Saturday, 3 January 2015

There shouldn't be a choice between social justice and free speech

The Parable of the Mote and the Beam by Domenico Fetti
Don't get me wrong, I think the term 'social justice' is a misleadingly weasel phrase that most of the time is used in the manner of a toddler's foot-stamping scream of 'not fair'. But that's not the point here. The point is that we have created a world where people - in frightening numbers - think it OK to call for the arrest and incarceration of someone for the generic crime of being offensive.

Worse still, the response of the police and other public authorities is to indulge these screaming toddlers - and please let's make a distinction between specific threats of rape or violence and generic racist, sexist or otherwise unpleasant comments. So instead of simply doing nothing (the correct response) what the police do is issue statements saying they are 'monitoring' social media for offensive comments. I'm guessing this is done in the manner of the teacher who can't control his class - 'one more sound from any of you and you're all on detention'.

The problem is that today's society seems filled with people who say things like 'of course I believe in free speech, but..." Revealing by this statement that they think it entirely proper to pass laws, enact regulations and lead twitter mobs with the aim of preventing people from expressing something they find unpleasant, distasteful or offfensive. And some of these people even get offended on behalf of some other bunch of folk - "if I were (insert name of possibly offended group) I'd be deeply offended by that..."

I don't know where all this started. Nor do I think that there's anything wrong with challenging people who express unpleasant views. But at some point we started to believe a particular argument that somehow free speech wasn't really free speech because many people didn't feel safe or confident to challenge the misogyny, the racism or the general self-regarding offensiveness. This brings me to the conversation with my neighbour (who, shall we say, is not hesitant in expressing unpopular opinions) - his point to me was that, as a politician, I can't say what I really want to say because me saying it becomes 'top Tory in offensive tweet scandal' whereas his saying that something is just seen as the fat bloke at the bar sounding off.

My response is that I do self-censor (we all do this but I do to a greater extent). There is a long list of things I will discuss at home that I won't discuss at the pub. And a longer list that I'd avoid in public - whether at council or on social media. You could argue that my free speech is curtailed - it would be good to be in a position to speak more of some things on that list because they are very important - but it is me doing the curtailing not the public authorities. It is sensibility - as the Georgians would have seen it - that constrains my speech not the threat of arrest and imprisonment.

It seems to me that the debate about speech has got to the point where the idea of free speech is so curtailed that any argument can be closed down simply by using the term 'offensive' (or the terms that specify that offence - 'racist', 'misogynist', 'anti-disabled' and so forth). Worse still people who aren't really offended - those thousands signing that petition - grab their pitchfork and join the mob calling for the offenders head on a stake. Each one of those people should, as Christ pointed out at the Sermon on the Mount, examine his or her own conscience - consider their own offensiveness before laying into someone else for the same crime.

Free speech is one of the three pillars on which our liberty is founded. All three are under attack but there's no doubt that the desire - from governments and from those who would create an Orwellian newspeak - to restrain what we are allowed to say is becoming one of the biggest challenges to freedom. That some ideas cannot be debated at universities because some students night not feel 'safe'. How we've extended the term race to encompass any self-identification as a minority. And the fearful closing down of debate about religion and the multiplication of perceived language offences. This creeping authoritarianism threatens free debate, the creation of ideas and acts merely to cow people into an approved manner of speech and behaviour.

But the real battle line lies with the law, with the use of that law to shut down debate and to destroy your opponents. Worse still with the application of that law to destroy someone because the mob demands it. This is the real offence, the real attack on our freedom. This - not someone you don't have to take any notice of posting insults on twitter - is the thing we must challenge. Free speech is too important for us to allow people to carry on adding the word "...but..." to it and using that word to justify calls for arrests, for bans and for stopping debate.

There shouldn't be a choice between social justice and free speech. Indeed no sort of justice is advanced by preventing someone else - through the mob or through the force of authority - from expressing an opinion, even where that opinion may offend someone. And no sort of justice is served by arresting and charging people for saying something. I recall the campaigns against Britain's blasphemy laws - I can remember arguing with fellow Tories that we should support the campaign regardless of the company we would have to keep to do so. This was the 'progressive left' successfully extending free speech. So why now do the same people now campaign for laws to limit free speech?

We need to make the case for free speech. To point out that it's this freedom that allowed the debate about women's rights, that provided the platform for gay liberation and that sat at the heart of the civil rights movement. The sort of mob rule we see on twitter is not morally distinct from the mobs who would have stopped Martin Luther King had the USA not had a constitutional protection for free speech. So if you're saying we can't debate some things because some folk choose to be offended - whether it's feminism, Islam, Liverpool football club or the character of Glaswegians - then you are helping create a society where control, oppression and submission destroys liberty. In the end you can't have a free speech only for those things you approve - that's not free speech that's censorship. That's not a free society.


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