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Of the Freedom of Speech

Raphael's The School of Athens (1509-1511)
Freedom of Speech is apparently something which is now under threat. Spiked magazine recently made the bold claim that some three hundred years of press freedom was threatened by the British Parliamentary vote on the implementation of the second stage of the Leverson inquiry earlier this month. At roughly the same time, and with the general silence of the British Broadcasting Corporation confirming its controversy, the libertarian protest march (a phrase one finds oneself very rarely reciting) Day for Freedom was held, with such varied guests as “Sargon of Akkad”, Tommy Robinson, and Gerard Batten rearing their heads. It would appear, on the face of things, that there has been some kind of massive infringement of long-established civil rights, or at least, that’s what such a public backlash against institutionalised (if perhaps unofficial) speech-policy would imply. The extent to which this is natural, and the extent to which this is artificial for the sake of giving the pretension of opposition, however, is something which has been little-discussed.

There are, of course, truths in all things. The extent to which man-made phenomena demonstrate truth-to-error is a matter of degrees. Therefore, to reach a conclusion about freedom of speech and censorship which demonstrates the highest level of truth, we must consider the problem from various angles. Considerations include the errors and benefits of censorship, the mindset of individuals who presently conduct the censoring, the values of those who have historically enjoyed the privilege of speech, and the inherent value of the freedom of speech.

Censorship

There is a general tendency to associate the political Left with censoriousness in contemporary Rightist political discourse. There is of course a great deal of evidence which vindicates this. On University campuses has the essence of this been most clearly distilled: no-platforming, closed-mindedness, and disruptive behaviour have all faced criticism in recent years and months from prominent members of the mainstream and dissident political Right. Beyond the University, a certain censorship of public discourse is seen. Distasteful comedy, natural criticism of demographic change, and traditional religious (or otherwise) dissent to the LGBT rights agenda all prompt negative social if not overtly political consequences; and one would expect exactly the reactions which we see. It is after all the Right which suffers from this censorship, and so it would naturally be the Right which feels slighted. There is a general burning desire within the Right to fight back against this unfair treatment, but there remain a number of questions which few on the Right seem keen to attempt to answer.

The Right often rallies behind the idol of the freedom of speech today. It is, apparently, a timeless value, a legal right which is now facing some sort of apocalyptic existential threat. In some respects this is correct: the Right’s freedom of speech is facing existential obliteration. But the species of freedom of speech which the Right likes to talk about does not exist. There is no society in which views can be expressed freely, where Left and Right ‘agree to disagree’ and engage in civilised debate without resorting to wrath, or more vividly: gagging one another. The curse of normativity is to blame. If one’s ideology implies that one’s opponents are in some way unorthodox, or in more extreme cases, heretical to the point of threatening some sort of danger or evil, then it is absolutely imperative that the triumph of orthodoxy is achieved. As such, censorship is a natural tendency of any political persuasion. If it is a tendency of the Left to be disgusted at instances of ‘homophobia'[1] then it will be a tendency of the Right to be disgusted by attempts to prevent the criticism of the LGBT liberation movement. What is the most effective tool against ‘homophobes’? Why, it is to prevent them from expressing homophobia in the first instance. What then is the most effective tool against the homophile? It is the silencing of those who wish to publically normalise the behaviour of members of the LGBT community.

Even the expression of opposition to Leftist censorship itself entails censorship, for it implies that in order to achieve a state of society where those who wish to censor certain expressions of opinion no longer exist, then those who express the opinion “ought to be censored” themselves deserve to be hindered or prevented from actually fulfilling such censorship. That would almost certainly entail the censorship of the censorious. There is therefore no difference between the two. When it comes to the matter of censorship there is no moral high ground beyond the personal convictions of the individual of Right or Left. The difference between Right and Left is purely theoretical in nature: the Right will censor those who threaten the traditional standards and structures which it values; the Left will censor those who attempt to peddle traditional dogma in the face of real, perceived, or potential social equity.

