Is the defence of free speech and toleration merely another name for indifference, asks Piers Bennby Piers Benn / October 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Many people living in liberal societies take it for granted that toleration and freedom of expression are positives. They support the view that no one has the right to impose their political, religious or moral views on others; that almost all views have the right to be heard, and especially, that no one should be hounded by the law, censored or ostracised simply for holding certain beliefs. Yet today as much as ever, free expression is under threat when it comes to matters deemed “sensitive.” Index on Censorship reports numerous recent cases. In September over 30 student organisations at Yale University protested against the inclusion of the campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali in its visiting speaker programme, on the grounds that, as a vocal apostate from Islam, her words might be offensive to Muslim ears. The Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley recently sent a memo to students, saying that free speech should be qualified by “civility”, meaning that it should be permitted only in so far as it allowed others to feel “safe and respected” [my italics]—two words which are, of course, not synonymous. And in Turkey, where the curious crime of “insulting the Turkish Nation” is already on the statute book, people who “insult” the President can also find themselves in trouble. The list goes on.
Of course, many liberal minded people are appalled by these restrictions. But others worry that their support for toleration comes from a general “non-judgmental attitude”, a lack of personal conviction, or even a relativistic denial that there is such a thing as the truth about, say, religious or ethical matters. For this reason, in the eyes of some critics, toleration is merely another name for indifference.
However, the classical defenders of free speech and toleration—Milton and Locke in the 17th century, and Mill in the 19th—were not guilty of indifference or relativism; they understood toleration to mean putting up with beliefs or practices of which one did not approve. This is surely a more helpful conception of toleration. But it generates all kinds of problems, of which the contemporary enthusiast for toleration may be only dimly aware. For it leads to the awkward question: exactly why should…