The decline of free speech is now the greatest threat facing Britain and the West. Without the freedom to think freely, to question, to disagree, we are nothing. When will we finally have the courage to rise up and put the new totalitarians back in their box?
Never before has it been so easy to communicate, to express one’s views, to write, publish, talk or broadcast. Yet instead of ushering in the golden age for free speech and rational enquiry that so many of us expected, the very technologies that were meant to liberate us are being used to stifle expression and stamp out dissent.
“You can’t say that”, “you must say this”: on social media, in universities and increasingly in every other institution across the land, a hideous battle is raging, and liberty is losing. The range of views that can be expressed without fear of reprisal has narrowed dramatically, partly because we’ve lost the language and manners required to disagree constructively.
Whoever holds a different opinion – on Brexit, on social issues, on anything – is dismissed as “bonkers”, “mad”, “laugh out loud” stupid, to be chased out of the village; there is no longer any sense of proportionality, just an all or nothing, snap assessment. Like in the witch-hunts of yore, the burden of proof is reversed: you must prove you are not guilty of offending others’ feelings, which is impossible.
The strategy, for tens of thousands of activists working in digital packs, is to bully, shame and destroy anybody who doesn’t agree with them, who dares to express a different opinion or who fails to signal their virtue appropriately. Ad hominem attacks were once seen as bad form: today they are rationalised using bogus theories. Reality in the era of fake news no longer matters: if somebody believes that somebody said or meant something, then it must be true. A vague feeling is enough.
Nobody from the sensible Left or sensible Right is immune from this catastrophic outbreak of nihilism; everything and everyone is fair game. Take Victoria Atkins, the woman’s minister, who said that she is “a little cautious” about the number of teenagers undergoing gender reassignment treatment. She was immediately targeted for annihilation. It’s an attempt at imposing digital “speech licenses”: those who do not meet the fashionable orthodoxy of the moment have no right to be heard.
The aim is to encourage self-censorship, policed by an army of vigilantes. It’s working: nobody ever comes to the defence of those being trashed, and mainstream Britain is quietly withdrawing, ensuring that the public discourse is ever more dominated by the angriest voices.
The New ‘Woke’ Priesthood
The new moral police is much like the old, or at least that which existed during Medieval times; they are seeking to enforce a new religion for Western atheists. It is a sickening charade: how can such people not see what they are doing? There is good and evil, sacred texts (the tenets of cultural Marxism, most of the time), supporting documents (dubious “evidence” produced by parti-pris social scientists, much of which cannot be replicated), a priesthood, an original sin (Western imperialism, usually), excommunications (for those who question the unquestionable), confessions (on Twitter, usually), repentance and of course the constant Inquisition and use of the auto-da-fé. Irony is well and truly dead.
The reality is that free speech isn’t just about a legal system that allows you, with some restrictions, to say, write or publish what you want. No, free speech describes an entire ethical system that places the utmost value on people’s right to express their beliefs, to dissent, to think for themselves, to debate, to discuss and, yes, to err. It is an integral element of the classical liberal character, and, for a short while, such an approach became the norm in many Western countries.
Real freedom of expression implies some measure of openness, of curiosity, the ability to listen, at least occasionally, to others and to learn to live with difference. It is an approach, an attitude, not merely a set of laws, a “human right” or a constitutional amendment; it is based on a realistic, humble approach to the limits of human knowledge. It is optimistic about the ability of good ideas to weed out bad ones: for most free speech advocates, getting to the truth is an iterative process of trial and error.
Free speech, understood in this way, is thus the embodiment of Western liberalism, of the enlightenment values that have transformed the world for the better. Of course, there will always be some boundaries and rightly so. But a society where most speech is technically allowed but any deviations from arbitrary and highly controlled norms triggers instant action from outrage mobs isn’t free any longer.
True friends of free speech genuinely relish living in an intellectually diverse society, one characterised by a constant clash of visions, where ideas are held up to scrutiny. In her Friends of Voltaire, the British writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarised his thoughts aptly: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, she said, a phrase which is often misattributed to the French philosopher. The phrase used to be cited so often as to have become cliched. Today, one rarely hears it.
Technology alone didn’t trigger this revolution: with the decline of communism, elites have embraced a new form of cultural, rather than economic, collectivism. Individualism is passé: the validity of an argument is no longer to be assessed directly and objectively, these idiot savants in our universities now believe. Instead, the only thing that matters is the group that the speaker or writer is deemed to belong to. Who said something is key; what they said less so.