Jude Wilkinson reflects on the limits of 'free speech' and 'cancel culture'.
Political issues invariably require us to hold in our heads ostensibly contradictory things, and this is especially true of the ‘free speech’ debate. It requires us to accept - whether or not there is a problem with ‘cancel culture’ - that the fact there is the perception of a problem with ‘cancel culture’ is enough to change how we perceive such an issue. On the one hand, I would argue that there is a tension between the pursuit of ‘safe space’ and free, vigorous discourse - at least insofar as the boundaries of what constitutes a ‘safe space’ are disputed. On the other, ‘cancel culture’ is a loaded, weaponized term which exists to smear and lump together an entire movement as inherently regressive and which seeks to ‘silence’ those with whom those who use it disagree.
At the heart of this conversation lies the false dichotomy between ‘limited’ and ‘unlimited’ free speech. Those who assert that they are free speech ‘absolutists’ fall into the trap of assuming that such a position is possible according to the terms on which it is presented. The late Christopher Hitchens is one such example: painting a simplified contrast between the enforced rule of absolute despots and the Humean reality that you cannot control what people ‘believe’ (though you can control what they say), he neglected to mention that ‘free speech’ involves inherent tensions which go to the heart of politics.
For instance, free speech absolutists agree that it ought to be illegal to shout ‘fire’ in a cinema, but on what basis can they come to this conclusion? Such an action can cause mental and physical harm - perhaps in the form of a stampede, but can’t speech in other forms (rhetoric, for instance) cause comparable harm? If the basis that one form of ‘speech’ ought to be illegal is that it causes harm, can’t all speech cause harm, and who defines what is ‘harm’, or what is ‘true’ and ‘false’ in social interaction? If something causes harm, but is true in an objective sense, then should that be off limits? If a group unconsciously excludes someone because they have transgressed the consensus of ‘truth’ within that group, have the group inherently violated their right to free speech to the same extent as a talk show refusing to host someone who is perceived to be excessively radical?
Those who assert that the ‘more offensive the opinion, the more important it is that the right to air such a view is to be defended’ would, by their own logic, accept that there is a limit to ‘offensiveness’ insofar as tangible calls to violence violate the right of others to speak freely. Free speech ‘absolutism’ is as therefore as philosophically unhelpful as it is politically loaded.
But even if such absolutism was internally coherent, the fact is that the free speech debate has too often been used to belittle and besmirch progressives. Terms such as the ‘regressive left’ (coined by the meditation proponent Sam Harris) are commonplace, though the term itself crudely generalises and simplifies. Woke-victim Piers Morgan bemoans the silencing and intolerance of the ‘wokies’ (a smearing and distinctly monetizable term if ever there was one). It’s interesting how often those who infer that they’ve been silenced have published bestselling books, present TV shows and podcasts, and boast massive audiences to whom they emphasise just how much they’ve been silenced.
Among those who crusade against the ostensible silencing of free speech, Toby Jones has managed to construct a virtuous cycle of carefully creating just enough outrage to trend on Twitter, and then write about just how outraged people are. I do not mean to say that the free speech movement is in its entirety an infinitely bloated cycle for writing articles and selling books - the respectability lent to, for instance, the Free Speech Union by the appearances of Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson indicate that there is a legitimate role for emphasising the importance of free speech as an issue which goes to the heart of our political expectations and values. Moreover, though there has scarcely been a point in the last fifty years in which the alleged silencing of free speech was not weaponized by an essentially conservative outlook (David Horowitz pipped Jordan Peterson to the post in this regard), I would argue that we are still too quick to question the motives of those who hold contrary perspectives.
However, we must not be blind to the contortions sustained by certain sections of the commentariat who simultaneously seek to label anyone with a progressive outlook as an ‘activist’ whilst boasting of their own commitment to free dialogue. Guido Fawkes, for instance, described parents sharing their position on the BBC as ‘far left activists’, whilst an open letter from the Observer which criticised Dominic Cummings allegedly had ‘anti-Tory’ and ‘anti-Brexit’ leanings. In pursuing what is true, we must recognise hypocrisy when we see it, and this requires us to simultaneously accept that free speech is worth fighting for, and insofar as this is the case, we must be sensitive to the tension inherent in the concept itself. In this regard, demands to remove speakers from campus, or to stop books from certain authors being published, are politically counterproductive and insensitive to such a tension.
Jude Wilkinson is the Campaign and Trade Unions Officer at Warwick University Labour. He tweets at @judefkwilkinson.