Freedom of Speech

Oliver Wendell Holmes, American Supreme Court Justice, was once asked to give an example of when it would be proper to limit speech. He gave the example of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

(In case you were interested, the case in which he was presiding over when he gave that example is an an often-forgotten one, focused on a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists. They had published some literature in Yiddish, and therefore was only available in a language that most Americans couldn’t read, opposing President Wilson taking the USA into the First World World. The Yiddish-speaking socialists had fled Russia because they wanted to escape that conflict, and so were rather put out by America’s change of policy.)

Christopher Hitchens proposed three “classic texts” for considering free speech; Areopagitica, by John Milton; Thomas Paine’s introduction to the age of reason; and John Stewart Mill’s essay on liberty. He summarises all three (rather daringly) in a single review; “It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear. Every time you silence someone, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other others, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.”

John Stewart Mill makes the point very clearly; that if all members of society were agreed on the truth, beauty, and value of one proposition, except for one person, it would be incredibly important that the one heretic be heard, because we’d still benefit from his outrageous or appalling view. Rosa Luxembourg, in more modern times, said that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently. I find myself very attracted to those points of view.

Let’s put it another way; here’s an example given by Hitchens during a speech he gave to the University of Chicago’s Debating Club. “Imagine if everybody was made to attend, at school, training on sensitivity in Holocaust awareness and the Final Solution, both taught as great moral exemplars, and one person stands up and says, ‘You know, about this Holocaust, I’m not sure it even happened. In fact, I’m pretty sure it didn’t. I wonder if the Jews actually brought a bit of violence on themselves.'”

In Hitchens’ thought experiment, that person doesn’t just have a right to speak, but their right to speak must be given extra protection, because what they had to say must have taken them some effort to come up with, might have a grain of historical truth, and might get people to think about why they know what they think they know, especially if they’ve been caught this and nothing else.

Think about it; what would you do if you met a Flat Earth Society member? How can you prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the Earth is round? Are you sure about the theory of evolution? We all know that it’s supposed to be true, but here’s someone who tells us that “intelligent design” is actually the truth; how do we disprove it? We mustn’t take refuge in the false security of consensus and rely on the fact that we’re in the moral majority.

Hitchens recalls a proud moment in his professional life when he was called to defend British historian David Irving who, at that time, had been imprisoned in Austria for planning – not giving, but planning to give – a speech on the Holocaust on Austrian soil. He hadn’t, at that point, said anything; he wasn’t even accused of saying anything. He was accused of planning to say something that went against the accepted history of World War 2. Hitchens argued that this was a scandal, and I’m inclined to agree; he should be allowed to speak his views, abhorrent as they might be.

In the play“A Man for all Seasons”, there’s a powerful scene where Sir Thomas More decides that he would rather die than lie or betray his faith, and he is then seen arguing with the vicious witch hunter / prosecutor.

You’d break the law to punish the devil, wouldn’t you?” More says.

Break it?” the prosecutor replies. “I’d cut down every law in England if that was what it would take to catch him.”

Yes, you would, wouldn’t you?” More says thoughtfully. “But when you’ve cornered the devil, and he turns around to meet you, where would you run for protection, all the laws of England having been cut down and flattened? Who would protect you then?”

In other words, every time you violate – or contemplate violating, or propose violating – someone’s right to free speech, you make a rod for your own back. Because who do we elect or appoint to the position of state editor in chief, to decide which speech or person is harmful? Because isn’t the old story true, that the man who has to read all the pornography is the man most likely to be debauched? So who would you choose for the job of government censor? Who is eloquent enough for the job, to select palatable truths on your behalf, and relieve you from having to hear what you might not want to hear?

The instinct to censor words and thoughts is something that exists in most of us, to a lesser or greater degree. Dr Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first significant English dictionary, was visited by various delegations, all wanting to congratulate him. One of these delegations was a group of respectable ladies who said, “Dr Johnson, we are delighted to find that you’ve not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.”

