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 the state, or any institutions that take themselves to be charged with promoting truth and virtue over falsehood and vice, think that bad practices and beliefs should be allowed to flourish?
For example, in mid-20th century debates about the legalisation of male homosexuality, both advocates and opponents of legal change tended to assume that homosexuality was immoral. The question for them was whether its immorality was a sufficient ground for its legal suppression, and of course the liberal view was victorious, as it was (for example) with divorce, abortion and the censorship of literature and the theatre. It is hard to contemplate any fundamental reversal of those victories any time soon. Yet is also hard to answer the question: if liberalisation—in general—really does corrupt society’s morals, then is there such a strong case for it?
The most familiar answers to this general question were given by liberalism’s classical proponents. One of Locke’s most persuasive arguments for religious toleration—at least of non-Anglican Protestant denominations, since he excluded Catholics and atheists—was that “enforced faith” could only be a sham. People could be marched to the approved church services at the point of a sword, but only outward appearances, and not inner convictions, could possibly be compelled. It was not only impracticable, but made no conceptual sense, to order someone to believe something. On top of that, when Locke was writing, Europe had been exhausted by about 150 years of religious strife, and Catholics and Protestants had mutual interest in a modus vivendi.
Locke’s arguments are powerful, yet not decisive: they do not provide a clear answer to a policy of suppression, were it possible to coerce faith (or at least strongly influence it), or were it possible for the right side to acquire a stable monopoly of force. So we are stuck with the question: is there anything valuable about toleration per se? If we possess an important truth, just why should we put up with opposing views?
It is usually to Mill’s ideas, expounded in On Liberty, that people appeal when trying to answer this question. Mill attached great importance to individual autonomy when it came to the values to live by, and argued powerfully that those who presumed to censor the expression of opinions were making an absurd assumption of their own infallibility; it was the height of folly to assume one possesses truth, let alone infallibility, unless one has heard all sides in an argument.
There is much good sense in this. Many people form new opinions when they get a chance to consider the evidence for them, and often come to resent their past indoctrination. Authorities often resort to censorship, intimidation and violence when they have run out of arguments, and loud denunciations of heresy often mask an underlying lack of confidence that their own stances can stand the test of debate. Unfortunately, it is a perverse irony that not only conservative but progressive movements—such as for feminism, anti-racism and gay equality, are increasingly acquiring a censoring and censorious edge. Blatant intolerance—in the name of tolerance—recently led to the Humanist Society of the LSE being ordered to remove its stall at a Freshers’ Fair, because those manning it refused to take off a humorous T-shirt deemed to be “offensive”—nowadays a staple excuse for shutting people up. People are being arrested for making “offensive” remarks on Twitter, many of which are harmless, even if tasteless or insulting. All this would make Mill turn in his grave.
Yet even Mill’s arguments are inconclusive. With excessive optimism, Mill proclaimed that truth wins out in a fair debate. But it is evident that many people are wholly unreceptive to well-defended truths. Human evolution is denied by large numbers of educated Americans, and all sorts of conspiracy theories are peddled on the internet by many people, not all of whom are stupid. Moreover, even the most tolerant of us have a threshold: I cannot imagine Channel Four commissioning a defence of paedophilia, to “challenge” its viewers after the news. After all, even if most people’s opinions about this subject are not literally infallible, they are surely justified. If so, why—in general—allow the airing of repellent views that might persuade, possibly with harmful effects?
There is no decisive answer to this, but I hope we can get close to one. Freedom of thought and debate are the cornerstones of discovery, and while we should not overestimate reason’s power to persuade, it can certainly start the process. Careful investigation of popular beliefs, freely conducted, is pretty good at knocking some of them down, and if only a few people are persuaded, that is not nothing. If I could gather a group of would-be jihadis in a room for an hour, and ask them: “So why do you believe that Allah exists, has entrusted his final revelation to a particular man in seventh century Arabia and licenses you to kill people who don’t believe this?” I doubt I would get much attention. But to persuade just one of them to think it through would be a start.