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Is The Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech
You will remember 'Je suis Charlie', I daresay. You might even have the T-shirt and that special edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine that came out after its leading contributors had been murdered in cold blood by two second-generation Algerian jihadi maniacs. And you will remember the 44 world leaders walking, arms linked, down the Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, all of them proclaiming: 'Je suis Charlie.' And the fine speeches. The fine speeches that affirmed an unshakeable commitment to freedom of speech — always, always followed by the qualification 'but...'
This superb book is about those 'buts', the relentlessly multiplying buts. The qualifications to freedom of speech that seemingly increase daily, made by people who would tell you they are unquestionably devoted to the concept of freedom of speech. It is just that in practice the whole thing is a little trickier — because, while we don’t want to restrict freedom of speech, we wouldn’t want anyone to get upset, would we? Not the Muslims, or the gays or the transgender lobby or disabled people or people of colour, or women...oh, the list is endless. There is a world out there determined to be offended, desperate to revel in its acquired victimhood and silence or, better still, prosecute those who say stuff with which they disagree. The 'You-Can't Say-That' brigade.
'Trigger Warning' is a phrase posted at the beginning of a blog or article advising idiots that they might be offended by what follows. Mick Hume's book examines 'the widening gap between the rhetorical, ritualistic support that western societies pay to freedom of speech in principle and the increasing preparedness to compromise and restrict it in practice'. Hume, who is himself from a far-left background ( he is editor-at-large of the online magazine Spiked), suggests that the political and cultural attacks upon freedom of speech tend to be led more by those who consider themselves left wing or liberal, than by the Islamist extremists.
The National Union of Students, for example, will probably not chop your head off if you express reservations about transgender politics, or same-sex marriage. But they will stop you speaking at their universities, and their supporters will hurl abuse at you should you dare to turn up. As Hume makes clear, the clampdown on freedom of speech is nowhere more vigorously applied than on our campuses, where even radical lesbian feminists find themselves blackballed for not being sufficiently politically correct.
But it is not much better in wider society. Quoting the journalist Philip Johnston, Hume points out that more people are being jailed or arrested in Britain today for what they think, believe and say than at any time since the 18th century. Back then, Voltaire was attributed with the famous quote: "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Today's clamorous and hysterical soi-disant victims are described by Hume as 'reverse-Voltaires', subscribing instead to the following principle: "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."
As H ume argues, they have no wish to dispute ideas or arguments that offend them, they just want them stopped immediately, and perpetrators prosecuted or hounded out of their jobs. Remember, we now live in a country where a woman can be sacked simply for handing a colleague a copy of the Bible, and where a street preacher can be arrested and thrown in a prison cell for distributing quotations from that same book (quotations that cast doubt upon the desirability of homosexuality).
H ume goes further and examines our collective overreaction to internet trolling and the frequent involvement of the police when someone online has said something rather horrible. Hume queries the description 'troll' and makes the important point that if we are to have freedom of speech it should be open not only to sensible, kindly spirited liberals, but also to hateful and irrational imbeciles. It is not really freedom of speech if we are only allowed to say nice things, is it?
H e is aghast at the thin-skinned sensitivity of our students, demanding 'safe spaces' away from opinions and political views that they might find uncomfortable. So, in these centres of learning and debate, they are mollycoddled and kept away from anything that might possibly conflict with their idiotic world view. If the students wished for this level of 'safety', couldn’t they have stayed at home tucked up with their mums and dads, Hume archly suggests.
The author is particularly good on the latest arriviste victims, the transgender lobby - once described by the writer Julie Burchill as 'screaming mimis and bedwetters' in an article for which her newspaper later had to apologise profusely. Transactivists take grave offence if one of their number, being born a man, is subsequently referred to as male. Their own subjective view of their gender easily trumps the biological truth - ie, that they are men. But to state the biological truth is to be guilty of a hate crime. Hume also cheerfully sticks the boot into actor Steve Coogan and the others who campaigned (with some success) to restrict freedom of speech in the press, as part of the Hacked Off campaign. Lord Leveson's recommendations get pretty short shrift, too.
Back to Je suis Charlie. Often stated and more often implied was the view that the cartoonists at the French satirical magazine had "gone too far". They should have been more responsible, rather than inviting the violence that was visited upon them. Hume does not agree. "If that violence was invited by anything, it was actually the public displays of fear of free speech and the oversensitivity about giving offence... ( This) handed the murderers political ammunition by endorsing the idea that the offensive cartoonists had gone too far."
Quite right. As Hume says, the right to free speech has been used to pursue all manner of offensive ends down the centuries, but we should not accept that as an excuse for limiting it today.
This is a first-rate polemic and the most important political book of the year so far. One just hopes that the message will get through. Come on, defend your right to be offended.
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