‘Free Speech’: a silencing tactic?

By dreamwhile

I think it’s time I finally admitted it. As a social justice activist, I’m sick of free speech. I think everyone who disagrees with me should be censored, arrested by the secret social justice police and taken to re-education facilities where they will be indoctrinated until they shudder at the sound of Blurred Lines. This should be simple enough, as everyone knows that we are in charge of all the country’s political institutions, educational centres, and secret services.

In case the sarcasm of that first paragraph wasn’t evident, let me be clear: I actually think that reasonable freedom of speech is probably a good idea. But some genuinely seem to think that people like me hold these views. Recently I’ve noticed a trend of justifying conservative backlash under the banner of “freedom of speech”; and so I’d like to talk about how this most uncontroversial of political principles has started to become toxic.

Particularly I’d like to talk about a recent article by Spiked magazine, which claimed that four out of five UK universities restrict freedom of speech. This assertion is in fact deeply flawed and based on a misleading use of evidence, as I hope to show. But first, I think I should define what I think free speech is and what it isn’t.

On a national level, I agree it is necessary that expression be as unrestricted as possible. This is because of the power dynamics between the individual and the state. As the government holds disproportionately more power than any other group, and controls instruments of coercion such as the police force and the army, when it restricts expression, it’s much more serious because it’s not a fair playing field.

What’s more, much as I’d like for us just be able to pass a law and have people stop saying sexist, racist or bigoted things, changing attitudes simply doesn’t work like that. It would just create resentment while not getting to the roots of the social problem. This happens with persuasion, frustration and a good deal of time. Therefore, at a legal level, speech should not be restricted unless for a very, very good reason. Are you with me so far?

Where I disagree with the free speech furore of late is that I don’t believe that just because opinions are permitted in society at large, they have to be promoted, forced on people, or go uncriticised.  One individual telling another individual they are an arsehole based on their opinions is not a restriction of their freedom of speech. Equally, people have a right not to listen to or promote opinions that are deeply hurtful and add little to the discussion, if they so choose. Hence groups of people, such as, say, students’ unions, should be allowed not to provide a platform for someone if the majority of group members agree on it. That’s something called democracy.

And before anyone points out that groups forcing their opinions on individuals is as coercive as the government doing so, this simply isn’t true: as long as legal freedom of speech is upheld there are myriad other platforms for people to express themselves from, especially in our internet age.  Walking into town to buy the Sun when the university shop has decided not to sell it is hardly Soviet-style repression.

Not only, however, does the Spiked study wilfully misunderstand freedom of speech, it is actively promoting an agenda.  It considers anti-harassment policies, charters against homophobic behaviour and policies against racist fancy dress such as sombreros and Native American costume as restrictions on freedom of speech.

Now, in my opinion, homophobic language and harassment are not opinions but bullying. It’s perfectly possible to disagree with someone and express yourself without them. And I’m not sure wearing a sombrero is any kind of speech at all, unless you’re trying to say you’ve probably never met a Mexican person in your entire life.

Ultimately, Spiked seems to think that condemning bigotry will inevitably lead to the banning of any kind of free and honest debate. This is a transparent slippery slope argument, which, as anyone who has done so much as a critical thinking A-level will know, is pretty dodgy.

I would even go further and say that this is a deliberate attempt to silence those pushing for a more tolerant, inclusive public forum, under the pretext of a popular political principle.  This is in the trend of Brendan O’Neill’s laughable “Stepford students” rant, which is simple anti-leftist fear mongering disguised as concern for freedom of speech.

Free speech is an important legal right, but it must always be balanced with critical awareness. Let us not conflate true censorship with refusal to promote views most people consider distasteful. And if you disagree with the social justice agenda, please engage in proper debate rather than incessantly repeating this well-worn slogan.

Photograph: dreamwhile

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