Speak free or die

| June 29, 2024

The American comic actor Patton Oswalt has an uncle who swears he saw Bigfoot, hence Patton’s contention that while we have a responsibility to acknowledge other people’s beliefs, which does not imply a need to respect them.

We live in an age devoid of physical danger, yet the call for ever greater “safety” appears to trump every other priority. However, there are more important things than safety in life, as the unlived life is not worth examining. After three hundred years of the enlightenment, it has once again become controversial – and therefore all the more necessary – to mount a vigorous defence of something far more important – the most sacred of liberties – the right to free speech without fear of censorship or reprisal.

Make no mistake, this mainstay of liberal democracy is once again a contested battleground. The hard-won terrain of open discourse, rich with the blood and ink of countless martyrs to the cause of intellectual freedom, is threatened by Putin’s tanks and China’s blandishments from without, but also well-intentioned speech codes from within. We have more ways of making our voices heard than ever, but woe betide you if you say – or think – the wrong thing.

We must therefore speak out in support of speaking out and defend the right of our ideological foes as well as friends to make their case. Free speech is not an optional bourgeois extra to be abandoned in pursuit of social justice goals. It is not an abstract legal construct or convenient cloak for bigotry. No, free speech remains the very bedrock of human progress. It is the fountain from which all other rights flow. Without the ability to question, to challenge, and yes, to offend, we are but well-fed cattle, mooing contentedly in our pens as we await the inevitable slaughter.

“But surely,” I hear the tremulous voices of the perpetually aggrieved cry out, “there must be limits! What of hate speech? What of misinformation?” To which I reply, what of it? Who among us is so infallible, so omniscient, as to be the rightful arbiter of truth? Who would you trust with the awesome power to silence dissent? Your favourite politician? Your most revered cleric? Elon Musk? The Scottish Parliament? The best way to combat bad speech is more speech, not less, and only time should sit as judge and jury as to who was right. The admirable urge to reduce discrimination against individuals or ‘oppressed minorities’ should not restrict our right to discriminate between fact and fancy.

As the anarchist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg noted in her prescient writings on the Bolshevik revolution’s swift slide into tyranny “without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins. Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations (and the) shooting of hostages.”

The moment we cede the right to determine what can and cannot be said, we have already lost the war for liberty, and without liberty there can be no social progress, even if that censorship is carried out in progress’ name.  The censor’s pen is not like ours, the more ink it expels in crossing out words, the more it has to find a home for.  Today’s protected class may well find itself tomorrow’s heretic. History is replete with examples of this ideological whiplash, from the French Revolution’s reign of terror to the countless purges of brutal communist regimes. The lesson is clear: give no quarter to those who would stifle speech, for they will inevitably turn their gaze upon you.

But let us move beyond mere defensive posturing. Free speech is not merely a shield against tyranny; it is the very engine of human advancement. Every great idea that has propelled our species forward—from the heliocentric model of the solar system to the theory of evolution—began as a dangerous heresy, a threat to the established order. Had Galileo or Darwin been silenced in the name of social harmony or religious sensibility; how much poorer would we all be?

Moreover, free speech serves as a pressure valve for societal tensions, rather than stoking them. When grievances can be aired openly, when ideas can be debated vigorously, we reduce the likelihood of these frustrations erupting into violence. Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant, and bad ideas wither under the harsh glare of public scrutiny far more effectively than when driven underground by well-meaning but misguided arbiters of good taste or political purity.

I can already hear the objections forming on the lips of the more delicate among us. “But words can hurt!” they whimper, clutching their pearls with one hand while reaching for their moral gavel with the other. Free speech should be reserved for punching up against the powerful, a weapon for us, in other words, but never ‘them’.

To which I say: grow up. The world is not a padded nursery, and we do ourselves and future generations a grave disservice by pretending otherwise. The ability to weather offense, to engage with ideas we find repugnant, to argue our case in the face of opposition—these are the marks of a mature and robust citizenry. Far from protecting our tender youth from ideas and alternative opinions, our universities should be arenas where they battle it out, not safety obsessed daycare centres.

Let us be clear: the defence of free speech does not oblige us to provide a platform or willing ear for every half-baked notion or crude provocation. Private individuals and institutions retain the right to curate their spaces as they see fit and common law still guards individuals from slander, just as concepts of treason protect the state. But we must resist, with every fibre of our being, every attempt by that same state or mob rule to inculcate today’s brand of “thought crime” into law or otherwise dictate the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

For in the end, free speech is not merely about the right to speak; it is about the right to think. It is about the fundamental human dignity that comes from being treated as a rational agent capable of processing information and forming one’s own conclusions. To deny this right is to deny our very humanity.

Orwell argued that ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.‘, but though Nineteen Eighty-Four has remained a staple of somewhat smug high school curricula for decades, how many of its lessons have we forgotten?  2 + 2 may still equal 4 in mathematics, but other subjects are under attack now that truth is deemed subservient to postmodern politics. Asserting that X and Y chromosomes define biological sex can now cost biology professors their posts and careers. Objective scientific evidence is apparently no defence against ‘lived experience’ and questioning social shibboleths barely older than the milk in your fridge merits immediate banishment from polite society.

So let us brush aside the accusations of bigotry and stand firm in defence of this most precious liberty. Let us celebrate the cacophony of voices, the clash of ideas, and accept the occasional offense given or taken in good heart. This cacophony is a feature, not a bug, for it’s a vital part of the messy, often uncomfortable process by which we forge a better future, worthy of our highest aspirations. The alternative — a quiet, “safe” world where difficult facts are suppressed, and challenging voices silenced — is no utopia. It is a graveyard, not just of free speech, but of the human spirit itself.

This is not about words.  Certain words which were once beyond the pale on the nation’s airwaves are now commonplace, and visa versa too.  This is about ideas.  Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts, and respect for those opinions must be earned, not imposed or even expected. The problem with ‘cancel culture’ is that it risks cancelling vast swathes of culture itself, leaving us at the whim of whichever bully or buffoon wants to remake reality in their own inevitably repellent image.

If you’re offended by someone’s opinion, then that’s your prerogative, but it doesn’t mean they have to care, apologise, make amends or adjust their point of view in the slightest.  People have a right to be different, people have a right to be wrong. They don’t have to conform to your ideology just because you say so, just as you don’t have to conform to theirs.  Everyone has the right to promote their point of view, be it on the middle east or Bigfoot, but no-one has the right to brook no argument. If you want to dish it out in the public sphere, then you have to be willing to take it, no matter how many nose rings you have, or the colour of your hair, even if it’s grey as mine.