Ladies,” Dr Johnson is famed to reply, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”

Religion, it had to be said, is at the forefront of this conspiracy of anti-free speech. The problem is that our prefrontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands are too big. As a result, we’re afraid of the dark and we’re afraid to die, so we often choose to believe in the truths of holy books that are incredulous and dangerous. They suppress the freedom to enquire and think, are all based on the same illusion, and are all plagarisms of each other. However, there is one religion right now that is particularly destroying the right of free speech – I’m speaking, of course, of militant Islam.

Globally, it’s a gigantic power. It controls an enormous amount of oil wealth, several countries, and poisoning societies and childrens’ minds as they go – oh, and training people in violence, making its culture focused on death, suicide, and murder. It also makes massive claims for itself – it is the final revelation, and the only one worth following.

Yes, secularism is expanding, but who is under threat here? Is it those who believe in these faiths, or is it us, who can’t even publish a cartoon about faith? When a cartoon is published, up go the placards and the howls and the screams in London, Toronto, and New York, with devout followers declaiming, “Behead those who cartoon Islam!”

Do they get arrested for hate speech? No.

Might I get into trouble for called Islam an oil-rich faith? Quite possibly.

We’re giving away what is most precious in our own society without a fight, and we find our friends and colleagues praising the people who want to deny us the right to resist it. Shame on those who do it.

Free speech means freedom for everyone to speak. It can be very alluring at times to consider banning a particular speech because it’s inflammatory, aggressive, or destructive.

First, we need to acknowledge that change can be scary, and the cultural zeitgeist is changing fast. Now, in the first quarter of the 21st century, we can all speak more freely, and organise more efficiently, than ever before. One hundred years ago, just 25% of the population had a vote; now, almost everyone has one. But that right had to be fought for, by the brave women of the Suffragette movement. They were challenging the cultural norms of the time; women were arrested, criticised, and openly challenged for speaking their mind.

But should there be a limit on free speech? Should there be opinions that deserve to be shut away, blocked, and admonished, because they’re hard to hear, or they’re extremist?

Oscar Wilde, who knew a few things about censorship, wrote that he could “tolerate everything except intolerance”. Today, the rhetoric of free speech is being abused in order to shut down dissent and facilitate bigotry.

Only pigeons take much notice of the statue that sits in an alcove on the High Street facade two floors above the entrance to the Rhodes building of Oriel College, Oxford. A 4ft-high slab of limestone erected in 1911, it depicts Cecil Rhodes, the arch imperialist, and one-time student of Oriel.

That level of attention – or lack of it – changed briefly when a campaign started called Rhodes Must Fall, aimed at removing what the protesters saw as a symbol of colonialism.

But the campaign also came to symbolise something else, a new intolerance of words and images that is sweeping across British and American university campuses and lately came to deplatforming Richard Dawkins, eminent scientist and public intellectual, for reasons that pass understanding. It is a zealous form of cultural policing that relies on accusatory rhetoric and a righteous desire to censor history, literature, politics and culture. As such, the protest is the latest of a series of flashpoints and incidents at British universities over the past year that have centred on issues of freedom of expression and protection from offence.

Ntokozo Qwabe, who speaks with passion and gesticulating anger, said that the statue, the curriculum, and the shortage of black students and academics at Oxford forms part of a “racist” outlook that amounts to “structural violence”.

On the day of her formal installation as the new vice-chancellor of Oxford, political scientist Louise Richardson spoke about the tensions to be found on university campuses across Britain. “Education is not meant to be comfortable,” she said. “Education should be about confronting ideas you find really objectionable, figuring out why it is you find them objectionable, fashioning a reasoned argument against them, confronting the person you disagree with and trying to change their mind, being open to them changing your mind. That isn’t a comfortable experience, but it is a very educational one.”

Let’s consider something else. Do you remember (and I certainly hope that you do) the case of the Jyllands-Posten? This was (in fact, still is) a Danish newspaper that, on 30th September 2005, published a series of cartoons criticising Islam and self-censorship; most of them depicted Muhammad, the principal figure of Islam. A lot of Muslims protested, and many protested violently.

