“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. John Milton in Areopagitica
This blog is centred on pictures rather than words and I don’t normally write book reviews. But Mick Hume’s new book, Trigger Warning, is so important in its implications for anyone who values creativity and freedom of expression that I feel compelled to talk about it. And to urge you to read it.
Those of us like me who grew up in the baby boomer generation have perhaps taken freedom of speech as such a natural and basic right that we have hardly contemplated the possibility that it could be under attack. When we were growing up what felt like the final battles for freedom of speech were being fought and won. Sometimes they were about freedom of sexual expression and the repressive nature of obscenity legislation – think Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the Oz Trial. Sometimes it was the battle for racial, gender and sexual orientation equality, where freedom of speech was rightly seen as a pre-requisite for winning those battles. Since then, too many us have not being paying attention. Mick Hume’s polemical book is a stark reminder that we should be paying attention, that freedom of speech is rapidly being eroded and that it is going to take a long hard push to restore freedom of speech to the central position it used to enjoy as a central human right.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Voltaire as summarised by his biographer Evelyn Hall).
The book compellingly charts the growth of the core principle of free speech, as summarised in the quote above, and reminds us that freedom of speech requires as its essence the right to be offensive and heretical. As George Orwell put it, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. It then goes on to describe the growth of what Hume refers to as the ‘reverse-Voltaires’. A reverse-Voltaire starts to identify him or herself when they say “Of course I believe in freedom of speech, but …… there are limits”. No, a freedom limited is not a freedom. The context in which the ‘but’ phrase is most commonly deployed is in the context of incitement, but this is a false argument. Inciting someone to commit a crime has been an offence for many a long year. Inciting someone to hold opinions you regard as undesirable or dangerous is however at the core of freedom of speech. And who knows whose opinions will be regarded as dangerous next.
From the start of the ‘freedom of speech, but’ slippery slope we move to those whose rallying cry might be summarised as follows:
“I know I’ll detest and be offended by what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it”.
There are essentially three strands of thinking which are driving the disturbing success of the reverse-Voltaires. The first of these is our growing obsession with outlawing hate speech because of a fear that such speech can cause behaviours we regard as undesirable. The focus on hate speech started in the context of Islamic radicalisation and sensitivity but has been happily picked up by other religious groups. As Hume points out, one of disturbing elements of the attack on hate speech is that it is predicated on a deeply patronising view of the listener. It assumes that those listening to so-called hate speech are completely unable to form their own judgements about what is being said and must therefore be protected from it. The same patronising view permeates most of the discussion about press regulation which centres on the never-articulated but persistent belief that the public are too stupid or susceptible to form their own judgements on what they read.
The second strand of thinking which is driving curbs on free speech is the perceived need to protect individuals and groups from hearing or reading anything which they might regard as offensive. The moment you start down this route you start to challenge the right to tell people what they do not want to hear, a fundamental attack on liberty as Orwell correctly identified. The development of this focus on protection from offence is deeply intertwined with the development of identity-based politics, where people drive their political and views from a narrow identity-based view of themselves. The range of identities with which people can identify are growing by the month but obviously include a range of gender and racially based groups, each of which see themselves as oppressed and requiring protection from offence. One of the most troubling environments where this attack on free speech is taking place is university campuses and the desire to make them ‘safe spaces’ where no-one can be offended.
Hume tells the following story: “In November 2014, a debate (at Oxford University) about abortion between two journalists ….. was cancelled after furiously offended feminist students protested against it. One of the journalists, Brendan O’Neill, was ‘pro-choice’, the other, Tim Stanley, ‘pro-life’. But both of them were male. The protesters said that people ‘who do not have uteruses’ should not talk about abortion. That seems a big step back from the days when feminists fought against women being defined by their biological functions. More insidiously, they objected that such a debate would endanger the ‘mental safety’ of Oxford students, demanded their right to feel ‘comfortable’ around College and threatened to protest at the meeting”. Predictably enough the debate was cancelled on the grounds of ‘security and welfare issues’.
Things have developed even further in the United States, leading to the development of Trigger Warnings, from which the title of the book is taken. A Trigger Warning is an advisory label such at the start of a book, film, article etc., specifically to want students that they might be traumatised by the contents. It has gone so far that law students are demanding to be excused from learning about the law as it relates to sexual violence because they might be subject to traumatised by the material. It takes a fairly comprehensive irony bypass to consider ensuring that women cannot prosecute sexual violence offences by men against women because they would have been traumatised by learning about the subject!
The third strand of thinking which is restricting free speech is the growth of a view of what might be called secular blasphemy, typically identified by the use of the expression “-denier”, as in, for example, climate change-denier. Here we see a situation in which the desire to engage in rational discussion or scientific enquiry has been replaced by a desire to close down debate. I am not a scientist but I don’t think I need to be to see that even if those arguing contrarian views on climate change are wrong on every single point, there is no case for closing down their freedom to write and communicate what they know. Rather the case should be on proving them wrong. I know it is frustrating when someone who is wrong is capable of capturing the public imagination, but that is the nature of freedom.
The restrictions in freedom of speech which have been introduced by these strands of thinking have typically happened in small steps, often in the shadow of events of which we naturally disapprove. But the result is that the restrictions are already frighteningly wide, and the appetite of those who wish to constrain them further, usually while claiming the opposite, is hardly satisfied. So what on earth do we do about it?
Well firstly, we have to challenge the but, in “I believe in freedom of speech, but…”. We have consistently allowed government and single-issue identity groups alike to get away with this phrase and it never washes. A freedom constrained is not a freedom. At the same time we have to push back on hate laws and learn to trust the public to listen with to hatred and bile with common sense and judgement. We can be contemptuous of what is being said without banning the speaker from saying it. Indeed as far right groups have found in this country, there is nothing like denying them exposure to make them seem more powerful than they are, and nothing like exposing them to the full glare of discussion and debate to leave them ridiculed and humiliated. To operate on the assumption that offence must be avoided, that people cannot exercise critical judgement on what they hear and need to be protected is simply today’s version of ‘the man from Whitehall knows best’. He doesn’t. If preaching hatred extends to inciting violence, use the long established laws to prosecute it. If the fact is that there is not a provable offence under those laws, don’t create new laws to try and create new and woolly offences.
The right to offend is a fundamental part of the freedom of speech and every significant freedom we have won over the centuries – religious freedom, political freedom, racial freedom, sexual freedom – has relied absolutely and totally on the right of people to say things that were regarded as wrong, dangerous, injurious to the public order, seditious and heretical. People have died often unpleasant deaths fighting for the right to say what the authorities and the great majority then thought was highly offensive. Let us not let all that suffering go to waste because of a misplaced desire to avoid offence.
Trigger Warning is a great book. Read it and think about it. I’m not sure there is a more fundamental subject deserving of our attention.
Trigger Warning by Mick Hume, published by William Collins.