After making pro-paedophilia comments where he said it might be okay and consensual for a 28 year old man to have sex with a 13 year old child, Milo Yiannopolous, Senior Editor at the right-wing online magazine Breitbart has resigned.
It is likely if he hadn’t resigned, he would have been sacked. So, he jumped before he was pushed. The podcast in which Milo took a relaxed stance towards paedophilia was created a year ago, but has only just hit the media and social media spotlight, prompting a juggernaut of verbal protest and threats from advertisers to withdraw funding. It was therefore a commercial decision for Milo to go, but does this impede free speech and freethought? Has Breitbart, which has a reputation for controversy, succumbed to ‘the tyranny of political correctness’? No.
There is a difference between political correctness which has, at times, been rather over the top, and standards of common decency and morality. PC is only a problem when it is intimately related to the state which has the power to ban things, to censor. As an informal form of moral evolution, PC is unproblematic in this blogger’s opinion – it has simply reformed outdated attitudes on many social issues and made society better in the process. Overt racism, sexism, homophobia etc., are no longer seen as socially acceptable in a way they once were. The result? Levels of prejudice have indeed gone down. Reactionaries regard this as a ‘new conformity,’ but if it has evolved fairly spontaneously, this is wrong-headed – society just does require common moral standards in order to function. And if the newer moral standards are superior to the old, why not have something like political correctness? It would only be seriously problematic if the state was the administrator of the changes that have happened. By and large, it hasn’t been, though it has often exploited the new morality to jail or fine transgressors, which is wrong.
The case of Milo however, is not about the state. It was a commercial decision where Milo’s free speech rights have not been infringed at all. He can still spout his nonsense on an alternative platform, indeed the furore might encourage some of his supporters to fund a new site where Milo’s egomania can run amok. All that has happened is effectively that one particular platform – Breitbart – is refusing to host Milo’s views any more, and that is within their remit as a commercial enterprise. It is the same not just in the commercial sector, but elsewhere too. Political groupings, especially parties, reserve the right to expel members for breaches of policy, even at the level of what they say. This is quite right. In order for a social entity to pursue a particular course of action, it must have the freedom to decide the views it puts out, and cohere its membership along those lines, else it becomes dysfunctional.
The issue then isn’t ‘free speech’ nor ‘free thought,’ but freedom of association. Milo’s free speech and free thought hasn’t been impinged upon so long as the state with its thirst for prosecution is not involved. He has just been denied the privilege – not the right – to have a particular platform for his views. He can now go elsewhere, and sadly, will do, no doubt. But Breitbart or any other magazine or social entity must always be able to refuse publication of this or that article or otherwise disassociate itself from a rogue individual if that is in its own interests. To claim otherwise, to claim that a group should promote views it doesn’t believe in, is actually the real tyranny. What are the libertarians seriously trying to claim – that the state should force a private sector entity to promote ‘all’ views? ‘All’ views in that case would be the state’s own view, and discourse as a meaningful thing pursued by beings with intentionality and subjectivity would be subsumed under a kind of Mad Max-ism.
Former football legend Paul Gascoigne tells a racist joke at a theatre, is ordered by the courts to pay £2,500 in fines, gets publicly shamed, and will struggle to tour again (who would allow the gig?)
A tape mysteriously “emerges” in the media of Presidential nominee Donald Trump in private bragging chauvinistically about groping women. The subsequent Presidential campaign gets thrown off any political issues and becomes a competition of sleaziness where each side lowers the bar and attempts to demonise the other. Trump is just as guilty of this as Hillary Clinton as he raises the issues of husband Bill’s lewd conduct in office and lawyer Hillary’s defence of him.
Both these cases speak to a crisis of free speech. But it is not what you think it is. This crisis of free speech isn’t quite about censorship. Neither Gazza nor Trump has suffered state-imposed penalties to the extent it impinges their lives. The thing that is impinging their lives is a form of moral condemnation.
