Is free speech a universal and incontestable right, or does it come with necessary conditions and responsibilities?
Should we be able to say what we want, when we want, to whom we want? Or should there be restrictions on such freedoms? Should free speech stay free? Yes, you might instinctively cry. But consider how we live in a complex world where, certainly within our own countries we are bound by an intricate network of rules, regulations, and etiquette. However much we may rail against some curbs on our liberty, this is part of living in any civilised society, and of the modern world. Take the current lockdown, for instance. Imagine if we chose to ignore it – apart from putting our own liberty at risk (you may end up in jail, or certainly receive a heavy fine), you are putting at risk anyone you come in to contact with, and then that risk is passed onto to anyone in your bubble. It would be unconscionable to do so, and fortunately, most people agree (excluding the odd exception who feel the law doesn’t apply to them, e.g., Dominic Cummings). Most of us are willing to abide by the law when we realise to do otherwise would be to put lives at risk. Well, the same applies to hate speech – movements to criminalise this is not about restricting free speech in general, but specifically only speech that incites or condones violence. This is very specific and does not prevent rigorously healthy debate about any issue that concerns us. It does not censor ‘heretical’ viewpoints, even very questionable ones such as held by flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or holocaust deniers. The bottom line is – does the speech dehumanise others? Does it incite or condone violence against them? If so, then it should not be given a platform. The intellectual, if provocative, challenges of free speech advocates like Christopher Hitchens and Jordan Peterson only makes sense in a world where people are educated, eloquent, and willing and able to hold rational discourse with others (and allow them to respond in similar fashion). It does not factor in the irrationality of those who, via the influence of Fake News, the echo chambers of social media, and the dog whistling of certain politicians, now mistrust scientific consensus, empirical facts, expertise, and rational discourse. Confused people who believe their civil liberties are being taken away, and who often own semi-automatic weapons such as the so-called ‘Proud Boys’, and who are willing to use them in a misguided ‘defence’ of democracy, to the point of storming Capitol Hill and disrupting the due process of that very same democracy. Right wing commentators such as actor Laurence Fox complain (vociferously) about being ‘silenced’ – a message ubiquitously (and unironically) shared on social media and national news platforms. And yet the toxic discourse of similar ‘public figures’ like Katie Hopkins and Sarah Palin is often one that wishes to silence difference, demonise minorities, and incite hatred against anyone that challenges their paradigm. Meanwhile, the historian David Olusoga is forced to defend his work that brings to light Britain’s roots in slavery, and fellow academic Professor Corinne Fowler is attacked in The Telegraph for her Colonial Countryside project. There should always be a place for reasoned discourse, and nothing should be beyond criticism. Critical thinking should be a key life skill taught in every classroom. As should debating skills. The arts of oratory, of eloquence, should be encouraged and cultivated. Until such skills are ubiquitous, hate speech needs to be carefully regulated – with self-reflexive criticality and full transparency about criteria, and process. The world is a tinderbox right now and allowing people to throw matches is complicity to arson. Do we want the world to burn? Anyone with a conscience, with compassionate intelligence, surely should not.
Kevan Manwaring, 5 March 2021