Why free speech is the right to offend

Hate hurts – so goes the slogan of the South Yorkshire Police, who want you to let them know when you feel offended. They’re not going to arrest you, at least not yet, but they’re eager to monitor this type of activity, legal or not. And they’re right: like exercise, family dinners, and getting up in the morning, hate is often a painful and arduous experience.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, we might ask what all these things have in common. Aside from our freedom to utterly reject them from our own lifestyles, they all have unique benefits. Free speech is not just an ideal, but a practical urgency. Updating Milton’s Areopagitica in the preface to his own The Age Of Reason, Thomas Paine – the most progressive maker of the modern world – observes that by denying our enemies the right to speak, we deny ourselves the right to listen. Consider, in what follows, some of the consequences of denying yourself that right.

History remembers Socrates as the arch-philosopher; a fearless critical thinker, gentle but serious, laying the foundations of our methods of debate and enquiry. But, as the joke goes, to an old man in ancient Athens trying to have a peaceful nap under a tree, he was a pest and a menace. He offered impassioned defences of pederasty in Phaedrus, implied an endorsement of slavery in Memorabilia, and frequently criticised democracy. We may balk, but it is hard to imagine a Socrates who considered any inquiry to be off-limits, whether by the standards of his time or our own. Before his life’s work was done (and he was that rare and admirable man whose life’s work is never done), he was put to death for refusing to believe in the official gods.

I do not have time, reader, to list all those who followed in his footsteps, and I do not need to paint you a picture of the types of societies in which it happened. Jumping to the modern day, historian David Irving is banned from Germany, Austria and New Zealand for his opinions. Irving, who is a self-described ‘moderate fascist’, which is a fitting contradiction, has made a career of attempting to rescue the name of Adolf Hitler, and scorns miscegenation, and insists that human civilisation is the puppet of a sinister Jewish plot. Some résumé, but that is only the personal profile. He is also the first person to show that the British Union of Fascists was accepting handouts from the Nazi party (a claim they always denied). Further, Irving is the first historian to lay his hands on some 75,000 pages of the Goebbels diaries, and the debunker of a counterfeit connection between Churchill and Mussolini.

In 1983, David Irving crashed the press conference of notable and respected historian Hugh Trevor Roper, who claimed to have acquired Hitler’s diaries, and publicly humiliated Roper for his failure to detect that the diaries were a forgery. Among the small but large details which Irving noticed, and Roper did not, is the fact that there was a handwritten entry from July 20, 1944 – the day Hitler’s hand was burned in a bomb blast. Clearly, Irving is a man driven by zeal, if not zealotry. But with his silence, we would have a less complete understanding of the Second World War and the forces which shaped it, and we have a duty to ask ourselves: what service that would do any Jew?

Rosa Luxemburg wrote – in reply to the Soviet Union – in 1920: “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.” Noam Chomsky echoed this sentiment, noting that Stalin was in favour of free speech for the speech that he liked. It seems almost too easy to echo Jordan Peterson’s point that if you’re not offending anybody, then you’re not having a difficult discussion, but these in themselves are difficult questions, and the same objections always arise.

David Cesarani, arguing the point about offensive speech, notes that in his iconic text, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill does in fact propose limits of freedom of speech, giving the example of a demagogue inveighing against a farmer at his door, before a mob and in time of famine. Well, Mr. Cesarani, scolding a farmer is one thing; and leading the mob to his door is quite another. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen showed in his renowned 1999 text Development as Freedom that societies which freely allow criticism never suffer large-scale famines, and so the irony turns out to be at your expense.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “fire in a crowded theatre” argument is as common as methane and persistent as lice. Next year, the court case for which it was prepared (Schenck v. United States) will turn 100 years old, and the case which effectively overturned it (Brandenburg v. Ohio) will turn 50. Holmes argued that speech ought to be unfree when it presents a “clear and present danger”, and he gave the example of causing a stampede by falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. Put aside the fact that shouting “fire” is at least as likely to cause a stampede, if there really is a fire, one takes the good with the bad. What makes this argument sinister to the extent that it is not worthless is the nature of the defendant. Charles Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Philadelphia, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for urging people to resist the World War I draft by invoking the Thirteenth Amendment. In a game of thrones which claimed some 40 million lives, Schenck was declared a liar and a troublemaker for sounding the fire alarm.

The “fire” is whatever you want it to be. Already, European laws against holocaust denial have been extended by the French government to suppress debate around details of the preceding Armenian genocide – it can no longer be asked, for example, whether the massacres of Armenians in those provinces of Turkey with no Russian military presence were in fact part of a planned genocide. This law is an extension of the Gayssot Act, proposed by and named for a French Stalinist, whose spirit lives on.

Of course words have consequences. Lately, his career in (self-torn) tatters, David Irving laments the fact that he has to keep a company of cranks and far-right riff-raff to have a platform. Perhaps the Austrian authorities who imprisoned him for his political positions believe they limited the damage of his influence; instead, his work circulates largely among the most sinister swastika-bearing sects. Meanwhile and elsewhere we discover that Osama bin Laden was a reader of Noam Chomsky. Who would criminalise one and keep the other free? To what end?

Censorship is not only nugatory, but any cursory assessment will unravel many of its absurdities. Barbara Streisand’s hilariously counterproductive attempts to have pictures of her residence removed from the internet reminded us once again that censorship is the oxygen on which the fire thrives. As humans we share a fascination in the morbid and the perverse. By way of Christopher Hitchens, who was well-known for underscoring the point that free speech means freedom to hate, comes a tale of two respectable ladies of London who approached Samuel Johnson, at the reception of the first comprehensive English dictionary, to praise him for not having included obscenities in the book: “Ladies”, he replied, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up”. I doubt that South Yorkshire Police will get this joke, let alone the bigger point about censorship. Those who can, will. South Yorkshire Police, you are imbeciles – put that in your file.