It’s considered highly blasphemous in most Islamic traditions to visually depict Muhammad, and that’s fine if you choose to follow Islam and accept that edict as a matter of holy law; then it’s entirely your business and your concern. However, when you follow the pattern of a number of Danish Muslim organisations, who appealed against the independence of the press in this instance and submitted a file on the matter to the top Danish court (including information that proved to be false), this incited anger and hatred against a small, liberal democracy on the European continent that had done nothing more than be critical against a particular faith – and had no particular case to answer why it deserved to be exempted from such criticism.

As well as this atrocious response by Islamic followers, there was also a weak, trite response from Western leaders – many of whom gave pathetic words of “support” to the Islamic idiots who professed horror at the sight of their prophet being put into print. From many Western nations, there was not a word of solidarity, but instead some creepy words of apology to those who have attacked their freedom, trade, citizens, and their embassies. For shame. For shame.

Nobody in authority can be found to state the obvious and the necessary; that we stand with the Danes against this defamation and blackmail and sabotage. Instead, all compassion and concern is apparently to be expended upon those who lit the powder trail, and who yell and scream for joy as the embassies of democracies are put to the torch in the capital cities of miserable, fly-blown dictatorships. Let’s be sure we haven’t hurt the vandals’ feelings.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that it is important to affirm “the right to criticise not merely Islam but religion in general”. He criticised media outlets which did not print the cartoons while covering the story. Ralf Dahrendorf wrote that the violent reaction to the cartoons constituted a sort of counter-enlightenment which must be defended against. Sonia Mikich wrote in Die Tageszeitung, “I hereby refuse to feel badly for the chronically insulted. I refuse to argue politely why freedom of expression, reason and humour should be respected.” She said that those things are part of a healthy society, that deeply held feelings or beliefs should not be exempt from commentary, and that those offended had the option of ignoring them.

In France, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was taken to court for publishing the cartoons; it was acquitted of charges that it incited hatred. In Canada a human rights commission investigated The Western Standard, a magazine which published the cartoons, but found insufficient grounds to proceed with a human rights tribunal.

  1. Freedom of speech does not mean that speech has no consequences. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be so important to protect speech in the first place. If you use your freedom of speech to harass and hurt other people, you should expect to hear about it.

  2. Freedom of speech does not mean you never get called out. In particular, it does not mean that nobody is allowed to call you out for saying something racist, sexist, or bigoted. At the University of Missouri, according to the New York Times, students erected a “free speech wall” because they were worried that if they said what they really felt they would be “criticised”. There are a lot of words for the phenomenon of not wanting to speak your mind for fear that someone might give you a piece of theirs, but “censorship” is not one. “Cowardice” is more accurate. Right-wing students and ageing national treasures are perfectly free to hold and express opinions, but freedom of speech also includes other people’s freedom to disagree with them – including protests and demonstrations.

  3. Freedom of speech does not mean that you’re not allowed to challenge authority. On the contrary – the principle of free speech is all about our right to challenging authority, including the authority of employers, educators and political candidates. Too many liberal public intellectuals seem to have forgotten that this process did not end in 1968.

  4. Freedom of speech does not mean that all citizens already enjoy equal access to free expression and movement. The United States, for example, repeatedly congratulates itself on being a society that allows far-right racists to march, and even allows them a police escort, while young black men are murdered merely for walking down the street in search of snacks. Somehow, every modern argument for free speech in America seems to begin and end with the defence of bigotry. In fact, some people’s speech is always privileged above others’.

  5. Freedom of speech does not mean that all views are of equal worth. The notion of a “marketplace of ideas” allows for the fact that some ideas are less worthy than others and can slip out of popular favour. The principle of free speech requires, for example, that we do not arrest a public figure for saying that transsexual women are disgusting – but it does not demand that we respect that public figure, or elect her to office, or invite her to give lectures. If what seemed progressive 20 years ago is deemed intolerant today, that simply means that the world is moving on.

  6. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility for the consequences of your speech. Nobody else is actually stopping you from saying things other people might interpret as racist, or sexist, or transphobic. You are stopping yourself. And you’re stopping yourself for a reason, because part of you knows that the world is changing, it will continue to change, and you might have to change with it. You are allowed to make mistakes. What you can’t do is ignore and dismiss the voices of less privileged groups and expect to hear nothing but polite applause.

