Free speech: a year of living undangerously
In 2013, freedom has too often been given up without a fight.
Ever since Socrates was put to death for talking out of turn in ancient Athens, the struggle for freedom of expression has been at the centre of Western life. But the battlelines and the enemies of free speech have shifted many times down the centuries.
The historic right to free speech can never be assumed. It has always to be defended against new challenges. The events of 2013 have shown once more that, while the principles we are fighting for remain much the same, the free speech wars of today are different from those in the past.
The past year’s rows and debates about freedom of expression and of the press in the UK have been distinguished by two things, neither of which is good. In the past, free speech in Britain was a hard-fought liberty for which people were prepared to struggle and to go to jail, the Tower or even the gallows. In 2013, by contrast, the right to freedom of expression has often seemed to be casually sacrificed, given away without a fight by those who insist that they believe in free speech, ‘But…’. The danger becomes not censorship, but a self-censored climate of stifling conformism.
The second difference today follows from the first. Once in Britain, those who considered themselves as radicals or supporters of progress and social change were in the forefront of the fight for free speech, battling against state censorship and repression. Today, such set-piece confrontations – such as the ruckus between the government and the Guardian over the publication of security leaks – seem like rare echoes of the past.
More often in 2013, those who consider themselves to be liberal-minded or on the left have been in the forefront of attempts to restrict freedom of expression. The primary threat to free speech in the UK and the West does not come from jackboots and right-wing book-burners. It comes more from fears about what harm unbridled free speech might do, expressed through the contemporary culture of You-Can’t-Say-That, which is now spreading everywhere from the university campus to the football ground.
Far from fighting for freedom of expression against infringements by the authorities, liberal voices are more often to be heard demanding official action to limit free speech – at least for those views of which they disapprove. Thus 2013 was a year when handfuls of media-savvy feminists and other supposedly radical lobbyists led high-profile campaigns to ban or otherwise suppress publications ranging from the Sun to lads’ mags and a crank health journal.
All of these various lobbies are founded on the same basic prejudice: the elitist assumption that the public are so gullible and gormless that, if allowed to see Page 3 or read mad medical advice, they are likely to turn into sex offenders or start harming their children with quack cures. That deep prejudice reflects the extent to which the rump of the left has detached itself from the masses and cleaves to the state, as the only hope of holding back the Murdoch-brainwashed mob.
Things have now reached the point where the language of equality and freedom is even mobilised against freedom of expression and of the press. We are told that, in order to uphold equal rights for all, the ‘vulnerable’ must be protected from having to suffer the offensive opinions of others. In order to uphold free speech for women online, feminist lobbyists insist, there must be a crackdown to silence Twitter ‘trolls’. Everybody must apparently now ‘check their privilege’ before opening their mouths on anything to do with race, class, sex or sexuality – a radical way of pronouncing that YOU can’t say THAT. And in order to allow free speech for the good folks, claim the Hacked Off / Leveson lobby, there must be more regulations and controls imposed on the evil press.
So 2013 became the year when the leading UK civil-liberties lobby, Liberty, came out against liberty for the UK press, by endorsing Lord Justice Leveson’s plan for statutory-backed regulation. (Not too surprising since, we should recall, Liberty chief Shami Chakrabarti sat on Leveson’s panel during that showtrial of the popular press.) The year ended in couldn’t-make-it-up style, with the announcement that ‘leading free-speech campaigners’ were launching a new regulator of their own to tame the press.
British liberals have long banged on about ‘Orwellian’ measures of censorship. Yet they apparently miss the irony in their own adoption of the language of Newspeak from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, so that words such as ‘freedom’ can be used to mean their opposite. Nor is this problem confined to the UK or Europe. On spiked, we have often contrasted the situation over here with that in the US, where the First Amendment endorses freedom of speech and of the press. Yet over the past year there have been more moves to police free speech on US campuses, and an annual survey of attitudes found that no less than 47 per cent of students believed that the First Amendment goes ‘too far’. It may not only be Britain that needs to fight for First Amendment-style freedom in the future.
Towards the end of 2013, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill announced that ‘The fight for free speech starts here’. It is a fight we intend to carry into the new year, redoubling our efforts to defend freedom of expression and of the press as indivisible liberties that are the lifeblood of any civilised society. In terms of free speech, 2013 might be seen as a year of living undangerously and inoffensively. Enough is enough of that, before public debate is choked off altogether by the grip of conformism on its throat.
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