Free speech is in danger. Censorious people undermine it by telling us not to say various things which would offend the members of some particular group. In most cases the censor is not actually a member of that religion or race or sex or class, but presumes to speak on behalf of it.
To confront these prigs on a daily basis tends to feel like too much trouble. A small bell rings inside the speaker or writer’s brain: this idea, or turn of phrase, might conceivably be offensive to at least some Christians or Muslims or members of an ethnic minority or women or the working class or the young or the old. As far as I know, people don’t yet worry about offending 56-year-old contributors to ConservativeHome, but perhaps that will come.
For much of the time, to confront these tiresome individuals seems like too much trouble. Why bother to have a great row about the right to use some word or expression or idea? Unless one wants to set oneself up as a professional controversialist, life seems too short for that kind of thing. Most of us don’t want to waste our time having arguments with people who won’t listen to a word we say and will instead accuse us of harbouring some kind of deeply unpleasant prejudice.
So the range of permissible opinion becomes narrower. A new offence of blasphemy is created, but nowadays the problem is not that one is voicing unacceptable doctrine, but simply that one is giving unacceptable offence. If the victim’s feelings have been hurt, whoever hurt them is in the wrong. And although the victim may not be much worried, or indeed worried at all, the self-righteous people who become the victim’s defenders will not let the matter drop.
In an excellent new pamphlet for The New Culture Forum, entitled Speakers Cornered – Twenty-first century Britain’s culture of silence, Oliver Wiseman examines this problem. His report will be available online in a week’s time, but he has given an outline of his thinking in a piece for the Sunday Times. As Wiseman says in the report:
“The censorious have realised that they can suppress speech they would rather not hear without recourse to the law. In our leading publishing houses, art galleries and theatres, on social media and websites used by millions of us every day, speech – valid speech, sometimes even commendable speech – is being silenced. No police are called, no writs are served – and yet people are not free to speak their minds.”
In a YouGov poll commissioned to accompany the report, 41 per cent of respondents said they thought people do not have as much freedom to speak their mind as they should.
My only quarrel with Wiseman is that his report is so moderate, temperate and even-handed that it may not attract the attention it deserves. Whether things are now worse than they were when Milton or Orwell was writing on this subject is questionable: but they are wrong in a different way. The freeborn Englishman’s right to be as rude as he wishes about anyone he feels like being rude about has been done away with, without the freeborn Englishman reckoning he has been consulted. Hence the rise of UKIP. And unbelievably tender feelings are imputed to people who may in fact be quite robust enough to point out, by means of vigorous argument, where they think other people are going wrong. Our politics are diminished by a prissy underestimate of what level of outspokenness is bearable.
Milton, in his Areopagitica, may be accused of taking a somewhat idealistic view of the matter. But there is also a marvellous and invigorating trenchancy in the way he puts it:
“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?…Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”