  7. Freedom of speech does not mean that “intellectual environments” like university campuses exist in a bubble outside politics. Universities have never been politically neutral. And yet it is racism and rape culture that cannot be challenged on campus without calls of “censorship” or “political correctness run amok”.

  8. Freedom of speech does not mean that we are never allowed to analyse or re-interpret culture. The occasional use of “trigger warnings” on campus, for example, has been wilfully misinterpreted by those who did not grow up with them as an attempt to censor classic literature. In fact, trigger warnings are a call for cultural sensitivity and a new way of interpreting important texts. Which is part of what studying the humanities has been about for decades. Back in real life, nobody is going around slapping “do not read: contains awful men” on the cover of Jane Eyre. There are no undergraduate mini-Hitlers burning books in Harvard Yard. The people who’ve got carried away by outrage here are the people devoting endless column inches to denouncing trigger warnings.

  9. Freedom of speech does not mean that the powerful must be allowed to speak uninterrupted and the less powerful obliged to listen. Across Britain and America, students are organising to interrupt the speeches of transphobic and racially insensitive speakers. Black Lives Matter protesters have disrupted Democratic campaign events, demanding that their own agenda gets a hearing. Some of the most pernicious liberal attacks on the new radicalism imply that students and young people should never complain about the views of a particular speaker, educator, or pubic figure, and that the place of the young is to listen, not to question, and certainly not to protest. ‘Respect My Freedom of Speech’ has become a shorthand for ‘shut up and stop whining.’

  10. Freedom of speech is more than a rhetorical fig-leaf to allow privileged people to avoid thinking of themselves as prejudiced. Freedom of speech, if it is to mean anything, is the freedom to articulate ideas and the possibility that those ideas will make an impact.

  11. Freedom of speech is the principle that all human beings have a right to express themselves without facing violence, intimidation or imprisonment. That’s it. That’s all. It’s simple, it’s powerful, and it’s genuinely under threat in many nations and communities around the world. Somehow, those who are so anxious to protect the free speech of powerful white men and regressive academics fall silent when women are harassed, threatened, and assaulted for expressing opinions online, or when black protestors are attacked by police.

Post truth is the next big issuethat is overtaking our news, politics, and lives. But what does it mean and how do we conquer it? We’ll all remember a time when we just had truth and lies. Now, however, we have truth, lies, and statements that may not be true but we consider too benign to call false. Euphemisms abound. We’re “economical with the truth,” we “sweeten it,” or tell “the truth improved.” “Spin” has become the word of the moment. At worst, we might admit to “misspeaking,” or “exercising poor judgement.” We also seem to have become fearful about accusing others of lying; instead, we say that they’re in denial and ethically challenged. A liar is someone for whom “the truth is temporarily unavailable.”

This is post truth. In the post truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and non-fiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit. Research suggests that the average human being tells lies on a daily basis. These fibs run the gamut from “I like sushi,” to “I love you.” This isn’t the level of post-truth, but it sets us on a particular path.

As the volume of strangers and acquaintances in our lives rises, so do opportunities to improve on the truth. The result is a widespread sense that much of what we’re told can’t be trusted. From potential partners to prospective employees, we’re no longer sure whom exactly we’re dealing with. Deception has become a routine part of life. Personnel officers take for granted that the resumes they read are padded. No wonder private investigation is a growth sector of the economy.

What motivates the casual dishonesty that’s become pandemic? Why do so many, even those with no apparent need to do so, feel a need to embellish their personal history? This question arises every time prominent figures are unmasked as fantasists: businesspeople, politicians, journalists, judges, military officers, police chiefs, beauty queens, newspaper reporters, and so on. Branches are grafted onto their family trees. Unearned degrees show up on their resumes. Purchased medals appear in their display cases. Low-grade jobs suddenly become chief executive-ships.

