Book Review: Trigger Warning by Mick Hume

trigger warning

When I was Treasurer of the University of Sussex Free Speech Society (1998-9), we were mainly involved in arguments with those who wanted to ‘no-platform’ racist/sexist/homophobic speakers. We thought their desire to do this was a daft way to make the problem go away, rather like a child playing peekaboo who believes he becomes invisible when he closes his eyes, or that the real world disappears. There was also the case of the students’ union banning the magazine Loaded from their shop because an issue featured a photo-montage where a male character tells his bedside lamp to “fuck off” because it looked gay. The union denied this was a free speech issue, saying it was only about protecting us from offense. This case seemed strange at the time, but it has now become the norm.

Little did we know this approach would sweep across the UK such that now many campuses have banned The Sun newspaper, banned speakers from UKIP, banned laddish banter such as that of the Rugby Society, and even banned the pop song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke for being a bit rapey. There are now official ‘safe spaces’ on campus now where you are not allowed to ‘judge’ another student in case they are offended. Additionally some humanities courses carry ‘trigger warnings’ regarding certain texts that convey edgy material to protect the little darlings. Molly-coddled students can opt out of these sections if it offends their sensibilities (although prior to engaging with the material, how do they know how they would have reacted?) Large chunks are blotted out from the exchange of opinions, ideas, and knowledge, and indeed, general conversation, yet the decision makers really do not see any of this as a free speech issue.

The issue of free speech at universities is very important because students, after graduation, go on to become leading members of society. To be a good leader, one needs to have a broad range of knowledge, be open to new ideas, and be confident. Sadly censorship policies undermine these three things. Thus with some of the current crop of students, society in the near future may degenerate further. Given a taste of power, they may prove even worse than Ed ‘Ban Islamophobia’ Miliband, only wanting constant flattery, and if you challenge them, they will shut you down. These people aren’t really well equipped to handle life in a liberal democracy, they would probably be better suited to holding a junior position within a Caliphate. It is therefore timely that a decent and urgently needed debate about the state of free speech may be invigorated with the publication of a new book.

Free speech is the most important right we have because it is the basis for defending all other liberties. Yet today it is effectively dying because individuals fear being offensive. And they have good reason for this fear: you can get sacked or ostracised from polite society for not being PC, with Twittermobs and maybe even the police chasing after you. People therefore are afraid of speaking up. So whilst everyone pays lip service to their belief in free speech, in reality it is dying. That is the essential message of Mick Hume’s brilliant new book, “Trigger Warning: Is The Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?” Hume is particularly worried that censors are winning the free speech wars without society putting up much of a fight.

It is worth noting that the zealous campaign against racism, for example, doesn’t just stop with silencing actual racists (though that would also be bad enough). It is enough to get censored if anyone complains an item of speech somehow connotes racism. Thus we are told the word “nigger” is always beyond the pale, regardless of the context in which it is used. Black comedian Reginald D Hunter recently fell foul of this with his stand-up routine. Meanwhile reruns of the TV series Dukes of Hazzard have been cancelled because the car carries a painted Confederate flag on its roof. It must be a miracle that my peers and I, who all had this toy car in our childhood, didn’t turn out to be BNP bootboys wanting to bring back slavery. But hey, who needs common sense when you’re on a crusade to hunt out ‘evil’ images and magic words whose meaning does not depend upon context? Similarly the cartoon book Tintin in the Congo has been removed from many libraries on the grounds it is racist. Mark Twain’s classic book Huckleberry Finn has been ‘re-edited’ by the Ministry of Truth to remove 219 mentions of the n-word.

