12 March 2021 SPIKED
Too many on what passes for the left today are keen to dismiss the free-speech crisis in universities as a ‘right-wing myth’. They brush off the countless examples of censorship as overhyped. And they ignore concerns about the moral policing of dissenting views.
In short, they effectively deny that a free-speech crisis exists. And they do so by attacking those who are sounding the alarm. As far as these deniers are concerned, the problem is not cancel culture; it is those dishonest myth-makers who are drawing attention to it.
Just listen to them. In a piece entitled ‘The myth of the free-speech crisis’ Guardian journalist Nesrine Malik waves away people’s ‘overblown fears of censorship’, and argues that those defending the principle of free speech are only doing so because they want to normalise ‘hate speech or shut down legitimate responses to it’. As she sees it, her attack on free speech is really an attack on the ‘racism and prejudice’ that is supposedly advanced in its name.
Sam Fowles, a barrister, writes of ‘the invented free-speech crisis’. He calls those worried about campus censorship ‘cranks’, and says they are promoting a ‘pseudo-crisis narrative’. One particularly dogmatic denialist even argues that ‘the university “free speech crisis” has been a right-wing myth for 50 years’. And, earlier this month, John Bowers, a barrister, and David Isaac, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, declared: ‘Ignore this manufactured crisis: free speech is alive and well in our universities.’
‘Manufactured.’ ‘Invented.’ ‘A right-wing myth.’ They really do believe that the very real existence of a free-speech crisis is not only a fantasy, but a product of a right-wing, no doubt Tory conspiracy. It is a mode of argument we’ve seen before, in relation to political correctness during the 1980s and 90s. Then, as now, the clear policing of language and the invention of a new, acceptable vocabulary was dismissed as a product of the right-wing imagination.
Yet it would be wrong to see this long-standing denial of the free-speech crisis as part of a concerted, conscious effort on the part of a deceitful clique of self-styled progressives. To do so would be to mirror their conspiracy-theory outlook. Instead, it is far more productive to analyse and understand the motives that inspire the outlook of free-speech-crisis denialism.
A rejection of free speech itself
Those who dismiss the free-speech crisis as a myth possess a shallow, instrumental view of the value of free speech. They simply do not take it seriously. And they certainly do not regard free speech as an inviolable moral good. Hence they can voice their nominal support for it in one breath, before, in the next, calling for the censorship of views they despise. That is why free-speech denialism often coexists with the conviction that it is okay to No Platform people.
So an academic called Evan Smith, who is now making a career out of denying the existence of a free-speech crisis, can casually insist that No Platforming is not only okay, but should also be celebrated:
‘[T]he university cannot be a place where racism and fascism – as well as sexism, homophobia and transphobia – are allowed to be expressed. Tactics such as “No Platforming” and the creation of “safe spaces” are necessary for students and activists because the threats that led to “No Platforming” in the 1970s remain.’
As Smith illustrates, free-speech-crisis denialism coexists with the conviction that some voices are not worth hearing and others should be shut down because they are dangerous and hateful – two categories which have expanded hugely since No Platform policies were instigated against fascistic and neo-Nazi views. Unsurprisingly, the likes of Smith are committed to a very thin and limited definition of free speech. And what’s more, many are now becoming self-conscious critics of the unconditional value of free speech.
There are two important ways in which the denialist undermines the moral case for free speech.
The first argument rests on the assumption that the ideal of free speech belongs to an earlier age. It is therefore effectively out of date. To prove this, proponents will point to the development of social media and the proliferation of disinformation, for instance. Or, as numerous legal scholars and constitutional lawyers in the United States questioning the First Amendment’s validity are now doing, they will point to the explosion of bad ideas circulating in society. And they will conclude from this that free speech is now playing a corrosive, dangerous role in society.
The regulation of speech and the flow of information is therefore justified in the name of protecting society, and democracy in particular. As philosopher Jason Stanley and linguist David Beaver argue, in their forthcoming Hustle: The Politics of Language, ‘free speech threatens democracy as much as it also provides for its flourishing’.
This is not a new argument. The portrayal of free speech as a threat has long been a key component of the anti-democratic imagination. It is based on the premise that the demos lack the requisite intellectual abilities to participate in public life. People cannot be trusted to distinguish between truth and lies. They are likely to be misled by populist demagogues. They are at the mercy of propaganda, advertising and the media. As one commentator puts it in the New York Times, ‘good ideas do not necessarily triumph in the marketplace of ideas’. Which is another way of saying that if our ‘good ideas’ don’t sell, we need to prevent the ‘bad ideas’ from reaching the market.
The recycling of such age-old, reactionary arguments highlights the depths of elite disenchantment with free speech and, by implication, democracy itself.
The second argument justifying the moral devaluation of free speech is that it needs to be curbed because of its harmful impact on different identity groups. Enshrined in the ever-expanding categories of hate-speech legislation, this argument rests on the assumption that free speech poses a threat to the wellbeing of certain identity groups.
