‘There. I said it.’ That phrase, and the attitude it strikes, says something pretty specific. It doesn’t just say: here’s what I think. It says: ‘Here’s what I think, and, you know what? It’s what nobody except me dares to say in public.’ It says: I’m brave. It says: I speak truth to power. It says: here I am on the battlements. It also says: I’m a grade-A chocolate-coated plonker.
And though most people are too fly these days, too aware of the lurking threat of Craig Brown, to use that form of words, there’s a good deal of there-I-said-it-ism about these days. In particular, when it comes to the issue of ‘free speech’. To read many serious commentators on the right, and some less serious ones, not to mention very many egg-avatared Twitter-users — this foundational human right is suffering an existential threat. From, um, undergraduates, apparently.
Big, serious books about all this are catnip to major publishing houses. This autumn Allen Lane publishes Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff on The Coddling of the American Mind. There’s Claire Fox’s ‘I Find That Offensive!’ and Mick Hume’s Trigger Warning. There are contributions from Timothy Garton Ash, Nigel Warburton and Erwin Chemerinsky. Niall Ferguson has been making apocalyptic noises about the suppression of conservative voices on university campuses. My esteemed colleague Brendan O’Neill, bless him, doesn’t seem able to find an issue in public life, these days, where the real problem isn’t that old chestnut, illiberal liberals.
The problem here is that all this is, essentially, horseshit. That lone voice in the wilderness, Jordan Peterson, has sold hundreds of thousands of books. The online ‘platform for free thought’ Quillette gets millions of page views a month. And the self-styled renegades of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ were profiled at length in that noted samizdat journal the New York Times.
My colleague Freddy Gray remarks — and I think he’s bang-on — that the free speech debate is this decade’s version of the New Atheism that so captivated publishing houses in the Noughties.
The return of theocracy having been seen off, the new threat is to freedom of speech. But ‘free speech’ is kind of an Aunt Sally anyway. Free speech is everywhere, in ways that most people will endorse, abridged both de facto and de jure. It’s abridged de facto by good manners (which is what about 80 per cent of ‘political correctness’ adds up to) and by a social consensus, policed by the bounds of acceptability. If you say something offensive, you may well suffer an influx of angry eggs; turn up at a costume party blacked up or dressed as a Wehrmacht officer and unless your host is Taki you can expect to cop some flak. But you won’t go to jail.
And ‘free speech’ is abridged de jure by legal sanctions on libel, false advertising, incitement to violence, and (in some countries and more controversially) blasphemy, ‘hate speech’, Holocaust denial and so on. We can and should argue about the limits law places on public discourse — I favour the barest minimum — but we should recognise that is what we are doing, rather than invoking an imaginary, unproblematic ideal called ‘free speech’.
For the most part, what those angry at the ‘suppression’ of ideas are complaining about is people arguing noisily back at them. ‘No-platforming’ is a stupid and philistine thing for individual student unions to do. But we’re not looking at something that strikes at the roots of public discourse, so much as something that takes secateurs, here and there, to bits of the foliage. Groupthink is unattractive but it is always with us. And that’s precisely why we have customary and legal protections on free speech as a bulwark against majoritarian tyranny. Free speech includes both the right to tell someone else to shut their trap and the right to go on talking. And obviously that’s what the there-I-said-it mob is doing.
If anything, the problem is not with things becoming unsayable, but the opposite. Technology has so far outstripped the reasonable legal sanctions we do have on public speech that ‘fake news’ can move the dial in real elections. The anonymous death threats that we rightly complain inhibit public discourse are a sign of too much freedom of speech, rather than too little. The viral spread of outright lies online, likewise, is the sign that speech is too free rather than not free enough. And the sneaky way in which dishonest political messaging — thank you, Cambridge Analytica — can be beamed without meaningful public scrutiny into your individual Facebook feed is, again, a symptom of technology having freed speech rather beyond what the framers of the First Amendment probably intended.
The main stand that needs to be taken on behalf of free speech is a stand against state censorship and the imprisonment of writers, or de jure censorship and intimidation by quasi-statal institutions (universities, arguably, coming into that category). Censorious liberal undergraduates in countries that have a vigorous conservative press and/or First Amendment protections in the constitution are not a threat to conservative discourse, let alone free speech itself. They just aren’t.
So why all this noise? I think there’s a psychological reason first of all. If you’re able to feel as if you’re bravely standing alone against vast forces threatening to crush your way of life, you are — in that fine neologism from The Simpsons, embiggened. Everyone wants to be Horatius at the bridge. The greater the threat, the more noble the person who fights it. If thousands of years of human civilisation are at risk from ‘fascists’ or ‘cultural Marxists’, or ‘post-modernists’, it lends your cause more dignity than if you’re annoyed because lots of people don’t agree with you.
There’s a sociocultural reason, too: the rise in identity politics has given victimhood a special rhetorical charge. Your authority — be you a toothless and Dilaudid-addled white Trumpista in the flyover states, or a woman of colour in a liberal arts college — is in proportion to your lack of privilege. I don’t offer this as a bad thing in and of itself — it’s simply a fact on the ground. And — in a move either of rhetorical calculation or some weird sort of Stockholm syndrome — the opponents of identity politics have borrowed its clothes to present themselves as the oppressed. But, for which we should be grateful, they most certainly are not.
There. I said it.