This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“When I am weaker than you, I ask you for Freedom, because that is according to your principles; when I am Stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.”
Frank Herbert, Children of Dune
It is most peculiar. If the counter-culture had a dominant theme, it was the right to criticise the establishment and to question orthodoxy of all kinds. Back in the Sixties, it was central to its mission to Expand your Consciousness, man. And it worked. Walls came tumbling down. Yet now, everywhere you look, it seems the elements of society — students, academics, comedians — that one would most naturally associate with that freedom of expression, are introducing caveats and qualifiers to that principle faster than you can cry “Stop Little Pol-Pot, Stop!” They are turning, before our very eyes, into actual scolds.
It must be supposed that what was once the siege army, camped outside the moat like Occupy Wall Street, has captured the castle, for they are demanding that the walls be re-erected. That “hate” speech be distinguished from free speech and dealt with accordingly. That freedom of speech need not mean freedom from consequences. And a general suspicion is at large, among the young, that free speech is some sort of artefact of complacent boomer self-indulgence, like Steely Dan and second homes. No longer counter-culture, but decidedly counter-revolutionary.
I’m a comedian, and these have been strange times for our trade. Brexit saw comedians side with the mirthless neo-liberal consensus, against the humorous, sceptical grumble of the common rabble. The same thing happened in America, with bar-room stand-ups horrified by the vulgarity of Trump. And now the latest revision sees many of my fellow jesters and fools unsure whether people can really be trusted with free speech.One might have thought this issue had been settled long ago, in this country, and in liberty’s favour. But no, it seems we need to sharpen our tools once again, and Andrew Doyle’s new book is an excellent place to start.
Making the case for the defence, Doyle’s book is terse, restrained and as carefully argued as a QC’s summing-up in a top-drawer courtroom drama. Whether his command of the material comes from his doctorate in Renaissance literature or his experience of defending the comedy character Titania McGrath from infuriated wokerati, who knows? It is a beautifully balanced and comprehensive overview that will of course be read by no one who needs to hear it.
It is admirably historically literate. Doyle takes a quote from Milton’s Areopagitica as his epigram, with the old poet, declaiming over the din of the Civil War, as defiant as Satan himself, “Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
This sets the tone for the whole book, but Doyle also presents arguments intended to appeal to those who insist that we live in a society. With the compromises that entails. This was most famously recognised by notorious cis-hetero white man and free speech absolutist John Stuart Mill, who was surveying the world from the heights of Victorian Exceptionalism when he published the still unsurpassed On Liberty.
Mill reminded us that having put to death both Socrates and “the only other instance of judicial iniquity, the mention of which, after the condemnation of Socrates, would not be an anti-climax” — namely, Jesus Christ — for their verbal shit-stirring, humanity should not be too hasty to presume that it can spot a dangerous idea when it sees one now, nor feel entitled to act accordingly. In 1860, it was those who wished to protect Christ Himself from the necessity of mounting a defence to whom he was taking this argument.
So it goes. Now we find the tables (over)turned once again and it is those who cleave a little too closely to their reading of scripture who are more likely to find themselves suddenly out in the cold, blinking up at the unforgiving open skies of cancellation.
Doyle’s book is terse, restrained and as carefully argued as a QC’s summing-up in a top-drawer courtroom drama
Doyle is not the first to notice this alarming change in the weather. More than a dozen major books on free speech have been published in the last five years. If there is a dominant subtext to Doyle’s book, it certainly isn’t Don’t Panic. Rather the opposite.
Those who think the present panic is overblown point to the distortions of a scaremongering tabloid press and right-leaning online titles. Headlines concerning Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf’s belief that criminal prosecutions should be brought against those transgressing hate speech laws in their own homes are alarming, they admit. But such measures are unlikely to make it into statute. Yet.
Far harder to monitor, though, other than at a visceral level, is the prevailing wind, the shifting sentiment, that lies beneath such legislative lunges.
Give or take a recent year of suspended animation, I have been a stand-up comedian for 25 years. The change in that time, in my little corner of the world, has been extraordinary.
A few days after 9/11, comedian Gilbert Gottfried told a joke at the Friar’s Club in New York about how he couldn’t get a direct flight to NYC from LA — it had to stop at the Empire State Building. Registering the crowd’s understandable discomfort with this reference to mass slaughter on their doorstep, he reacted as would any decent stand-up for whom the job is not so much a vocation as a pathology. He committed. He raised the stakes. He told the filthiest, most offensive joke he knew. Remarkably, the audio of this performance is still on YouTube and you can hear the audience utterly losing its shit, in a good way. It prompted Paul Provenza to make a documentary about the history of the joke, a film that many regard as the most honest and revealing about stand-up ever made.
In barely a decade that film had become a time capsule from another epoch. Would an audience forgive a comedian the initial transgression now, and warm to him as he grew ever more relentless, as they plainly do here? Would their fear be, not that it was insensitive to those who had died, but that it was likely to incite Islamaphobia?
I have recently encountered the view that even if one were telling a joke in front of a grown-up paying audience who had given their permission to be offended, jokes are dangerous: they work like spells or incantations — and once out there, who knows where they will end up, whose ears they will fall into, which playground or gender-reveal party where someone who is not adequately robust to deal with them will either be hurt or provoked into harming others? This view, I should add, was being espoused, very articulately and with evident thoughtfulness, not by a Marxist sociologist but by another comedian. And if that’s what it’s like in comedy clubs, what chance to do the universities have?
Andrew Doyle’s book is the toolkit you need to think about at least one side of this debate. But one name missing from the index is that of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Taleb published a book a few years back that contains the single, irrefutable nugget of insight that best answers this fear — that human beings are meant to be anti-fragile. Not merely robust, and capable of surviving impact, but only capable of reaching their potential via the growth that such impacts induce. We need conflict to grow. We need to encounter challenging beliefs and hostile opinions. Mill saw this in 1860 and it only gets truer as the world gets more complex.
To grow strong, as individuals and as a society, we need to lift heavy weights, swim in open water, and to hear bad opinions and hurty words. Without them, we atrophy as surely as an astronaut in zero gravity.
Meanwhile, I look forward to offending you, outraging you and making you laugh, when speech is once again really free, if not free at the point of use, in a comedy club near you soon.
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