Meanwhile student activists who banned the ‘sexist’ comic Dapper Laughs from campuses were themselves astonished when feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s gig was also cancelled on the grounds she had nonconformist views on trans issues and sex workers, and there was a fear her ‘Leftie Cock Womble’ routine might infringe the Goldsmiths College safe-space policy. Another example of how the censors can fall foul of the bureaucracy they helped set up was with the case of footballer Paul Elliott. This Chelsea defender was a media spokesperson for Zero Tolerance, appointed to various high-powered football committees and a trustee of ‘Kick It Out’. Yet a couple of weeks after being appointed a Commander of the British Empire by the Queen for ‘services to diversity and equality in football’, he had to resign all his posts when it emerged he had used the n-word in private text messages. These two cases show that those who live by the PC sword can also perish by it.

Then there’s the case of actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He was speaking in an interview about the lack of opportunities for actors from non-white ethnic backgrounds, but, wait for it, he said the word ‘coloured’. It was news to me as well that this c-word is also now deemed ‘offensive’. But even if it was a bad word, surely the context in which Cumberbatch was using it – to highlight the difficulties that are faced by those of ‘colour’ – makes it ok? Wrong! The case reportedly sparked a ‘race storm’ in America with Cumberbatch issuing a grovelling apology for having caused offence by “being an idiot”, praying “I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive.” Of this case, Hume says, “But who is to say what terminology is inoffensive these days? The incident certainly highlighted the way that language has become a minefield even for those trying to fight on the side of the angels.” (p.209)

A further example of how the terrain of what is considered ‘offensive’ (which is really an entirely subjective term – what some people find offensive, others do not), is with the case of Tim Hunt.  This Nobel prize winning scientist was forced out of his job for telling a mildly sexist joke.  Hunt has done nothing to prevent women from joining the scientific community – quite the reverse in fact – but this little quip got him sacked.  What he actually said would not have cost him his job even 15 years ago, but the list of things you can’t say is growing all the time and often confronts the ‘transgressors’ (previously known as valued members of academia), as a surprise.

This trend of chaotic punishment when someone says the wrong thing began with the left’s naive adoption of “no platform for racists”. Now it has become something far worse than this, a juggernaut that wants to smash free expression completely. Thus we can see that what began as a well-intentioned but tactically flawed strategy to improve equality in society has now become completely unhinged, leaving the public scared to open their mouths.

Journalist and author Mick Hume
Journalist and author Mick Hume

Hume goes to great lengths to explain why free speech must be about supporting the right of those we disagree with to speak, even those we hate. Otherwise free speech just means ‘me-speech’. In this he follows the French Enlightenment hero Voltaire whose biographer attributed to him the view that “I may hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. For Hume, there is a massive free speech fraud taking place today where people pay lip service to the idea. They say they are for free speech but seem to think it applies to another planet, and in practise they restrain it claiming “this is not a free speech issue”. Hume believes we live in an age of ‘reverse-Voltaires’, who have inverted the Frenchman’s formulation to now mean “I know I will detest what you say, and I will fight to the end of free speech for my right to prevent you saying it.” Indeed.

There are now a minority of time-rich people who devote their lives to seeking out something to be offended by in the media, or on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Nothing pleases them more than when they discover a nugget that they can declare is a ‘hateful’ opinion and launch a campaign against the perpetrator, preferably ending in a jail term and their removal from polite society. They hunt down ‘trolls’ (a term dusted down from the last Dark Age that has no clear meaning) in order to affirm their own sense of moral worth. As of May 2014, there were over 20,000 adults under investigation in the UK by police for posting ‘offensive’ things online, and even 2,000 children.

Scary internet troll
Scary internet troll

Now, Hume is not saying that if you make a death threat or other threat of violence, you should always be protected under the free speech umbrella. Again everything depends upon context and whether the threat is credible. But I find it unlikely that the 20,000 adults and 2,000 children being investigated under the 2003 Communications Act really were potential murderers or rapists. Actual murderers or rapists don’t usually announce their intentions to the world before committing the crime. Therefore it is far more likely these people were just being stupid. And free speech must include the right to make an ass of yourself, and hopefully for others to correct you with more speech rather than less.

