There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech lately. There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech since it became a concept. But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the recent spate is that people are talking at cross-purposes, and generally agree on the basic principle, just not how and where it’s applied. This is not an argument about whether there should be a free press or government monitoring of what people say. As such, I shall try to be charitable towards those I disagree with, as I think they’re generally well-intentioned but mistaken in their apprehension, rather than malicious. Or at least most of them: some are awful trolls and haters (I’m not sure if I like the word ‘haters’ in general use:most people don’t hate indiscriminately – they do it directedly and for reasons, good or bad – but it’s about right here).
First, some pedantry. When people talk about freedom of speech, they mean a whole range of different things, from being able to express an opinion in (what they regard as) private, up to the maintenance of a free press. And this is the root of much of the disagreement at present. But when one is talking about freedom of speech as a formal right, it must refer to the state, and nothing more. The right to speak freely is the right to not have your speech arbitrarily monitored, limited, or controlled by the government. It doesn’t stop other people from ignoring you or shouting you down. It doesn’t mean you get to speak in any particular place. It doesn’t entitle you to say anything you want without consideration for the possible effects. The classic example is shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded room, causing a stampede. It certain doesn’t entitle you to a platform, or any other means of amplifying your voice over those of others.
This is not to say that many of these things aren’t desirable. Those with something to say should be heard. But that comes down to matters of opinion about who should be heard, and who ignored. What isn’t helpful is people framing any suggestion that a certain individual doesn’t deserve a given platform as censorship. Especially when that person has access to all sorts of alternatives. Most people in the world have little outlet (and probably nothing before the advent of the web), so let’s not get distracted by a few high profile people encountering a little resistance at universities.
The limits of free speech
Look, in an ideal world, everybody would have a public voice. This sort of thing – a blog – is a pretty good approximation. Of course, most blog content might as well be shouted into a well. A few friends and family might read it, but unless you hit something zeitgeisty, or have contacts, you have no expectation that it will reach many people. The thing is that the ‘free speech is everything’ people aren’t focussed on the right to speak, so much as the right to be listened to. I think they make two major oversights.
The first is in trumpetting a simple multiplicity of views. The more ideas and opinions we hear, the better. In an ideal world…maybe. It’s certainly good to consider contrary opinions, even if they do only lead to us strengthening our own. Debate is a fine thing. But to suggest that ignoring any given person – generally someone the arguer agrees with – is a mistake is itself folly. There are simply too many voices in the world, and we are all necessarily selective. You should certainly temper your Fox News with some BBC (and vice versa), but you cannot possibly listen to every single position. So people are very rarely just saying ‘don’t listen to this person’; rather, they are saying that you should give time to someone else you maybe haven’t considered. To give a specific example: when a group protested against Germaine Greer speaking at the Cambridge Union, they didn’t just argue that she shouldn’t be listened to (on the grounds of her attitude to, and treatment of, trans* people), but they offered their own event and speakers, Roz Kaveney & Sarah Brown, to provide an alternative. Oddly, this has been presented by some as ‘no platforming’ despite the fact that both events went ahead.
The second error is in ignoring the fact that speech can have negative consequences. It is odd that they present it as being neutral, ideas as if they are completely objective prior to their application, when they are so determined as to the good that can be done. If the world can be changed for the better by a speech, it can just as well be made worse. We know that some things can be harmful if said in the wrong place and time. The aforementioned shout of ‘fire’. The use of abusive language directed at certain people. This is all about context: a word is neutral when spoken in a vacuum; it is not in any circumstance where it has meaning.
The thing is that virtually all of those calling for more free speech know this. I doubt many of them want to give neo-Nazis an opportunity to recruit at our institutions of learning (because even *wrong* words have power). I’m sure they all repudiate hate speech. But then who decides what hate speech is? Denial of a genocide? The suggestion that only white people can be British? Arguing that women are inherently inferior? Insisting that sex is purely physiologically determined and fixed at birth, and that trans* people are trying to fool the rest of us? Of course, where you draw the line is a huge messy argument in itself. This has long been the debate around the rise of UKIP to apparent ‘legitimacy’, but even Nigel Farage appreciates that there are some things that should not be said in public (even if he’s only kicking people out for reasons of expediency).
It’s odd that the one type of debate the arch free-speechers don’t want to hear is the one about what sort of public debate we should be having. They like to pretend that the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is generally agreed and immovable.