The principle of free speech has become a bit of a political football of late. Engaging ideas and arguments we regard as socially toxic or dangerous have become the source of heated discussion.
Some believe there should be no limits on the free expression of ideas whatsoever and argue that even Nazis should be allowed to speak their minds.
Others, while still believing in the principle of free speech, take a more cautious view. They believe the right to free speech must be tied to responsibilities and conditions, such as not using your voice to advocate violence against others or engage in hate speech. The thinking behind this is that by giving potentially toxic ideas a platform, you inadvertently normalise them, thus lending them undue legitimacy.
Both agree that free speech is important; however, there is great disagreement, both in terms of what defines ‘hate speech’ as well as what constitutes an incursion against free speech itself.
Last week, as news emerged of a skirmish at a Bristol University involving hard-Brexiteer Jacob Rees -Mogg and a group of Antifa activists, a national argument broke out about free speech, except, this time, there were no Nazis involved. At least, not that I could see. Before anybody had established what Rees-Mogg was even there discussing, this relatively minor incident became a proxy for a wider debate about free speech and whether the interruption of his talk constituted an incursion on his rights.
I don’t think it did. And the fact that many people who claim their right to free speech has been restricted do so from prominent soap boxes on social media, or in the pages of international newspapers, lending credence to the assertion they are talking nonsense.
But there is clearly confusion about where the political left stands on this matter and this confusion is being exploited ruthlessly. This confusion in the public mind (not simply about what Antifa is for, against and why they wear balaclavas) extends to the left’s broader position on free speech, both generally and as it applies to discussions taking place within its own ranks.
While I fall into the camp that believes Nazis can whistle for their platforms, I also recognise that the left is a bit loose with labels when it comes to branding people and ideas it doesn’t like. There is so much disagreement within the left about what is and isn’t hate speech, that all attempts to define it are curdled in the well of condemnatory acrimony, fuelling a public perception – whether mythical or otherwise – that the left has no coherent position. Compounding this is the prevailing view that anyone engaging with arguments made by disagreeable people would simply be enmeshing themselves with alt-right trolls and racist knuckleheads.
This perception of passivity from the left is exacerbated by the eye-rolling from some lefties when the topic comes up. When freedom of speech is raised, these people tend to respond in one of three ways.
They will cite an example of an absurd free speech claim, such as far-right thugs advocating violence, or a screeching tabloid op-ed claiming “snowflakes” are the real problem in the West. This is an attempt to put the issue in some sort of left-leaning perspective, attributing most concerns about infringements of free speech to people with sinister ulterior motives.
The second typical response is to dismiss the arenas in which these debates are taking place, whether in mainstream media – regarded to varying degrees on the left as a neo-liberal instrument of oppression – or Youtube, a revolutionary force the left hasn’t been able to monopolise and therefore regards as an irrelevant pseudo-intellectual playground for daft wee boys.
The best (and most useful) of the three typical responses is something like: “The easiest and quickest way to deflate the alt-right argument about the right to speak freely is to tell them if their rights are being denied they should **** off to a court.”
This is a good argument. It directly engages a complaint. The only problem here is that it deals only with free speech claims made by one easily discredited group: the alt-right. What many fail to understand is that, outside their ideological sandbox, the evolving discussion around free speech is much broader and deeper, encompassing the entire political spectrum.
The issue around the free exchange of ideas is changing political behaviour too. People interested in exploring potentially contentious ideas around issues of culture and identity – previously off the table – naturally find new allies across old political divides, endeared to one another due to a shared experience of finding it increasingly difficult to say what they really think in their traditional circles.
The only time the left appears to intervene on free speech is when it is to dismiss someone else’s claim to it. This position will not hold. The left must be more active in framing the arguments, articulating clearly for those watching from a distance, unsure of what to think, precisely why free speech is important but also where it should be revoked and why. What we must understand, whether we like it or not, is that it’s not just the alt-right, or the far-right in Europe, that cares about free speech. There looms a broader discussion, in relation to several issues, many falling within the purview of the left. A left which, from a distance, often appears to be too busy accusing itself of hate speech (never mind people on the right) to confront the worrying fact this universal principle, upon which free societies are built, is being ruthlessly repackaged, across the Western world, as a conservative idea.