WRITER and broadcaster Toby Young is creating a Free Speech Union. Anyone who believes in freedom should wish this venture well.
Few things in life are as precious as free speech. Not just because of our personal liberty, tremendously valuable as that might be. Free speech keeps the world healthy and moving forward. Without it, our horizons contract, our thoughts narrow and our ability to test the utility or harm of ideas vanishes. Nonsense and evil go unchallenged.
Sadly, we need to keep reminding ourselves how essential and fragile free speech is. It is eternally threatened by people with closed minds, an intolerance of freedom or a desire to bully others. We have a collective duty to defend against them.
Over the last few years, fuelled by social media and a tide of Leftist activism, the level of general censoriousness in our society seems to have increased. It’s no longer enough for many people just to argue back against opinions they dislike; instead they want them stamped out. They want to be relieved of the obligation of having to defend their own ideas. It’s so much easier to stop your opponent from speaking than having to engage with him or her. You face the terrible risks of being exposed to different opinions or, even worse, finding yourself in the wrong.
As debate in our public life narrows, the tendrils of new orthodoxies reach into every corner; the media, government, our educational system. Even the police, who have taken to patrolling Twitter, not just looking for crimes but for unacceptable thinking.
Some of the attacks we have seen on free speech have caused genuine harm. Promotions or job opportunities have been denied or careers ended when people express opinions, even if scrupulously argued, that don’t fit the zeitgeist. Those who stand up against this have even been dismissed as Nazis.
Experts are barred from giving talks; mobs shut down meetings that displease them. Our ability to solve social problems or tackle injustices decreases as people become frightened to make well-intentioned contributions on important debates.
It’s not the only battlefield where free speech is being attacked, but the controversies around transgenderism provide many rich examples. Anyone refusing to show unequivocal acceptance of new trans doctrines is a ‘hater’ to be shut up, forcibly if necessary. The zealots are unbothered by whether or not they represent anyone more than themselves or that some of their absolute certainties were invented barely yesterday.
As Joanna Williams described in the Telegraph, academics need panic alarms, suffer having their offices sprayed with urine or face threats of death or rape simply for questioning the claim that gender is simply a matter of identity.
In academia, it’s not just about radical fringe elements asserting themselves. Intolerance of dissenting ideas, even on mainstream topics such as Brexit, seems to permeate the entire university system. A November 2019 report from the think tank Policy Exchange, entitled Academic Freedom in the UK, describes ‘chilling’ events for those disagreeing with the anti-Brexit consensus prevalent in the educational world. There have been ‘high profile campaigns to sack academics and fewer than four out of ten Leave-supporting students feel able to share their views’.
What’s the point of a university where the free exchange of thought or expression of political opinions, which happen to have been supported by 52 per cent of those who voted in the Brexit referendum, are met with suppression and harassment?
Needless to say, whatever our own preferences might be and however remote a possibility, we should be equally disgusted if ordinary Remain supporters were treated in the same way. This is about something much more fundamental than backing your own side. The report goes on to reassure us that a ‘solid core’ of at least a third of students still strongly support free speech. I’m afraid I don’t find that statistic at all reassuring. What do the other two-thirds believe?
If you’re getting on with your own life, you might think that what happens in our university system, though unfortunate, isn’t relevant to you. You would be wrong. This is where the next generation of those who will come to control and shape public life, much of your future and your family’s future are learning their adult behaviour. That’s a very unpleasant thought.
If Toby Young’s new organisation can make a contribution to the fight back for freedom it should be warmly welcomed. As Toby puts it, he sees the fledgling union as ‘a mass-membership organisation to protect the speech rights of its members. Students and academics are welcome to join (just email email@example.com ) but it will be open to anyone who thinks their free speech is in jeopardy’.
I wish him every success.