept creep’ and fails to acknowledge the differences between an angry tweet and someone shouting at you in the street, or physical abuse. Alison Saunders (Director of Public Prosecutions, CPS) talks about countering extreme views. The problem is, who decides what constitutes as an extreme view. Obviously according to the CPS it appears it’s the ‘receiver’ of said abuse. Furthermore, the offense only has to be perceived by the victim, or somebody else for that matter, with no actual evidence required.
This suggests a pretty low threshold for pinning the tag of hate crime onto someone because they have conflicting views. Most sane minded people would agree that hatred of people because of skin colour or genitalia is abhorrent. But policing hatred often ends up in censorship and the problem doesn’t actually go away. In contrast, there are hundreds of examples of civilians defending victims of abuse in public and shaming racists. Tackling hatred in the public domain is a better way of dealing with despicable ideas, but this can only occur in a society where free and open debate is allowed.
Sadly, I only foresee the strangulation of free speech increasing. This trend chiefly started in academia and has now seeped into the workplace and everyday interactions. Not only this, but in several colleges the illiberal left have been involved in episodes of violence. One such incident took place at Middlebury College Vermont 2017, when students were intent on closing down a lecture given by conservative speaker Charles Murray.
When Murray approached the podium he was shouted down by protesters reciting a pre-prepared script who then proceeded to turn their backs. They chanted until the event was moved to a private venue, but this too was disrupted. The physical incident that irrupted caused the injury of a liberal speaker who was there in opposition to Charles Murray, but was bravely shielding him from the attack.
What’s important to recognise is, in a piece published in the New York Times, the authors tested Charles Murray’s alleged offensive content by sending the material anonymously to 70 university professors to rate it. The scale was from 1 to 9, 1 being liberal, 9 conservative, while 5 denoting middle of the road. From the 57 academics who replied, the mean score was 5.05, indicating the material from Murray was ‘middle of the road’. Two other similar studies were performed, neither suggesting that what Charles Murray was proposing was either offensive or hugely conservative. The article also concluded that some of these protesters had never even read any of his work.
In the same year people were punched and beaten by masked protesters from the illiberal left during a Milo Yiannopoulos speech at UC Berkley. Astoundingly these actions were supported in certain quarters. An Op Ed written after the event by one of the students stated “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue, with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act”.
This implies that these student felt justified punching people and pepper spraying them, even if all the speakers did was voice some words (albeit challenging words). This is where the “words are violence” phrase becomes dangerous, because it is utilised to justify countering words with a violent action and then passing it off as self-defence. Unsurprisingly this violence from the illiberal left, led to counter violence and this cycle will surely continue. Below is some video footage from the Middlebury debacle.
The group who seem the keenest on stifling free speech are what is termed iGen (short for internet generation). These are students born after 1994 according to social psychologist Jean Twenge. Twenge found that iGen had higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicide. Although Twenge offers that much of this is due to smart phones, social media and changing social interactions.
Jonathan Haidt contends that some of this may well be a lack of resilience, suggesting that students are now arriving at college with a distinct inability to cope with; offensive ideas, insensitive professors, and maybe rude racist and sexist peers. Previous generations often learned to deal with such challenges, without having to reconstruct society to accommodate their world view. These obstacles prepared individuals for success and the rigors of life outside the gates of academia.
A poll in the US of 3000 students confirmed that they generally agreed with the idea of free speech and allowing a variety of viewpoints. This is, until these other ideas start to infringe on their values, then they are more likely to support policies to limit speech. Putting it bluntly, they don’t support free speech at all. Also in the same poll 37% thought it was OK to shout down opposing speakers, while 10% stated it was acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking. In an effort to understand which people are against free speech, a further poll was published by the New York Times. When asked what they thought was more important ‘free speech’ or ‘inclusion and diversity’, the results were 53% to 46% in favour of ‘inclusion and diversity’.
Additionally men and women were asked who was in favour of ‘freedom of speech,’ 61% of men said yes compared to just 36% of women. Given that 60% of the student population are now women, all this doesn’t bode well for the fate of free speech on campus. It must be stressed that ‘freedom of speech’ is the ultimate radical idea. It is the notion that individuals should try to settle their differences through debate and discussion, using evidence and persuasion rather than coercive power. At this current moment free speech is in mortal danger, just when it is needed more than ever.