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Our right to free expression is in crisis - can we call ourselves a democracy if we don't encourage

In this series, writers give their verdict on the previous decade and predictions for the next. Here, Frank Furedi reflects on the decade when no-platforming, cancel culture and trigger warnings took hold. Instead of policing speech in the 2020s, he says, a mature democracy like ours must encourage open debate. 

Of all the remarkable developments of the past decade, none has been more sinister than the West’s gradual surrender of mankind’s most important values: the twin ideals of freedom of speech and expression.

A decade ago, today’s language of “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces” and “no-platforming” of speakers would have sounded utterly foreign. Back then, the word “controversial” was something to be celebrated; a litmus test for the broad church of thought that acts as a lifeblood in any thriving democracy. Yet today, the term is portrayed negatively, often levied against those who dare to cause offence.

And so now, university unions – once places whose very existence was predicated on being a marketplace for ideas – insist that so-called “controversial speakers” sign a form promising not to say things that make people feel uncomfortable. Indeed, universities now hire “safe space marshals” to monitor public meetings, and can be seen lurking at the back of the hall.

This wariness towards open discussion has now seeped into the mainstream. Last month, Harry Miller, a former constable, was visited by an officer from Humberside Police after posting a comment about transgender people on Twitter. The officer informed him: “I am here to check your thinking”. Though Miller was informed that he had not committed a crime, he was told that his tweet would be recorded as a “hate incident” and his social media account would be monitored.

This draconian attitude to non-criminal acts of speech is proof – if it were needed – that our right to free expression is in crisis. Nowhere is this more striking than amongst the younger generations. During the 1960s and 70s, young people were at the forefront of the argument for expanding the parameters of freedom of speech to all spheres of life. The last decade has seen, for the first time in the modern era, many youngsters actually rebelling against this freedom. “You can’t say that,” has become the prevailing dogma.

This was borne out in a recent survey, carried out by the think-tank Policy Exchange, which found that between two fifths and a half of those surveyed were not prepared to consistently support academic freedom. Similar surveys conducted in the United States indicate that between 40-51 per cent of the respondents agree that in certain contexts the freedom of speech should be restricted.

In recent discussions with undergraduates, I have been struck by the vehemence with which they insist that people should not be allowed to make statements that others find offensive.

But the dire state of free speech today was brought home to me in February 2018. After giving a public lecture on the subject of ‘Socialisation and Fear’ at York St John University in the US, a young professor came up to me and told me: “You forgot to mention the biggest fear we face as teachers:  the fear that many students have of opening their mouth.”

She was right to remind me of this disturbing development. Self-censorship – which is in many ways more insidious than the formal policing of language –has taken a vice like grip on almost every aspect of social discourse. Indeed, the aforementioned Policy Exchange report found that only 4 in 10 Brexit supporters felt able to express their views in class. In one study carried out at Pomona College in the US, nearly 90 per cent of the respondents indicated that they self-censor because they are worried about saying things that others might find offensive.

But how did we get to this state? How, in the last decade, did we morph from a society that fought for the right to speak our minds, only to refuse to do so once we had attained it?

Until the turn of the century, advocates of censorship argued for the need to protect the public from subversive, indecent or heretical thought. Now the focus has changed and regulating speech is frequently justified on the ground that it protects the vulnerable from the psychological damage inflicted by painful words. Today, censorship today is frequently justified on the grounds that it is a mental health problem.

What’s interesting, today, is how speech has become medicalised and offensive words are represented as vehicles of a psychological disease with a deleterious effect on people’s health. “We always knew that words could hurt our feelings, but it turns out that words have a profound effect on our bodies as well,” claims Linda Pucci, a life coach, in her discussion of “toxic words”.

According to legal scholar Mari Matsuda, a zealous advocate of linguistic policing, the negative effects of “assaultive speech” are psychological symptoms and emotional distress ranging from “fear in the gut, rapid pulse rate and difficulty breathing, nightmares, post traumatic disorder, hypertension, psychosis and suicide”.

The diseasing of offensive words allows anti-free speech activists to claim that censorship is the cure – from this standpoint, protecting people from offensive words is a public duty. And through the amplification of the harmful properties of words and speech, language itself can be represented as a form of contagious toxin, leading to calls for a quarantine.

The swift ascendancy of the institution of the ‘safe space’ that we have witnessed in the last ten years is the inexorable outcome of this demand for criticism-free zones, everywhere from universities to a variety of public sector and private institutions, where people are relieved of the burden of having to deal with difficult thoughts and ideas.

Institutions in the UK have followed suit. At Glasgow University, even students studying fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm are cautioned about the “violent material”, while those studying Classics are also offered warnings about Greek and Roman texts that might contain “extreme expressions of misogyny, suicide, and racist language and behaviour”. It is only a matter of time before students will require dispensation from a doctor before they can study Greek tragedies.

Even Oxbridge – supposedly home to Britain’s brightest minds – has bought into the practice of protecting students from the supposedly traumatic consequence of allowing them to read texts containing distressing episodes. At Cambridge, students were warned that a lecture on *The Comedy of Errors* and *Titus Andronicus* included discussions of sexual violence and assault.

Contrary to the widely held view, the frightening erosion of support for free speech is not confined to campuses. Trigger warnings are widely used in museums, theatres, festivals and even news stories. A BBC online story about a recently discovered Caravaggio masterpiece begins with the statement: “Warning: The paintings featured below depict a graphic image”! Even the police are not spared. Hampshire Police chiefs have issues trigger warnings in training exercise videos. In case would-be recruits are upset about scenes of crime they are informed that if “you feel that this language is not acceptable to you, please close the package down and speak with your supervisor about how to proceed with completing your training”.

In its contemporary form, the diseasing of speech and of texts not only curbs the spirit of free communication and inquiry, it also infantilises its targets. The policing of language discourages people from developing a sense of intellectual independence and maturity through unregulated argument and debate. When people are helpfully advised what to expect to see when they view a painting, it is only a matter of time before they are lectured about how to react to it.

Do visitors need to be told at the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that his art contains “strong and sometimes challenging imagery” and “depictions of violence and suffering”? Is it really necessary for the Victoria and Albert Museum to inform visitors to its exhibition on the history of British humour that “this display confronts uncomfortable truths about the past”? Since when has it been the business of public institutions in a free society to instruct its citizens how they should react to an exhibition and what they should think?

Cultivating free inquiry and recovering the spirit of freedom is the real challenge facing us in the 2020s. Yes, the freedom of expression is always a risky enterprise. Controversy and debate can lead towards the most unexpected outcomes. But instead of policing speech, a mature democracy must encourage open debate. For feeling uncertain and insecure is integral to mankind’s intellectual quest for clarity and knowledge.

Published in the Telegraph


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