Freedom of Expression has been a defining value of liberal progressive movements from the revolutions that shook Europe and America at the end of the eighteenth century to the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s. But precedents for freedom of expression can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. In 399 BC, Socrates stood accused of “offending the traditional Gods” of Athens and “corrupting the youth” (by teaching them critical reasoning and introducing new ‘gods’ of his own). At his trial, he argued that he had benefited the Athenians by subjecting them, including members of the ruling class, to his often uncomfortable philosophical cross-examinations. It was his contention that his superior wisdom lay only in the fact that he alone was aware of how little knowledge he possessed. He was convinced that life without this sort of critical examination – of both his own beliefs and other people’s – is not worth living.
Today, all too many “progressives” from the left argue that the free speech lobby is “right-wing”. While right-wing speakers have indeed expounded repugnant views under the protection of free speech, it is blatantly false that the principle itself is “right wing”. Deceptive semantics and Machiavellian appeals to emotionally-charged issues like race are today used instrumentally to twist peoples’ best intentions and to put them into the service of public policies that are deeply illiberal, which will undermine human rights and progress in the long-term.
We do not need to define ‘tennis’ in order to knock a ball back and forth over a net, but we do discover that games have rules, and that two men with gloves punching one another in a ring for twelve rounds (or less) is not ‘tennis’. Rules define what constitutes playing a particular game, or not. Detaching words from their content (as in Orwellian Newspeak) may concoct such an alchemy of self-referential validation that those who wield the terms can arrange never to be wrong.
We have seen such grotesque perversions in the use of the vocabulary of morals, democracy and responsibility by Nazis, Soviet rulers and American imperialists. The Stalinist coinage ‘People’s Democracy’, like the Nazi term ‘People’s Court’, is risible where it is not nauseating. Stigmatising the free speech lobby with derogatory labels and associations like “right wing” is an attempt to smear real progressives who would rather debate disagreements than render them illegal or shut them down through preemptive smear campaigns or intimidation.
To defend a right to “free speech” only when the speech in question is in broad agreement with one’s own point of view is not really to defend free speech at all. To suppress other people’s opinions, even when they are quite controversial, is to assume an infallibility that none of us possesses. Even if a majority in society have good reasons for believing that they are right, it does not follow that they could learn nothing from hearing dissenting viewpoints. Even falsehoods may contain partial truths, and we deprive ourselves and everyone else of the benefit of ‘filling gaps’ in our knowledge by suppressing contrary views.
Society has always progressed not from smug elitism or complacency with our current knowledge, but through the ongoing process of ‘testing’ our beliefs against the merits of competing ones. Those who cling to cherished beliefs in fearful defensiveness exhibit little confidence that they are able defend their ‘superior’ views. Yet, the only reason we have for confidence in our beliefs, when we do possess it, is that they have emerged victorious from the tussle with rival opinions.
Progressives may be tempted to curtail “hate” speech (which today, thanks to changes in the law, even entails reasoned criticism of religion). But, unless we have actually heard a viewpoint, it is impossible to appraise whether amorphous labels like “hate speech” correctly apply. As human rights activist Peter Tatchell has stressed: “What some sensitive souls condemn as hate, others would describe as legitimate critical, dissenting opinion.” Moreover, stigmatising a speaker or his views with epithets is a very convenient way to prevent unorthodox arguments from being heard. Moreover, to assume that all followers of a religion will react with uniform horror to a particular argument or satirical jab about their religion is to assume that there is internal agreement among all members of the group, which is an extremely generalising assumption that would not be tolerated by liberals in any other context. What one believer finds offensive another may find deeply cathartic.
One reason for wishing to preempt speech may be that the speaker’s arguments are better than prevailing opinion on the matter. “Hate-speech” laws are routinely used to suppress controversial political speech in Russia, but the same people who condemn China and Russia as “repressive” would merrily mimic their policies at home.
They key to tolerance is reciprocity, which is guaranteed by structural equality, not by policing content. Classic liberal philosophers and activists – the kind of thinkers progressives would typically defer to in such matters – would have limited only actions that interfere with the reciprocal liberty of others to live according to their beliefs. By implying that offensive words are equivalent to illegal acts of physical injury, some wish to persuade us that speech needs a similar legal remedy.
Sarah Haider, Director of outreach for Ex-Muslims of North America, has argued that this blurring of the line between speech and physical acts unwittingly justifies violence as a fitting response to offensive speech. In a similar vein, Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Sp!ked, has observed that “We are starting to see what happens when speech is talked about as though it were a form of violence: it green-lights actual violence against certain forms of speech.” This, says, O’Neill, is the outcome of a moral culture that elevates mental safety over intellectual liberty, and people’s feelings over public freedom.
Tolerant progressives should allow all manner of persuasion to express disagreement with another viewpoint. Literature, speech, satire, music and art – all are legitimate ways to express disapproval of beliefs or practices that we find morally repugnant or intellectually bankrupt. By contrast, “intolerance” means rejection of the other’s fundamental right to self-expression and unwillingness to withstand their dissent. Intolerant individuals or groups dictate how others must live and demand that others prostrate themselves before orthodox beliefs. In many instances intolerant community leaders deny to other members of their own communities the basic rights that they demand for themselves vis-à-vis the liberal state.
Censoring religious insult is becoming an acceptable phenomenon in the West, particularly vis-à-vis Islam. But censorship will not so much protect a minority sub-culture from the outside host culture as it will suppress the diversity of opinion within it. Tolerant Muslims are the only Muslims who by definition would not agree with, nor benefit from, paternalistic blasphemy laws intended to protect “Muslims” (that is what distinguishes them from intolerant extremists). Free speech benefits all Muslims; censorship only benefits the most intolerant Muslim extremists.