The Free Press

2008, 2009. It was in these two years that two of the most infamous criminal offences were struck from the United Kingdom’s statue books by Acts of Parliament:[2] that of blasphemy and seditious libel, respectively. The Kingdom of England had always had a complex publication licensing system until the end of the 17th century, when via the influence of thinkers such a John Locke, the free press became more of visible reality for most Britons. One cannot deny the influence of the free press, even in Britain. The reality since the repeal of the Licensing Acts was, for a long time, that almost every author had the freedom to publish his ideas, but once those ideas were out in the public domain he might face prosecution if those ideas overstepped the mark, whatever that might have been.

Whilst the sheer profusion of different writings during the pamphlet wars of the 18th century, and the widespread use of pseudonyms, often made it difficult for authorities to identify seditious authors, ‘overstepping the mark’ was a very real possibility. Radical activist Francis Burdett was prosecuted and found guilty of seditious libel for criticising the Government’s response to the agitation for parliamentary reform in 1820. The Leftist broadsheet and forerunner to the modern Observer newspaper, the Manchester Observer was closed down after repeated prosecutions. Even outside of the political world, erotic novels such as Edmund Curll’s Venus in the Cloister and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill had faced extensive prohibition. The Licensing Act 1737 saw theatrical productions inspected before they could be staged. The last successful blasphemy prosecution was held in 1977 on account of James Kirkup’s homoerotic poem describing Jesus Christ engaging in various homosexual acts. As recently as 1992, however, an openly atheist schoolteacher was arrested and later pressured into resigning his position after distributing blasphemous videotapes.

Today, of course, it is actually quite difficult to imagine anyone being prosecuted for any such thing, not matter how outrageous certain offences might seem to the deeply religious. In fact, the tables have turned. Politically incorrect jokes are no longer shown mercy, and in a curious reversal of fortunes, any attempt to depict Christianity according to traditional modes are laughed at or dismissed as fanaticism. For instance, in the BBC’s 2008 drama The Passion, Jesus Christ’s “ascension” into Heaven was depicted as an effete wandering off into the midst of the crowds of Jerusalem;[3] hardly a dignified treatment of the supposed Son of God! Meanwhile, the media crowed gleefully that “only the most zealously dogmatic Christian could complain that it was irreverent.” Whereas historical characterisations of religion were previously reserved for academia purely for the sake of argument, in order to spare the public of potential offence, now, any expression of offence at the depiction of religion is considered unjustified.[4]

The free press may well have existed for some three hundred years, but free expression? Certainly not. What was at one point the concern of traditionalists for the sake of the preservation of public morality has become the preserve of the ultra-egalitarian. Not even Napoleon and his posse of legal reformists could tolerate the dissemination of vile literature. If there is to be a real acceptance of the power of words, then there must also be a real acceptance of the power of dangerous words. Take the following thought experiment: imagine that Adolf Hitler was reborn tomorrow. He lives in hiding and he publishes anti-Semitic, racist literature regularly from his hiding place. Common sense morality would demand the censorship of his ideas, and probably his arrest as well, since there appears to be a consensus (whether it is the correct consensus or not being besides the point) that if Hitler were to walk out on the streets again tomorrow, he ought to be killed, or at least imprisoned indefinitely. There are some things you just don’t do. There always have been such things; there always will be; free press or not, free thought is eternally in a state of taboo.

Privilege

“Privilege” is yet another buzzword of modern political discourse. Is the freedom of speech a privilege which is withheld from certain classes and groups? Or perhaps it is not this, and rather ought to be a privilege to be earned? Given the historical status of free expression detailed above, we might be forgiven for treating it as a privilege. The English Bill of Rights 1689 established in unambiguous terms the absolute right to freedom from prosecution on account of things said in an English parliamentary chamber. Many people in the UK erroneously believe their right to the freedom of speech to be protected by the Magna Charta, or by the Bill of Rights itself. Unfortunately for them, there is no such provision, nor was there ever. The former is mostly relevant for its establishment of the right to trial by jury, the rest of it involves the clear process of devolution of certain privileges from the king to his lords. The latter solely concerned the rights of Parliament and the MPs who comprised it. However, both documents might be considered significant for other reasons.
The Bill of Rights formally established in law a custom which had until its passage remained ambiguous: Parliamentary privilege. A precedent in law protecting Members of Parliament from prosecution had been established in the Strode’s Case of the 16th century, but its status had remained ambiguous following King Charles I’s interruption of the proceedings of the House of Commons in the events preceding the English Civil War. The Bill of Rights ensured that the limits of the monarch’s power with regards to what was said in the Commons were established.

