Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
I wanted to write about freedom of speech, but I was worried that someone could disagree with what I said, or claim that I wasn’t the right person to say it. I wanted to write about freedom of speech, but I suspected that someone might hack into my article to censor and change it. I wanted to write about freedom of speech, but I knew that if I did, someone would drag me from my home, then torture and kill me.
Several days after another nineteen people’s heads were sawn off by ISIS terrorists, some Oxford students cancelled a debate about abortion. Pretty offensive juxtaposition, no? At least immensely bathetic?
As individuals living in a liberal democracy, our greatest asset is our freedom. To most, a free life requires unrestricted independence. However, it is practicable to warrant infringement upon this when others are at risk of harm. These views – elucidated best by John Stuart Mill (whose “harm principle” is kinder than it sounds) – venerate the importance of free speech. To others, true freedom also necessitates the full realisation of one’s potential. But this, of course, is open to exploitation by ideologists wanting to impose their model of what this potential might be.
Apart from its intrinsic value, the opportunity to voice views freely – regardless of their content (unless they incite violence) – is essential to liberal society. It holds people to account: ‘‘Oh look, another UKIP candidate has said something ever-so-slightly racist. Maybe I won’t vote for them after all.’’ It challenges coercion and trammelled thinking: ‘‘Our MP is acting somewhat questionably with regards to x. I’m going to tell my fellow constituents about this.’’ And it makes us responsible for our principles by forcing us to be continually discerning, even about the things we hold most dear: ‘‘Someone is slamming free speech, maybe I should have a rethink about whether it’s a good thing after all…’’ or, ‘‘The phrase ‘abortion culture’ is clearly vile – why shouldn’t we want to suppress it?’’ But what free speech doesn’t do is entail that all viewpoints are equal. Rather, it is the enemy of the insidiousness of moral relativism: it helps us search out truth and good.
Last week’s Oxford case exemplifies not only the sidelining of freedom, but also the imposition of arrogant ideology – and the risks these pose, both to the integrity of our institutions and the justness of our society. Some students had organised a debate to take place at Christ Church, in which two journalists (Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, who have both written excellent pieces about this experience) were to address the motion, “This house believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all.” Pretty standard behaviour: formal and informal debate resounds throughout any good university. However, this one never took place; a group of disapproving fellow students threatened a violent protest on Facebook, panicking the college, which cancelled it. And whilst the blame for this debacle surely lies mostly upon those who resorted to such threats, the people who gave in to them and then failed to find a way for the debate to take place regardless acted feebly.
The enforced prohibition of the event clearly infringed free speech – indeed, the Catholic Herald cites a barrister claiming this prohibition to be illegal – and in that, the reasoning of those who opposed it is irrelevant. Yet, their main objection (see perpetrator Niamh McIntire in The Independent), that it would have been damagingly inappropriate for men to debate abortion owing to their lack of a uterus (yes, it would seem that people still use this avocado-coloured 1970s lingo) is representative of a concerning trend.
If we were allowed only to discuss issues which immediately affected us, our society would not be free. It would also be pretty boring, as none of us could ever talk about Nero, Napoleon, or, increasingly, Neville Chamberlain. You – I know you’re a man, because YouGov Profiles tells me so – couldn’t condemn FGM. And few of us could denounce the atrocities of North Korea (obviously people there aren’t allowed an equivalently amusing website to offer me reader stats). This restriction on participation isn’t simply inane, it’s narrow and dangerous.
It’s all very well for Oxford undergraduates to prefer to stand up for themselves, but what about those people who can’t? Not just through lack of education or opportunity, but because their freedom of speech is curtailed by threat or law, because they’re oppressed to the point of unawareness, or because they’re in a labour camp about to die of malnutrition. Who’s going to fight for them when they can’t? Or you, when you can’t?
Several days after another 19 people’s heads were sawn off by ISIS terrorists, some Oxford students cancelled a debate about abortion. And, patently, I’m not suggesting that giving in to peer pressure equates to terrorism. But trivialising free speech is unthinking to the point of terrifying recklessness. The greatest threat we currently face is from those people whose ideology doesn’t just want the imposition of controlling positive freedom – it wants no freedom. And, as revealed by recent terror plots, this risk no longer solely resides in a distant desert.
In this context, it seems incredible to need to remind our brightest students what free speech truly is, and why it is so essential. Writing in the Cambridge Tab (Varsity’s trashy cousin), the current president of the Cambridge Union stuck up for the Other Place, claiming that we shouldn’t “uncritically embrace freedom of speech as a fundamental right”, and that he’s “proud that we’ve started to consider the social impact of debates on those that they concern, rather than believing them to be academic exercises which happen in an intellectual vacuum”.
By all means appreciate the way in which a world-class education can help you to defend yourself and what you think is right, but don’t luxuriate against the luxuriousness of this privilege to the point of imposing your infallibility. If you think it wrong to debate an issue, go and have a debate about this. Because the more you disagree with something, the more you need to fight to be allowed to say so. And to be able to do that, you have to let us hear what it is you oppose.
Without free speech, our minds are dumb.