Nobody on any side can afford to ignore the free speech warsby Tom Clark / February 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Britain is in the midst of an almighty argument about how to argue. Who gets to speak? On what authority? What language is acceptable—what words are off limits? Any other discussion we might want to have will be doomed until we can settle these questions.
Headlines scream about snowflake students “no-platforming” anyone who hasn’t quite mastered the latest terms for transgender people. The government has tasked a new regulator with upholding free speech on campus. We ask a lawyer whether we need a British First Amendment. And we turn to a couple of student journalists (Marta Santiváñez and Emma Yeomans) to tell us what’s really happening. They cut through some alarmist myths, but do confirm that there is, these days, often as much emphasis on who gets asked to speak in debates, as there is on what is said.
For those in the “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” camp, even that is a grave concern. In a sparkling polemic, Lionel Shriver homes in on what a call-out culture, obsessed with “cultural appropriation,” means for writers. If, she argues, novelists are no longer allowed to offend anyone, and are no longer free to imagine their way into lives very different from their own, then that is the end of fiction.
Some on the left will think her feeling of being gagged is absurd. Afua Hirsch argues with passion that public discussion is still dominated by privileged white men who don’t (or can’t) get their mind round other perspectives. She sees free-for-all speech as akin to an unregulated market in which the old cartels clean up. Drilling into the history of hate speech, Simon Lancaster adds a twist—when we lose control of our language, he says, we don’t liberate our thinking, but allow it to be warped by clichéd tropes.
Still, there is no more frustrating feeling than being silenced. That’s as true if you’re a poor black youth ignored by people in power, as it is of an elderly white person who uses anachronisms that might cause offence. Our YouGov polling suggests that the perception of “treading on eggshells” is widespread. While thus far it has been right-wingers in the Trump mould who’ve made most play with “political correctness,” nobody on any side can afford to ignore the free speech wars.