We should ask this: what guarantees the rights of an MP to say anything, even obscenity, taboo, or incriminating facts, and not face restraint? Abusers of Parliamentary privilege can face some limited consequences, but these are rarely implemented beyond a brief reprimand from the Speaker of the House, particularly on account of the equally ambiguous definition of what might be considered “abuse of privilege.”

In essence, MPs, being examples of the same “good and lawful men” whom King Edward III appointed to be the first Justices of the Peace in the 14th century, were expected to be men of good standing, civility, and who would go to Parliament in good faith with the interests of their local shire or borough in mind. In short, MPs were initially chosen out of respect for their responsibility, and so completely unrestrained discussion was not only absolutely necessary in order to safeguard the interests of the shires and boroughs which each MP represented, but furthermore there seemed to be little reason to fear any kind of major outrage, since with every MP at the time being a committed believer in divinely-revealed morality and (usually) an upstanding member of his local community, there was little chance of violence on the floor of the House of Commons. Indeed, the fact that violence on the floor of the Commons has only occurred once or twice since the establishment of Parliamentary privilege some five-hundred years ago, along with the relatively low number of public abuses of that privilege, stand as testament to the good nature of many MPs throughout history. Such privilege only becomes troubling with the advent of party politics, once Parliament, as today, loses many of its roles as a representative and consultative body in favour of acting as a rubber stamp to the policies of whichever political party happens to have been elected in a particular year, ever pushing on with its limited five-year-long agenda.

Turn this supposition around, and we have a different, Leftist take on privilege and the freedom of speech. We often hear an argument for censoriousness from the Left being that only straight, cisgendered, white people (men) can properly enjoy their freedom of speech, often for circumstantial and outwardly pathetic reasons such as that a lesbian, genderfluid, woman of colour would feel too intimidated to exercise xer freedom of speech in the presence of such an innately oppressive breed of human as the straight white male, and as such only the censorship of the white male will suffice in order to satisfy the privilege gap. Here we enter a new line of enquiry: that which relates more directly to social justice. Whether one favours the gay woman of colour or the straight white man, one must occupy a position where there is an allocation of desert. “deserves to be heard over y because of reason z.” This, however, is similar to the reasoning behind the election of the “good and Godly” to the position of JP, or MP. “deserves to become a JP/MP because he is better at administering fairly when compared to the alternatives.”

Once again, we see that just as Left and Right agree that certain individuals ought to be censored, and speaking positively, that they both agree that certain people should have the privilege of speech; the difference being that whilst the Right would prefer to allocate privilege based upon the exercise of the principle itself (e.g. of the Right’s understanding of ‘justice’), the Left would rather allocate privilege based upon the identification of those who suffer from the effects of a particular “power structure.” The difference derives from first principles, not from the contention itself.

Whither Freedom?

So does the freedom of speech have value? Most certainly there is value in the free exchange of ideas in certain contexts. Yet, there is one further consideration we must turn to which we briefly touched upon in the first section, something crucial in matters such as these: the relationship between violence and human nature. Since censoriousness appears characteristic of both Left and Right, we might assume that it is a fundamental part of human nature; indeed, when we feel disgusted by something, we naturally feel as though we ought to prevent it from occurring. What we often see today, as in many other points in time, is that censorship manifests itself as violence. Violence, again, is something natural to the human condition: by inflicting pain upon another, you can, proverbially, “teach them a lesson.” Violence tends to fall into two categories: stressful, defensive, and preëmptive. The stressful kind is usually swiftly regretted and uncontrollable; the defensive is derived from the natural instinct to preserve life; and the preëmptive is often found in the darker reaches of human psychology, fore-planning an attack upon someone or something in order to protect projects, values, or in more extreme cases, specific individuals, sometimes in much of a Machiavellian mode. Criminals tend to fall foul of the law when guilty of stressful or preëmptive violence. Most intriguingly, the law almost always utilises preëmptive violence to aid its own enforcement.