In addition to these cases, Hume cites official figures that show there are roughly 25,000 proceedings in the UK each year for speech offences under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, with around half ending in convictions. In response to those who think censorship is a thing of the past, Hume quotes a critic who says, “more people are being jailed or arrested in Britain today for what they think, believe and say than at any time since the eighteenth century” (p.57). Several other laws too such as the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, the 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, the Terrorism Act 2006, and the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 can be used to prosecute a wide range of speech, including singing a song. None of these laws would be possible (yet) in the USA where the First Amendment to the Constitution enshrines the rule that ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’.

The book is full of juice and strong arguments with plenty more examples of the new censorship, such as the closing down of ‘offensive’ art exhibitions, the boycotting and disinvitations to speak of academics and other figures, the policing of etiquette at football grounds, and the castigation of ‘role models’ who say the wrong thing. Hume also spends a lot of time on the fight for free speech in history and examining all the arguments against it, finding them wanting. But mostly through reading the book, one gets a vivid picture of the new conformism sweeping across Britain and other Western countries.

If readers of this review are not yet convinced to buy the book, let us look at what is lost when free speech is chipped away at. Firstly is the argument around safety. People might claim they are willing to put up with a ‘little’ censorship to get rid of extremists and hate speech because this will make society safer. This argument is wrong. The authorities’ belief that certain words or ideas should be restricted does not make us safer. On the contrary, this belief is absorbed by those who ‘hate’, and they subsequently believe they are morally entitled to kill for the end of censorship. After all, if the authorities think it is morally right to ban speech, it does not take a great leap of the imagination to see how this belief reoccurs in the form of a more violent suppression of something deemed to be ‘offensive’, by ‘terrorists’. Thus in January 2015, Islamist gunmen stormed the offices of the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and murdered 12 people. Their excuse? The magazine was offensive to them, and they didn’t believe in the right to be offensive. The stupid blundering authorities may have temporarily said “Je Suis Charlie” after the atrocity, but they invited it after their years of saying we shouldn’t be offensive. And the problem of this type of terrorism is growing. To arrest the trend, the West must urgently discover why the right to be offensive, which gives meaning to free speech, is the most precious liberty. Part of this discovery will involve repealing all the laws against free speech and undertaking a cultural struggle to promote controversial discussions on all topical issues.

Secondly without free speech, society cannot properly tackle the problems it faces. For example, Hume documents how the Rotherham sex abuse scandal where 1400 young white girls were exploited and raped by Muslim gangs over a period of twenty years, was initially suppressed in the media by authorities who thought the revelations would spark a race riot. Eventually when the truth finally came out, there were no race riots. But the pursuit of justice and the public’s right to know was scuppered by those who did not place a primary value on free speech, but privileged a confused notion of ‘community cohesion’ instead.

Thirdly history shows that free speech is vital for progress, and we need plenty more of that. I will let Hume have the last word on this:

“Without the advance of free speech, the development of life as we know it in the West is unlikely to have been possible over the past 500 years. There could have been little progress towards democracy in Europe or America without the ability to demand political change and to put forward competing principles about how society should be run. Many of the great scientific breakthroughs would have been unimaginable without winning the freedom to speak out and question the old accepted ‘truths’ about the world.

“Few new artistic or cultural advances would have happened unless there was sufficient freedom of expression for writers and artists to go where none had gone before. None of the mass communications on which the interconnected modern world relies could have thrived without the fight for free speech – or if they existed, they would not be worth having. And the other freedoms we take for granted today, from the high principles of sexual and racial equality in law to the low liberty to gossip about the rich and famous online, would have been hard to secure without first demanding the freedom of all to speak out in public.

“In short, without the willingness of some to insist on their right to speak what they believed to be true, we might still be living on a flat Earth at the centre of the known Universe, where women were denied the vote but granted the right to be burnt as witches.” (p.26)

Buy the book.


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