Tag Archives: free speech

Vilifying Britain

This week, Rishi Sunak has expressed an intention to treat as extremists people who ‘vilify Britain’. It’s an attack on the right to free speech, which is explicitly the right not to be mistreated by your government over airing an opinion. It’s also disturbingly vague, which makes it more dangerous. What does it mean to vilify Britain?

Could it, for example, mean discussing the history of the bloody awful things that British people, British companies and British leaders have done to people around the world? You can’t talk about the British in Ireland, or India for example, without it rapidly becoming obvious that the British were acting villainously. You can’t talk about how British people profited from the slave trade without making us look pretty bad. I could go on at length, because the list is huge.

Do I vilify Britain when I point out that we are living with policies that kill vulnerable people in the UK? What about if I suggest that policies around care homes during the covid pandemic were murderous? What happens if I talk about the Leave campaign and how that was probably interfered with by Russian interests? Or the utter madness of going ahead with leaving the EU and the massive harm we’ve done to ourselves. I’m certainly not making us look good as a country if I talk about things that are happening, and have happened. That’s awkward, isn’t it? Does that make me an extremist?

Then there’s the issue of who isn’t affected by this. It’s the flag shaggers. Right wing nationalistic groups are all passionatley and vocally pro-Britain. We have every reason to think that in terms of safety and risk, right wing extremists are the people we should all be concerned about. They won’t say mean things about British history, though. They won’t pull down statues of slave traders. It looks awfully like being an actual villain is going to be fine, and making a fuss about villainy is going to be suspect, if we’re really going this way.

I’m no fan of imperialism, or colonialism, or fascism, and I’m going to keep saying so. We’re not a great nation. We’re a horrible mess of a nation and we urgently need to get our shit together.

Contemplating Censorship

As far as I am concerned, a person’s right to free speech ends at the point where they start harming others. All freedoms need to be boundaried by an obligation not to cause harm. If defending the right to free speech doesn’t recognise this, it becomes a tool for promoting and enabling abuse.

Sometimes our ethical choices aren’t simple. But, in a choice between defending someone’s right to free speech, and defending someone from threats, harassment, intimidation, distress and so forth, it should be pretty obvious which way to go. People should have to deal with the consequences of their actions, and calling that out is one thing, and the threat of violence is quite another.

If everyone has the right to freedom of speech, this also means that we all have the right to tell people their words aren’t acceptable. Any one of us is allowed to tell someone else they should be silent. We all have the right to say that someone else’s opinion is invalid, ill founded, intolerable. We aren’t cancelling someone if we disagree with them, and we do not owe them our time and consideration. Demanding to be debated is a technique that appalling people use to try to legitimise themselves and make others listen to them. No one is obliged to go along with that.

Here are some considerations when deciding who to amplify and who to silence…

Doing nothing always supports bullying, oppression, abuse of power and the status quo. It is not a neutral choice, and we know it isn’t Druidic. Druids spoke to kings and sometimes got onto battlefields between armies.

If someone is causing no harm, or acting to challenge harm done, or reduce harm, and they are inconvenient to their government, we should not allow that government to silence them. In the UK, the desire of the government to protect statues from people challenging over racism is a case in point. We should always consider challenging it when a government tries to stop someone from speaking freely.

If a person is inciting violence or promoting hatred, they are not entitled to speak freely. If a person is lying, or promoting a belief that is harmful then we should protest against them. No one is entitled to a platform.

If in doubt, look for the power balance. The person with a TV presence, newspaper column, microphone on a big stage… this person has freedom of speech and you as an individual do not have the power to cancel or censor them. If they use their platform to complain that they are being censored, they are not being censored, just argued with. They are not inherently entitled to that platform.

On the flip side, many people go unheard. Many people are spoken about and spoken over. Amplify people who are working for justice and inclusion and who have no platform. Listen to people who are marginalised and ignored. Actual censorship tends to be subtle, and works by treating people as though they do not matter, do not exist or cannot speak for themselves. When did you last see a Rromani person on TV speaking about the issues they face? When did you last read a newspaper column written by a refugee?

Freedom of Speech

The idea of free speech is used to defend all kinds of unpleasantness. I think it’s important to talk about what free speech means, and also what it doesn’t mean. It is vitally important to uphold the idea that no-one should be assaulted, tortured or killed for anything they have said. That’s what the right to free speech really means – that and not being locked up for holding a different opinion to your government.

Freedom of speech does not entitle a person to cause harm. In much the same way that you aren’t entitled to use freedom of speech to lie about products, commit fraud against people, pretend to have qualifications you don’t have, or sell snake oil, freedom of speech is limited by certain responsibilities. Inciting violence and threatening others isn’t covered by the right to free speech. Conspiracy theories can fall into a bit of a grey area here – people are entitled to question mainstream and government narratives. However, when lines are crossed that put lives in danger – as with the anti-mask brigade, we shouldn’t let the idea of free speech detract from the way this is basically selling us snake oil.

