There is no absolute right of free speech. What you can say without fear of prosecution is limited by the law – for instance, libel or copyright law. Free speech is also constrained by social norms – i.e. standards of tact and courtesy. Then there’s a third category of constraint – one analysed (and criticised) by Kenan Malik in a post for his Pandaemonium blog:

“For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise social friction and to protect the dignity of people from different backgrounds.”

This ‘policing of public discourse’ can take many forms. On several occasions, it has literally involved the police – with existing hate speech legislation used to make spurious complaints. Alternatively, it can involve a quasi-legal procedure within a particular institution – for instance, the ‘safe space’ policies currently spreading across university campuses. A further variation is when counter-argument degenerates into a campaign of harassment.

Those who acknowledge our right to free speech, but who think we ought to shut-up anyway, have ways of making us shut-up.

Kenan Malik identifies two key principles that the speech police use to justify their actions.

The first of these is tolerance. Like most people, Malik believes that we should be tolerant of those who think differently from us, but notes a sinister shift in definitions:

“Tolerance used to mean the willingness to accept things being said with which one did not agree. Now, it is the insistence that one should keep silent about things with which others disagree. Tolerance, in other words, is no longer about opening up society. It’s about closing it down.”

The second key principle is responsibility:

“…‘acting responsibly’ means not saying anything that you know will provoke other people into acting violently.”

This involves another inversion:

“…those most willing to be provoked, or to threaten, should be the ones who effectively decide what can and cannot be said. Rather than fingering the perpetrators of violence for being irresponsible, it puts the onus on the victims to act responsibly.”

These are excellent points, but the misuse of tolerance and responsibility as weapons against free speech goes even further.

These days, tolerance might not only mean a requirement to keep quite about something you disagree with, but to actively ‘celebrate’ it. As for responsibility, the practice of blaming the victim of a violent attack is not the only way in which blame can be transferred from the actual perpetrator. Violence (or the possibility of violence) against members of a particular group can be used as an pretext for suppressing legitimate criticism of ideas associated, however loosely, with that group. An example of this tactic might be to claim that expressing concern over immigration policy helps to stoke racism or that criticising the Israeli government stirs up anti-Semitism.

Of course, someone who’s against mass immigration could be a racist too, just as a critic of the Israeli government could also be an anti-Semite. If so, these malign motivations should be exposed for what they are. However, the speech police would rather not bother. Indeed, it suits them to leave the rotten apples in place and condemn the whole barrel.

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