Such a view is most vociferously voiced by proponents of trans culture. They claim that just debating the idea that gender trumps biology amounts to an attack on ‘trans people’s right to exist’. Free speech is therefore presented as a threat to trans people’s lives. Others also associate regulating speech with saving lives. Liz Fekete, director of the Institute of Race Relations, warns that the ‘privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life… has emboldened identitarian and neo-Nazi activists, who are experts at manipulating naive liberal arguments about freedom of speech’. It is a point echoed by Malik, who states: ‘Free speech as an abstract value is now directly at odds with the sanctity of life.’ Counterposing freedom of speech to the ‘freedom to life’ is a form of moral blackmail. From this perspective, to defend free speech is to show a callous disregard for people’s lives. This view was dramatically expounded by the cultural theorist Judith Butler in 2017: ‘If free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values. We should perhaps frankly admit that we have agreed in advance to have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied, that we are, in effect, willing to be wrecked by this principle of free speech.’ Butler transforms free speech into a malevolent force that wreaks havoc on minority groups. As hyperbolic as her argument is, a version of it often serves as the basis for free-speech-crisis denialism. From this standpoint, placing limits on free speech and depriving certain groups and individuals of a voice makes perfect, life-saving sense.
Butler’s Hobbesian trade-off
Few today are likely to call into question the value of democracy and freedom directly. Even the dictatorial regime of North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic. In the same way, opponents of the absolute, foundational value of free speech tend to mask their position. They do this by focusing on the importance of public welfare and protecting identity groups from harm.
Yet, make no mistake, their argument still amounts to a devaluation of free speech. They seek to relegate it from a first-order principle to a second-order one – one that can be sacrificed or traded off.
This is why Butler’s argument is so redolent of those made by 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Writing in the aftermath of the English Civil War, Hobbes argued that such was people’s fear of death, and their aspiration for security, that they would be willing to give up their freedom in exchange for the safety provided by an all-powerful sovereign. Today, the call for limiting freedom is justified on similar grounds; namely, to protect the dignity and psychic security of minority groups. For Butler, insulating identity from hurtful language is a small price to pay for restricting the right to free speech.
Once free speech is presented as something to be balanced with and traded for security – indeed once it is presented as a threat – it loses its moral authority. This is clear in students’ attitudes towards free speech. They tend to accept its importance in theory, while supporting its restriction in practice. A 2017 report on American colleges, published by the Brookings Institute, revealed that 51 per cent of students agreed that ‘it was okay to shout down a speaker with whom they disagreed’. Even more disturbing was its finding that 19 per cent of respondents thought the use of violence to prevent a ‘controversial’ speaker from speaking was acceptable. It seems that once free speech loses its moral authority, even violent intolerance is legitimised.
The devaluation of the moral authority of free speech among those who identify as left-wing or liberal is particularly striking. Historically, freedom has tended to be a cause supported by the left and liberals, while conservatives tended to be opposed to its expansion. This situation has changed dramatically in the 21st century. As one commentator in the New York Times noted, ‘liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them’. He added that ‘many on the left have traded an absolutist commitment to free speech for one sensitive to the harms it can inflict’.
Many on the left have gone further than that. They have mutated into opponents of free speech. As one commentator, writing in Jacobin, rightly observed: ‘too many modern progressives, particularly younger ones, have become indifferent to free speech, or, worse, come to view the defence of free speech as something foreign to the left and a weapon of oppression’. Is it any surprise that those who associate free speech with oppression are at a loss to understand why policing it should be characterised as a crisis?
The moral authority of freedom
The debate around cancel culture has tended to get bogged down in arguments about precisely how many high-profile speakers have been No Platformed on campus – as if showing that relatively few prominent figures have been No Platformed proves there is no free-speech crisis.
This ignores the really corrosive aspects of the moralising project of cancel culture that aren’t captured in No Platform stats. On campuses and in the workplace, self-censorship is rife. The ‘you can’t say that’ sentiment encourages individuals, who fear their views might provoke a hostile reaction, to remain silent. That applies to the office just as much as the seminar room.
Cancel culture’s greatest success lies in language control. It has not only imposed a new vocabulary on society; it has also delegitimised the use of age-old words and expressions. It has even changed the meaning of some words, making them far more negative than they used to be.
Take the word ‘controversial’, for instance. Not so long ago, to describe something as controversial was deemed a good thing, a sign of a flourishing democracy. Today, ‘controversial’ is a pejorative, to be levelled at those who dare to cause offence. So students’ unions insist that so-called ‘controversial speakers’ sign a form promising not to say things that make people feel uncomfortable. The UK’s National Union of Students even published a guidebook called Managing the Risks Associated with External Speakers, in which it offered helpful advice on how to protect students from the words of controversial speakers.
The language police have become so emboldened that they are even hounding people for using ‘out of touch’ or ‘outdated’ language. Think, for example, of the poor local councillor in Bolton who had to apologise for publishing a newsletter that used the phrase ‘invalid carriers’ to describe vehicles for disabled people.
The concept of ‘outdated language’ has no legal or institutional formulation. There are no formal laws against the use of outdated language. And yet anyone accused of this cultural crime is at the very least forced to issue an apology. Gordon Beattie, the boss of a public relations company, discovered this when he tweeted the following:
At Beattie Communications we don’t hire blacks, gays or Catholics. We hire talented people and we don’t care about the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation or religion. That’s the way it should be with every Company — only hire people for their talent, experience, knowledge, and wisdom.’
As a result of this tweet, Beattie was forced to apologise and then resign.
The power that the cultural elites now have to decide what language is out of date, and what language people should be punished for, is not unlike the power once possessed by the Church, which could determine what was blasphemous or profane. But at least the Church was a publicly recognisable institution. One knew where one stood.
That is not the case today. Cancel culture appears as an invisible power without a name. Hence its practitioners can deny its existence, just as they deny the existence of the crisis of free speech. That they do so while cancelling and censoring with impunity makes the task of defending free speech more urgent than ever.