Olivia Bennett discusses free speech on the left.
In a portrait of 2020, I would attempt to paint the seismic shifts in the tectonic plates of culture. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, elevated race tensions, and progressive debate on gender identity, it is the insidious swing in the pendulum of the Left-Right paradigm, and the Left’s stance on free speech that would prominently feature.
From the advocation of trade unions, to a propensity for sedition and organised protest; freedom of speech has historically been a value associated within the Left. However, in an era of post-truth politics and post modernism, an illiberal Left appears to have emerged. This Left is unyieldingly hyper-partisan in their support of marginalised communities beliefs; as J K Rowling discovered following her controversial comments on gender identity.
White Lives Matter Burnley
The Left's apparent intolerance for contrasting opinion is epitomised in the reaction to White Lives Matter (WLM) Burnley. Last month, before a Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester City, the players knelt in an act of solidarity against racism, following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
As the players knelt, a banner captioned ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ flew over the stadium. Following the incident, Burnley FC pledged to give lifetime bans to all fans involved, and the fan who organised it was dismissed from his job.
I am, proudly, a black person. I understand the pain and necessity of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) slogan; our lives have, unjustly, been undervalued for centuries. However, I also acknowledge that no race has a monopoly on oppression. The timing of the banner was both distasteful and inflammatory, however, to focus on this is to miss the point.
In its 2020 annual report, the Social Metric Commission revealed that 14 million Britons live in poverty. Figures showed this number, is racially disproportionate; 46% of Black British households are affected compared to 19% of White households. Yet, if I was within that 19%, I too would voice that WLM. The devaluation of life goes beyond race, it is intersectional and we must remove the disparity in social welfare for all effected.
There is concern that an uncensored approach to free speech has fuelled far Right movements who have weaponised it in order to incite hatred. Undoubtedly, there will be some who use the WLM slogan in a hateful, nonobjective backlash to the BLM movement. However, in such instances we must trust the law. Article 10 European Convention Human Rights Act (ECHRA) outlines free speech is not an absolute right. For instance, Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws hate speech, by criminalising words that are “threatening, abusive or insulting”. On this basis, no criminal offence was deemed to have been committed in organising the WLM banner.
The importance of open debate in a democratic society
The counter-productivity of the Lefts illiberal approach to objective free speech is twofold. First, of itself, censorship of free speech is anti-liberal; particularly as it adversely impacts those who are already marginalised. “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression” states Article 10 ECHRA. The ability to fight for your right to equality, irrespective of your identity, starts with free speech.
In Development of Freedom, Amartya Sen asserts “expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development”, I argue this applies to freedom of expression. To attempt to restrict free speech via vilifying, no-platforming or cancel culture reduces participation in the development of a democratic society. This prevents equality, and perilously undermines the integrity of the Left.
Second, the censorship of free speech is counterproductive to the Left movement as it risks alienating and underestimating a silent majority (Brexit!). This modern zeitgeist with a “tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in blinding moral certainty” is lamented in Harper’s Magazine ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, signed by 153 notable signatories, including J.K.Rowling.
“If you're in favour of free speech” philosopher Noam Chomsky wrote in his classic 1992 text Manufacturing Consent “then you're in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise”. The Left must revert to traditional liberalism by encouraging open debate, and avoid hypocritically monopolising free speech in activism, this only serves to further divide an increasingly fractious Left, and wider society.