It has been the political project of most conservatives since Hobbes to prevent violence, civil violence in particular. It is a noble quest, but its realisation relies to some degree upon public censoriousness. If too much offensive content is released into the public sphere, people will become angry. They will either therefore lash out due to stress, or preëmptively to defend their values (since most people are naturally defensive of what they care about), or as is usually the case, a little of both with have some role to play in the public’s reaction. If the public becomes too angry, why then they will revolt, and history teaches us that revolutions tend to never achieve any of the goals which they set out to achieve. To censor that which offends public morality, or that which might incite certain groups (radical or mainstream) towards violence is therefore wholly in order within the realm of good statesmanship.

There is one important caveat to this, and we may return to the likes of Spiked magazine in order to find it. Oftentimes, when those on the Right, or who occupy the libertarian ground, appeal to the freedom of speech, they emphasise the importance of an education in the “value” of such a right to speak, and encourage “good sportsmanship” in the progress of debates. One hears the accusation of the fallacy of ad hominem or ad baculum almost as regularly as one hears the accusation that this or that conservative is a racist. Yet, to imagine a future where civil debate is conducted by all good citizens with the utmost respect, is utopian, cut from the same cloth as the French Revolutionary idealists: that is to say, it is an impossible future. So who is it who actually can conduct a civil debate within the tried and tested rules of the dialectic?

If it is free and fair discussion which is sought, seek it in the correct circles. The contemporary Right’s concerns about the freedom of speech are best legitimised in the context of the University, for instance. It was always at Universities that unpopular ideas were most easily disseminated, critiqued, and eventually rejected or accepted. For instance, it was from work done at Christ Church, Oxford, that John Locke formulated his ideas on the philosophical tradition of his own era; it was at the University of Tübingen that David Friedrich Strauss first published his sceptical analysis of the Gospels of the New Testament as mythology. Most intellectual writers, however abstract, tend to make lasting impacts upon their fields, if their work is judged to be of good quality, whenever that may be.

This latter concept of free and intellectual discussion in academic circles has become challenged in recent years, particularly as conception of the University as anything other than an intellectual exercise in self-assurance by the political Left appears to have been met with virulent opposition. However, even outside the context of the University, one fact remains: in order to resist anger at the expression of views antithetical to one’s own, one must exercise a great deal of self-control, and level of civility and respect which is simply impossible for a large number of people (I would hesitate to say “majority” without hard facts). There is a certain docility of nature and civility of discourse (“goodness and Godliness” to use the common law terms) which may well be attainable for certain intellectuals who appreciate the value of free discussion, but to ask that this civility exist within the wider public sphere is to demand an end to human nature itself.

Hobbes believed that freedom could only exist within the context of a government which by necessity authorised its own power by the tacit consent of the majority of people and the toleration by the minority of that tacit will. A similar phenomenon is true of the freedom of speech; societies always develop their own customs and mores, undoubtedly influenced by the social and political tides of the age. The majority have sway over the enforcement of these customs, whilst the minority must accept them, begrudgingly or otherwise; the government must enforce the customs of the majority if it wishes to survive, for not to do so is to be tyrannical, and tyrants tend not to live for long.

Traditional conservatives today are a minority, or at the very least, if they are a sizable minority, they are made to feel small, as is natural of the rule of the majority. If Rightists want to be taken seriously, they must learn to dominate intellectual discussion and take advantages of free speech privileges where they can. Once they have the dominance of the intellectual debate, they may, like the Left, begin the process of drip-feeding their values back into society. Until such a time they may continue to face violence and discrimination, but in the face of this they should consider, at least, the value of honesty, in admitting that the future is not one of a liberal free speech utopia, but rather a society where decency, moral virtue, and social responsibility are championed, with the freedom of speech being a privilege of those who can show that they are worthy enough of character to not embarrass themselves by the abuse of such a treasured and volatile right.
[1] The application of due sense and caution in the usage of such ‘-phobic’ terminology is advised.

[2] The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009

[3] You can witness this “ascension” at the 1:21:45 timestamp of the linked video.

[4] It is interesting to consider that this attitude was strained after it affected the Muslim community in 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Some Leftists and Rightists alike championed the right to depict anything they wished; others, mostly on the Left, condemned the magazine Charlie Hebdo for “provoking” the more radical members of the Muslim community in the first place.

About Alex Illingworth

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Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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