Free speech: we should try it again
We must sweep aside today’s pervasive fearfulness
This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Iremember free speech; it happened on a muddy building site outside Coventry in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It was called the University of Warwick and I signed up as a lecturer aged 22. If you gave a bad lecture, the students would tell you so. If they fancied you, they would tell you that as well. I was frequently told I was a fascist (which I’m not) and that I was talking rubbish (maybe sometimes).
I was happy to dish it back. Staff and students sat in bars and argued about everything from Arianism to an immense variety of Marxism. There were lots of Tories as well, some of whom went on to be notable Thatcherites. At the beginning of my second term, the Senate — including the Vice-Chancellor’s offices — were “occupied” and people said very rude things about each other, but especially about the authorities.
Despite all this we managed to conduct most of the business of the university at a somewhat higher standard, in my opinion, than it is conducted these days. One outstanding memory is of the South African ambassador (his country was not at that time in the Commonwealth) defending apartheid to a Politics Society audience consisting mostly of black students; they gave him a lot of stick, but they turned up and they engaged.
I had spent the previous five years in Oxford as undergraduate, postgraduate and tutor. It was intellectually stimulating and even exciting at times, but also a little staid. There was still a Victorian aura of politeness around the place and a norm of “respect”, a word I believe to be more hostile to the true spirit of liberty than almost any other. There were punishments known as “sconces” for talking about such things as politics and religion at dinner.
In 1975 I moved on to Stanford University in California, which (thinking of events in Berkeley in the 1960s) I imagined would have a spirit of freedom such as I was now used to.
But it didn’t. The prototype of the new spirit of political correctness was establishing itself. Already, in 1972, the university football team had changed its name from the “Indians” to the “Cardinals” and as I arrived they were deciding not to change it back despite the loss of alumni income.
When I told a visiting speaker he was talking complete rubbish (normal practice at Warwick) this was thought unacceptable, as was my pointing out to a student that their presentation was of a very low standard (which it was). And when I went back to Warwick, the long road to respect and repression had begun, a road which led to the prissy, unfree, uptight universities of the twenty-first century.
At least I was able to maintain a tradition of free speech at home, based not on “respect” but on cheerful contempt. There was a girl I met in one of the bars at Warwick who was both a Christian and a socialist whereas I am emphatically neither. We have not changed our views over the 47 years we have been married, though we do share scornful attitudes to many things such as the idea (implicit in online dating) that you should try to link up with someone similar to yourself.
Freedom is elusive, fragile and extremely complicated
Freedom is elusive, fragile and extremely complicated and probably best understood in terms of the many different kinds of constraint upon it. Conventional libertarians tend to overestimate the coercive powers of the state in this respect as opposed to other sources of power such as the family. This was understandable in the twentieth century given totalitarian regimes and their secret police, but understanding the current age requires a subtler concept of institutional constraints which are not necessarily either overtly coercive or activated by states.
These are complex, but most can be categorised as either the control of the means of transmission of ideas and information or the potential costs of expression. You can be unfree to speak because you have no channels through which to express yourself or because you will lose your job or important aspects of your place in society if you do.
But the real complexity of freedom lies in the third kind of constraint, inhibitions. The best way of repressing people is controlling their beliefs and tastes. Give me a child until he is seven, said the Jesuits, and he or she may be an atheist, but they would still be a “lapsed” Catholic. You can take the person out of whatever, but can you take the whatever out of the person?
My favourite example is of a man driving me to Tbilisi airport. We were in a hurry, but he wouldn’t overtake in the outside lane. Why not? Because it was reserved for senior party officials. But you’re no longer in the Soviet Union and there were actually 62 different parties in the election in which I had just served as a monitor.
Inhibitions — socialisation, brainwashing, propaganda, education and the lack of it — are the most important constraints on freedom, but also the most difficult and contentious. Almost any constraint on freedom of this kind can also be construed as a part of the agent constrained. Should we be free to take drugs or liberated from the threat of addiction? Free to practice religion or liberated from its terrors and repressive rules?
I find it interesting that the USA, while claiming to be the land of the free, has consistently had some of the western world’s most repressive laws against drugs, alcohol and gambling though not, to be fair, on religion. But then, freedom of religion often works as freedom to repress
In my lifetime we have lost many of the formal coercive constraints on freedom of speech; there is no longer a Lord Chamberlain with powers of censorship over theatre. But other, subtler forms of repression have magnified greatly. We can all name a thousand things that you “can’t say any more” because of the social and economic costs of saying them.
It all seems eerily like the “respectability” that descended in the Victorian period. Compare the reverent obituaries of Victoria with the frank and scurrilous ones written about her predecessors, George IV and William IV. This begins to make real freedom of speech look a lot like autism: tales about the folly of saying what you honestly believe all the time go back millennia. But it is a kind of autism which can do a lot of good, however embarrassing and inconvenient it is.
Free speech is a complex idea with an essentially complex and disputed structure
Free speech is a complex idea with an essentially complex and disputed structure; it involves the concept of an agent and an equally debatable concept of what counts as a constraint. Historically, a high level of free speech has been a rarity. Athens may have looked like the most intellectually tolerant place in the ancient world, but it still killed Socrates for corrupting youth. And David Hume was surely right to recognise the “system of liberty” he lived under in Hanoverian Britain which allowed him to say more or less what he wanted was not based on any positive doctrine or definition, but on an impasse in politics and an ideological exhaustion which had set in after the wars of the seventeenth century.
If there is to be some recovery of free speech, the state would need to abolish the category of “hate” offences. If there were any human rights to be inferred from the nature of things they would surely include the right to hatred and surely nothing is worth saying unless it offends someone, given the range of rubbish that people normally believe?
But the state should positively intervene to prevent organisations such as the BBC persecuting or silencing voices for any form of incorrectness in the matter of opinions.
Inhibitions are difficult to deal with not least because they are inculcated by institutions — mainly religious organisations and families — which libertarians would otherwise want to be left alone. But there is an obvious role for state education which should see its job very specifically as counteracting the other forces of socialisation. It does so against racism, and it should also do it for religion and politics more generally.
There is no freedom of speech or anything else without a spirit of freedom. What we have now is a spirit of fear, of desperately papering over the cracks in society instead of cheerfully offending one another — and taking no offence.
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