When enough of us peddle fantasy as fact, society loses its grounding in reality. Society would crumble altogether if we assumed others were as likely to dissemble as tell the truth. We are perilously close to that point.

But post-truth politics is particularly dangerous, in a field of danger. PTP is a political culture in which debate is framed by appeals to our emotional centres, disconnected from the details and facts of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points which ignore the facts. Post truth has existed for a very long time (George Orwell’s 1984 sets a world in which the state changes historic records daily to fit its propaganda goals), but it’s become increasingly notable since the rise of the internet.

Political commentators have identified post-truth politics as ascendant in Russian, Chinese, American, Australian, British, Indian, Japanese and Turkish politics, driven by a combination of 24-hour news cycles, false balance in news reporting, and the increasing ubiquity of social media In 2016, “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year, due to its prevalence in the context of Brexit and Trump, citing a 2,000% increase in usage compared to 2015.

A defining trait of post-truth politics is that campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even if these are found to be untrue by the media or independent experts. For example, during campaigning for the British EU referendum campaign, Vote Leave made repeated use of the claim that EU membership cost £350 million a week, although later began to use the figure as a net amount of money sent directly to the EU. This figure, which ignored the UK rebate and other factors, was described as “potentially misleading” by the UK Statistics Authority, as “not sensible” by the Istitute for Fiscal Studies, and was rejected in fact-checks by BBC News, Channel 4 News, and Full Fact. Vote Leave nevertheless continued to use the figure as a centrepiece of their campaign until the day of the referendum, after which point they downplayed the pledge as having been an “example”, pointing out that it was only ever suggested as a possible alternative use of the net funds sent to the EU. Tory MP and Leave campaigner Sarah Wollaston, who left the group in protest during its campaign, criticised its “post-truth politics”.

Michael Deacon, parliamentary sketch-writer for The Daily Telegraph, summarised the core message of post-truth politics as “Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic.” He added that post-truth politics can also include a claimed rejection of partisanship and negative campaigning. In this context, campaigners can push a utopian “positive campaign” to which rebuttals can be dismissed as smears and scaremongering, and opposition as partisan.

In its most extreme mode, post-truth politics can make use of conspiracy theories. In this form of post-truth politics, false rumours (such as the “birther” or “Muslim” conspiracy theories about President Obama) become major news topics.

Several trends in the media have been blamed for the rise of post-truth politics. One contributing factor has been the proliferation of state-funded news agencies like CCTV News, which allow states to influence Western audiences. According to Peter Pomerantsev, a British-Russian journalist who worked for TNT in Moscow, one of their prime objectives has been to de-legitimize Western institutions, including the structures of government, democracy, and human rights. Trust in the mainstream media in the US has reached historical lows.

Many news outlets want to seem impartial but, in many cases, this leads to false balance; this is where equal emphasis is given to unsupported or discredited claims without challenging their factual basis. The 24-hour news cycle, which requires constant reporting and analysis, also means that news channels repeatedly draw on the same public figures, which benefits PR-savvy politicians. and means that presentation and personality can have a larger impact on the audience than facts, while the process of claim and counter-claim can provide grist for days of news coverage at the expense of deeper analysis of the case.

Social media adds an additional dimension, as the networks that users create can become echo chambers, where one political viewpoint dominates and fails. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katherine Viner, laid some of the blame on clickbait – articles of dubious factual content with a misleading headline, designed to be widely shared – saying that “chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity” undermines the value of journalism and truth.

The rise of post-truth politics coincides with polarised political beliefs. A 2016 Pew Research Centre study of American adults found that “those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views – and very distinct from each other.” Data is becoming increasingly accessible as new technologies are introduced to the everyday lives of citizens. An obsession for data and statistics also filters into the political scene, and political debates and speeches become filled with snippets of information that may be misconstrued, false, or not contain the whole picture.

In an editorial, New Scientist suggested “a cynic might wonder if politicians are actually any more dishonest than they used to be”, and put forward the idea that “fibs once whispered into select ears are now overheard by everyone”. Similarly, Viner suggested that while social media has helped some untruths to spread, it has also restrained others; as an example, she said the Sun‘s false “The Truth” story following the Hillsborough disaster, and the associated police cover-up, would be hard to imagine in the social media age.