Freedom of speech does not entitle you to a platform. No one is obliged to give you a space, invite you to their event, listen to you or read your stuff. No one owes you a hearing. We all have the right not to listen or engage, not to support things. Any business or organisation that feels it may be harmed by association with your message is entitled to remove you from its platform. Freedom of speech does not entitle you to be part of any particular conversation, or to be engaged in debate.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. If people don’t like what you say, they are entitled to act in any way that is legal. This can include not buying your stuff, not inviting you to things, blocking, banning and counter arguing. It is not an attack on freedom of speech for someone else to use their freedom of speech to say something isn’t acceptable and should be shut down.

It’s not even an attack on freedom of speech to say that you should be stopped from speaking at events, online and the such. You can still speak. It’s just that no one may want to hear you. You may have to find somewhere more sympathetic to your cause, to express your free speech, but you still have the freedom to say whatever you like, within certain parameters.

We are not obliged to listen, to host or to accept people we disagree with. That’s not an attack on their right to free speech. There is no right to inclusion in debate. There is no right to be given a platform. There is no right to make people listen to you.

For anyone whose politics is rooted in kindness and inclusion, the way free speech is often misrepresented can become deeply uncomfortable – feeling that you have to allow and include things you consider to be full of hate and harm. So, it’s important to keep saying this stuff – a person is entitled to safely air their opinions. They are not entitled to have anyone stay around to listen and the right to free speech includes the right to say that what someone else is saying isn’t acceptable.

Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.

Questioning free speech

Too often over the last year I’ve seen ‘free speech’ used to silence argument. Most problematically, those of us who defend human rights are told we have to be inclusive and tolerant of hate speech, or we aren’t really tolerant at all and the left is one big hypocritical lie. Or we’re told that by being inclusive we’re supporting Muslim fundamentalists, as though there is no scope for nuance in any of this.

“I may not like what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now, when it comes down to ‘like’ I’m fine with this. I don’t need to like anyone else’s ideas or agree with them. You may favour a different actor to play Batman. You may hate a book I loved, support a different political party, etc etc. But there is a line, and on the other side of that line is speech that isn’t ok. Not matters of taste and preference, but talk aimed to destroy the rights, freedoms and lives of people. You don’t like gay porn? Fine, by all means say so and don’t watch it. You don’t like gay people? I find that weird and prejudiced, but there we go. I won’t like you, and we’re still at the ‘like’ level. You announce that gay people should be punished for being gay? We now have an issue over your ‘right’ to free speech. Feel free to swap in any minority group, women, any pro-abuse or pro-exploitation talk, and any talk of eco-suicide being somehow desirable, or other living things being expendable for human profit, and I’ll take issue.

What we’re talking about here isn’t just hot air. ‘I don’t like’ is free speech – it may be vile and uncivilized, but it is just speech and personal opinion. As it happens, I don’t like right wing supporters. As soon as that speech becomes a call for action, it changes. I don’t want to see people lose their rights, dehumanised, made more vulnerable. There’s a lot of other hateful outcomes I don’t want either. If someone is calling for an action I would fight against, I’d rather fight it at the talking stage – it’s better that way. Human rights do not award a select few the ‘right’ to diminish others. Refusing the idea that some should have the right to dominate and punish others over matters of difference is not an attack on the ‘rights’ of a would-be oppressor and I’m tired of seeing it suggested otherwise.

Free speech doesn’t mean a right to be listened to, taken seriously or supported. It does in fact mean that anyone else who wants to challenge what is said has the right to speak it. However, I think we need to deal with the idea that speech is somehow safe, that it’s ok to say things that would lead to destroying lives. Speech that calls for action needs treating in line with the action called for. This is why we already have laws about inciting violence and hate speech.

Free speech may be a key part of democracy, but it doesn’t work without responsibility. Use that freedom to express ideas and intentions that would damage democracy – crushing the opposition, denying rights to specific groups and the such – and as far as I’m concerned, the person doing it has lost any right to hide behind the ideas of democracy to protect their toxic thinking. Use free speech to undermine freedom and equality, and there has to be a robust response. Democracy is a collection of values and ideas, using one to undermine the others is not legitimate.

Faced with haters who want to harm others, we will not have the luxury of being able to uphold every last good principle we possess about peace and inclusion. I’d rather we try to head this off while it’s more a question of hate speech than violent action, because that is the road to least harm. And on reflection, I don’t think we should allow hate speech to qualify as free speech, and should challenge and reject it accordingly.