Speech is Plenty Free Without You

Photo by Elijah O'Donell on Unsplash.

Within the last two weeks, a hooded member of the public was seen prematurely recycling copies of Arthur on campus. We do appreciate that this person demonstrated their distaste for us in a socially conscious fashion, but also fuck you. It seems as if this act happened within the same hour that I’d distributed the papers on campus, a task I dread – you could have at least given me time to get home first. Given that these papers were hot off the press, however, the vagabond must have burned their hands and scarred themselves. So, if you see that somebody’s hands have all the tell-tale signs of all too eagerly disposing of a school newspaper, we’ve found the miscreant.

That somebody tossed our work is not the important point. Somebody spent an hour tossing away on campus a newspaper that, in the grand scheme of all the newspapers ever, is at best fine? Well good luck to the tosser. If albeit a micro-representation, it follows a familiar pattern of recent disruptive campus politics, which has aimed to stop other people seeing those things that you don’t like and to halt the dissemination of opinions that are deemed offensive and dangerous. What is important is what it represents in a continuing tumult over “freedom of speech,” and that it gave me quite a neat entry into this article.

Campus politics across North America and the U.K. have been increasingly fraught. “Free speech” has been at the center of this, with varying degrees of left-wing/not right-wing groups disrupting or stopping people from speaking that they don’t like. This has ranged from feminist thinkers like Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer to cranks like Milo Yiannopoulos.

The impression you might reasonably glean from reading evermore about campus showdowns is that free speech is under threat and that students are fragile and unwilling to hear opinions they disagree with. Supposedly, they’d sooner stick a fork up your nose than listen to somebody suggesting that free markets free the people.

Each time somebody is protested or no-platformed the same whines can be heard from the infantile right. Each act is an infringement on freedom of speech, fascistic and Orwellian. “ArE wE LiViNg iN OrWeLl’S 1984?” is peddled just enough to confirm those groups don’t really care about freedom of speech, nor George Orwell’s ideas for that matter.

Instead, free speech has been weaponized. It is a baton with which the right can keep jabbing the left until, one must assume, the baton comes crashing down and the Freedom Police can reveal all of the masked left to be Joseph Stalin.

For all the right’s whingeing that they can no longer say the things that their grandfathers could get away with in the 70’s, it is worth remembering two basic things.

First, freedom of speech is not under attack. Government policy is not censoring anybody; loads of different people are just exercising their freedom of expression. In fact, the only real policy proposal was a recent U.K. government proposal (and it was only a proposal) suggesting that student unions should be compelled to accept speakers and barred from banning them. It is the opposite of censorship, but would still constitute the government interfering.

Second, freedom of speech is still not under attack. Despite all the left’s action, nothing has really changed for freedom of speech. The principles are still not very different from those of John Stuart Mill, a 19th century Classical Liberal. Mill’s views back then, in the times of the East India company (for which he worked), were that government should only intervene if there was greater benefit to preventing the harm caused than not doing so. And while the state was working out whether to intervene, society would get to work. The bad, the boring and the good would clash together freely: “If wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” This is essentially what happens each and every time, and it is certainly what happened when we boneheadedly published a debate about gender-neutral washrooms.

What is different, though, is that on the whole we have become better people. While we have a long way to go still, society has become more conscious of oppressions and injustices, so Mill’s Harm Principle now covers more ideas. Trans people are people and denying their existence or their rights is dangerous and offensive. Don’t use free speech as an excuse to be a dickhead in public, because it doesn’t have you covered.

Why bring up the tosser? Well, they were completely entitled to throw the newspapers away — that’s their right. In the same way, the left can disrupt speakers, whether the ideas are downright dangerous or outdated and boring.