Yet moral condemnation is not always a bad thing. Any community needs morals to survive, and when those morals are transgressed, it is correct for the community to pull people up. If Gazza or Trump were simply told they were being backward and needed re-education to come up to scratch with twenty-first century society, then Gazza wouldn’t need to be publicly shamed and fined, nor the Presidential competition would need to be distracted around personal failings.
What has happened is that our fragmented society which has been atomising exponentially for many years now has such a flimsy grasp of morality that in order to express a moral belief, it throws everything against the transgressing individual: fines, public shaming, court appearances, you name it. This isn’t a morality that is assured of itself, but one that is witch-hunting its enemies.
In our age, where it is difficult for anyone to achieve power and wealth in society, people have resorted to moral condemnation as a way of gaining one-upmanship. This squalid competition for virtue sees careers ruined over ‘unwitting’ mistakes, ‘unintended’ racism, or any privately expressed view (what Trump called ‘locker room banter’).
The way to stop this madness is NOT to demand “the right to be offensive.” Neither Gazza nor Trump’s ‘rights’ have been seriously corroded by any of this, that is their rights in relation to the state, which is the only meaning rights have. Furthermore, demanding we are able to hear Gazza or Trump’s unsuppressed views is only an invitation that everyone can be as offensive as they like, regardless of social harmony. Speech is a part of the world – indeed it is the most direct way we perceive society, so being gratuitously offensive is only going to lead to the experience of harm (not physical, but suffering in the mind). There is no point in calling for the right to be offensive – the characters we are talking about really are yesterday’s figures and should not be put on a pedestal where we all passively sit by and relish how they have these ‘rights’.
The damage which is being done however to the public and private spheres through the form of moral condemnation as one-upmanship, is that society further atomises and everyone becomes scared to open their mouths. What’s needed to combat this isn’t a free-for-all of everyone venting spleen, but a new kind of society, one where moral transgressions are treated as bad things, yes, but also treated gently and sympathetically. Everyone makes mistakes now and then, and the community does have to pull us up on them. But the community shouldn’t lose sight of its own maturity and vision for a healthy society in doing so, nor should it attempt to wreck people’s livelihoods. Instead you should just calmly and sympathetically explain to the transgressor why they are wrong so they can become better people rather than just repressing them in a different way.
The situation today is that our morality has gotten loose of a broader vision of how we want to live, it has developed its own legs, and metaphorically like the Death Star, is casually blowing up planets and ships at random. Moral condemnation is prancing around without any sense of purpose to why we want morality to be like this. Instead of human beings communally relating to one another and helping each other, we have let our own morality become detached from ourselves and it has become more policeman, than sage. To regain control of morality we have to take a helicopter view of society, realise where we are going wrong, and change things through mature considered debate. A good first step in this direction would be to accept apologies.
This blog looks at two cherished Enlightenment ideals – progress, and free speech – and shows why the narrow understanding of these and poor justification for these ideals as perpetuated by the old Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Bacon and JS Mill) and new Enlightenment thinkers grouped around the radical bourgeois-deviant website spiked-online is not just wrong, but potentially dangerous to society.
In the origins of the Enlightenment, old and new, the conception of ‘progress’ only entails that progress occurs when mankind increases his domination of nature. There is no mention of human progress, no discussion of how such progress benefits mankind, it is taken as given. In fact, as has occurred, the drive for progress has been a mixed blessing for mankind. Life expectancy, living standards, and efficiency in many spheres increase with progress, but it also extracts a heavy penalty in terms of making work more monotonous and dulling to the senses to the extent that workers become mere appendages of the machine. It is not that the aspiration to dominate nature is wrong, not at all, the problem is that this progress occurs within the context of exploitative and alienated social relations, those relations of the market.