An early use of the phrase in British politics was in March 2012 by Scottish Labour MP Iain Gray in criticising the difference between the Scottish National Party‘s claims and official statistics. Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy also described an undercurrent of post-truth politics in which people “cheerfully shot the messenger” when presented with facts that didn’t support their viewpoint.

Post-truth politics has been retroactively identified in the lead-up to the Iraq War, particularly after the Chilcot Report, published in July 2016, concluded that Tony Blair misrepresented military intelligence to support his view that Iraq’s chemical weapons program was advanced.

Although the consensus among scientists is that the Earth’s climate is warming due to human activities, several political parties around the world have made climate change denial a basis of their policies. These parties have been accused of using post-truth techniques to attack environmental measures meant to combat climate changes to benefit industry donors. We have seen numerous climate deniers such as new environmental protection agency head Scott Pruitt replacing Barack Obama’s appointee Gina McCarthy. In Australia, the repeal of carbon pricing by the government of Tony Abbott was described as “the nadir of post-truth politics” by The Age.

Hillary Clinton’s chief weapon against Trump was an army of fact-checkers. Instead of attempting to defeat his arguments by the power of her own, she encouraged voters watching the debate to look up ‘the facts’ on HillaryClinton.com. ‘I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume,’ she insisted at one point. ‘Please, fact-checkers, get to work.’

The retort by Jeffrey Lord, one of Trump’s most prominent media supporters, was to describe fact-checking as ‘an out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing’, and that has resonated. For while his infamous 3 a.m. tweets might have contained wild fabrications — Politifact calculated that more than 70 per cent of Trump’s statements were ‘mostly false’, ‘false’, or ‘pants on fire false’ — still Clinton was not able to martial her ‘facts’ to trounce him.

Michael Gove’s now-notorious claim that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ continues to provoke outrage long after he made it, interpreted, as it was, as a rebuke to empirical research.

Caricaturing one’s opponents as having succumbed to their own feelings neatly avoids having to explain what it is they feel so strongly about. Justified anger has been the driver of social change for centuries. While outright lies appear to be what the truth brigade attacks, scratch the surface and their real beef seems to be that others hold opinions they don’t agree with. Ironically, many of the Remainers making such charges were the very same people who indulged in highly public gestures of despair after losing the vote, describing themselves as ‘in mourning’. Trump’s win will undoubtedly unleash similar sentiments in America.

To be fair, there has been some soul-searching among some experts, seeking to understand why they are being ignored by the masses. Some blame the media for seizing on attention-grabbing half-truths and printing sensationalist headlines. But when boffins conclude that perhaps they should adopt the ‘chatty tone of the tabloids’, ‘step away from the jargon’, and drop ‘complicated words and unintelligible acronyms’, they condescendingly assume that if voters ‘only understood the facts’, they would change their minds.

But why should it be assumed that people who ‘vote with their hearts’ are delusional? Perhaps ever-increasing numbers of people are reacting, quite rightly, against reductionist, sterile utilitarianism? They may also suspect that the ‘facts’ being cited are selective or that the margin of error in, for example, forecasts of climate change is monstrous. And of course expert opinion on everything from thalidomide to the economy before the 2008 crash has often been wrong in the past.

You cannot reduce politics to a straightforward morality tale of fact versus fiction. Hillary Clinton may well have had ‘the facts’ on her side. She may have deployed them, again and again, to trump Trump’s ‘lies’. Yet she was still plagued by popular hashtags such as #CrookedHillary because she failed to convince voters that she’s an honest, straight-talking, principled politician.

Perhaps Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote tell us something more profound about truth: that the whole project of politics is about challenging the notion that the future is a fixed fact. We as citizens are not the passive victims of preordained laws, determined by algorithms. Nor are we predictable, like lab rats in a clinical trial. Human beings were the creators of history — and we are still capable of changing economic and political reality today; transforming yesterday’s dreams into today’s facts while dispensing with yesterday’s facts.

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