It has now become routine for the media to highlight and attack those who dare think unapproved thoughts. These monsters are then harassed from all sides by the four horsemen of the PC apocalypse: the wretched media, invertebrate politicians, vacuous slacktivists, and of course, the perpetually outraged chattering classes. Only when a grovelling apology is slowly and painfully drawn from the specimen can the forces of ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberalism’ claim a victory.
Yet this motley band of community-conscious white knights (or should that be non-ethnic specific knights?) would claim that they love and defend free speech. Why? Simple, they lack an understanding as to what it actually is. And as a result, these proponents of free speech are often really its most poisonous enemies.
So let me make this clear, and I am sorry if this comes as a shock, but you have to hear it, the right to free speech includes the right to offend or be hateful. If you’re opposed to those two things, don’t claim to defend free speech; you’ll just be an embarrassment to yourself and those of us who genuinely do support this most vital liberty.
I shall reiterate; FREE speech is unfettered. If you are in favour of ANY restrictions on language, you do not support free speech, so do not have the dishonesty to claim that you do. Your restrictions on ‘offensive’ language are entirely arbitrary, so assuming that everybody shares your morals is utterly arrogant. After all, I can think of several things that were considered offensive sixty years ago that have become commonplace today.
So how harmful is the suppression of free speech? Well, take 2014’s first martyr of this liberty – David Silvester, a former UKIP councillor in Oxfordshire. The man was roundly attacked by the media and a legion of grievance-mongering ‘liberals’ for blaming the winter’s floods on his god’s retribution for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales. The storm of indignation was so vicious that his home was vandalised and in the end, his own party turned its back on him after deeming him too toxic. Were his views homophobic? Maybe. Were his views far-fetched? Perhaps. Should he have been silenced? Certainly not. In essence what really happened was that a politician shared his religious opinion and was swiftly silenced for it. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel as if I live in the liberal country Britain pretends she is.
So what if Silvester’s opinion was offensive? He was simply utilising his natural right to free speech. Again, if you don’t think he should be allowed to say what he had, you do not support free speech.
But if free speech can be so unpleasant why allow it? Well, there are two powerful arguments in favour of the right to free and unrestricted speech. Firstly, on a fundamental level, who are you or I to decide what one can and cannot say? What is offensive to one person is funny to another. As I wrote earlier, any muzzle on free speech is entirely arbitrary and will lead us down a very dangerous path. People often call for the silencing of unpleasant opinions, but then they are shocked when they find that an overreaching government has censored other harmless displays and trivial displays that they didn’t find offensive; the sense of irony is completely lost on them, I might add.
Don’t misunderstand; you have ever right to be offended. But what you don’t have is the right to enforce your opinions on somebody else in the form of censorship and violence. I thought that much was the consensus, but apparently not.
The second argument is more of a practical one. People often believe free speech will bring out the racist, misogynist, or homophobe in people, and they wouldn’t be wrong; people would utilise free speech to voice what perhaps most would consider an unpleasant opinion. But would censorship transform everyone into the mass-produced PC androids the outrage brigade wished we were? Of course not, people will still be racist and offensive, they’ll just be more quiet and resentful about it.
Instead, if you really do want to kill an idea, all constraints on speech should be removed. Shouting homophobe or racist at those you disagree with has no intellectual merit to it whatsoever; every sixth form debating society knows that. Instead, try to convince your opponent of the error of their ways. Only through debate can ideas flourish and be tested. Only through debate can bad ideas be fully discredited and put to rest. People will only be convinced of an idea having come to a conclusion by themselves, and that is why suffocating beliefs under censorship will never actually kill those beliefs.
But one may argue that it’s impossible to change somebody’s mind. That’s often true, but so what? Why is it so bad that somebody has a different opinion to you? As long as the homophobe doesn’t castrate anyone, as long as the racist doesn’t lynch anyone, and as long as the pro-life activist doesn’t bomb anyone, we should accept they have their views and protect their right to express them. Anything else would be tyrannical and would not be worthy of a truly liberal country.
So to conclude, those who do claim to be striving for an enlightened and tolerant world must keep Voltaire’s immortal maxim in mind: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Free speech – and I do mean FREE speech – is essential to any society that advertises itself as fair and just. Not only is it the best way to exchange and develop ideas, but more importantly, it enhances the liberty of the individual, and what could possibly be more important than that?