Progress is really a drive to extract more surplus value from the worker, and therefore impoverishes him in relation to the alien power that is dominating him – capital. Progress never shortens the working day, indeed it sometimes extends it in the case of white collar workers who now have smartphones and therefore do extra work on the train to work and at home. The worker’s resistance to that is met brutally with coercion both in the factory and outside. This concept of progress is therefore narrow, what we want is a society where increasing the domination over nature is truly of benefit to mankind straightforwardly, and that cannot happen until the social relations that underpin the capitalist mode of production are entirely changed. It is only when labour is emancipated from capital, when people associate freely with one another in production, that progress can be experienced as a good thing, and therefore that mankind’s material progress at last exists in tandem with his human progress.
Tragically spiked-online that emerged out of an ex-Marxist publication, only defends the narrow definition of progress, not this Marxist version, so are making a bad problem worse. For example, in an article entitled “Britain’s Runway Fiasco: The New Fear of Progress”, Blair Spowart begins by articulating his Enlightenment view of progress, says we need loads more airports, loads more roads, more trains, more everything, before concluding “Right now, much of Asia is living in the future – let’s join them.” What Spowart neglects to mention is that China, I assume he is thinking primarily of China, is a One-Party state totalitarian police state. No doubt Spowart doesn’t like those aspects of Chinese society, but what he cannot see from his narrow idea of progress is that the form of the state is necessitated by that mode of production. If you have the hyper capitalist exploitation that drives “the future”, you have alienated labour, and you just have to have a highly repressive state regime. The two go hand in hand. You can’t have market growth without direct repression because workers rebel too much. So it’s no good spiked-online saying they believe in “liberty” and “progress” – they have to choose one or the other. I hope they choose the former, and reconceptualise progress in terms of what it does for liberty, not that it is in-itself unproblematically good.
This is spiked’s most famed demand, and it is a good one. “Free speech, no ifs or buts.” But rather than justify it in the narrow terms of JS Mill, it is far better to justify it in terms of majority interest. The principle of majority interest clarifies when free speech is necessary to uphold and when censorship is justified. Yes, I said it, sometimes censorship is justified. The principle of majority interest is not the same woolly idea of “public interest” that is bandied about by Lord Justice Leveson in his demands to restrict press freedom, it is the opposite of that. Public interest as defined by a committee or a judge is not the real interest of the public who are now being denied the choice to read or see what they want ‘in their own interest’. The idea of ‘majority interest’ by contrast, is exercised by the majority themselves. It is something they vote on. Thus in 1985, print workers at The Sun censored the front page that was due to go out. It depicted striking miners’ leader Arthur Scargill with his arm raised, with the headline “Sieg Heil.” This was a debased attempt by the bourgeois press to portray Scargill as a fascist, when really he was just a state-socialist. The workers decided not to allow that to go to print, and the next morning, that issue of The Sun had a blank front page. This was a case of the majority interest prevailing although it was an act of censorship.
Another example would be the publications suppressed by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. They banned some bourgeois publications and banned some rival Socialist groups from publishing because to allow that would be to allow counter-revolutionary forces to organise against an already vulnerable fledgling worker’s state. This censorship was justified because it was in the majority interest. This wasn’t dreamt up by the likes of Leveson, we know this was what the majority wanted because they voted on it.
By contrast to these examples of justified censorship, it is usually necessary to fight for free speech under capitalism because it is a weapon of ours against the ruling class. This Marxist view of the importance of free speech is different to the Enlightenment idea that tries to justify it in relation to some abstract principle because we are talking about what humans need in the here and now to help them have better lives. Thus all the student union bans in relation to speech are unjustified because they harm the majority. At university, the majority need to be open to all ideas to expand their minds and hopefully contribute to the future. And all the government laws against speech crime need to be repealed because they express a desire to cripple worker’s development as people.
The principle of majority interest stems from a recognition of human history as that of a species striving to be free, yet constantly caught up in antagonistic social relations. The principle of majority interest is a way of uniting in theory when free speech works and when it hampers that overall process of liberation. Of course, when labour is fully self-emancipated, you can have total free speech forever more. But a realistic attempt to realise the Enlightenment ideal has to acknowledge there are occasions in the run up when sometimes censorship is the right thing to do. And that can only be justified with a Marxist view of history.
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.
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.
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)