There’s no doubting the strength of the response to the murderous events in Paris this week. The sense of shock and outrage is widespread – and, thus far, largely unsullied by the victim-blaming that has followed many previous terrorist attacks.
There’s also no doubt that the authorities in France and elsewhere will do everything in their power to hunt down those responsible and guard against future attacks. However, one still has ask whether the politicians mean what they say about defending free speech.
Any government that loses its ability to maintain peace on the streets of its capital city, loses its authority. Thus, above all, the security response to the Paris massacre is about restoring order. This is perfectly proper, as the first duty of government is the protection of its citizens.
Obviously, in stopping terrorists from killing people who say things they disagree with, the state is doing something very important to enable free speech. However, it is incumbent on the state to stop terrorists from killing people for any reason – therefore the question remains: what will our politicians do specifically to defend free speech?
Writing for Spiked on Wednesday, Brendan O’Neill had the following to say about the Charlie Hebdo attack and the state of free speech in the free world:
“It is a more extreme form – a far more extreme form – of something that has become tragically commonplace: the waging of intolerant wars against things judged by certain people to be offensive. Whether it’s mobs successfully having art exhibitions shut down or online gangs getting newspaper articles withdrawn or TV shows pulled, ours is an era in which the feelings of the offended are all too often elevated above the freedoms of thought and expression. The Paris massacre is a fouler, bloodier version of this urge to destroy material that offends people’s sensibilities.”
An example of the new intolerance was the subject of a recent piece by James Bloodworth in the Independent:
“…in a further erosion of free expression, the police in Scotland have this week decided to investigate former Apprentice star and professional controversialist Katie Hopkins for off-colour comments made online about the Scottish nurse who contracted Ebola.
“Doing what she is paid handsomely to do (and presumably what got her 291,000 Twitter followers), Hopkins came up with the most grotesque thing she could say about the issue and condensed it into 140 characters…
“In response, the perennially thin-skinned of Twitter cobbled together a 12,000-strong petition demanding that Hopkins be charged over the tweets and handed it to a police force desperately looking to justify its place in the world at a time of falling crime.”
Obviously, this whole episode is ridiculous (just as Katie Hopkins, the media personality, is ridiculous). But Bloodworth identifies its underlying seriousness:
“…at some point we accepted the dreadful premise that unpleasant – and yes ‘offensive’ – opinions ought to be silenced by force. Idiotic views are now considered matters for law enforcement and it is utterly terrifying.”
It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t just a matter of political correctness gone mad. The cultivation of hyper-sensitivity is now spreading from the post-modern left to the rest of the political spectrum. Consider, for instance, what happened to Emily Thornberry – who was forced to resign not for anything she said, but for what a single photograph may have implied about what she thought. Granted, this wasn’t a police matter – but it doesn’t have to be when the mob can so easily bring professional ruin upon its victims.
So, regardless of this week’s rhetoric, the reality is of a growing public appetite for the curbing of free speech – and a growing willingness among politicians and the press to indulge that appetite. Politicians, like Sajid Javid, who do make a clear stand for free expression are to be applauded – but we need to see all politicians hold the line in all circumstances.
To re-iterate, these are minor matters compared to the murder of journalists, but in responding to the biggest threats to free speech, our leaders should get a grip on the smaller ones.