Coming Together or Falling Apart? Freedom of Speech in the Age of Noise

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 17th 2018

The context and limits of freedom of speech have always been important, but everywhere this seems to have become increasingly contentious.

Whether it is white supremacists in the US declaring they are protecting the US way of life, our very own home-grown hate speak from Tommy Robinson, or the multiple sensitivities, claims and counter-claims on transgender issues something seems to be going on.

Only last weekend there was a mini-controversy when Ann Henderson, Edinburgh University’s Rector, retweeted details of an event on ‘How will changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) affect women’s rights?” She was condemned by a host of equality and women’s rights campaigners who felt that Henderson, a lifelong feminist, had somehow let down the cause by the act of retweeting, and thus acknowledging there was a debate that needed to be had.

All of this throws a spanner in the works of the once prevailing assumption that progress was a straightforward forward march. Trans people until fairly recently lacked mainstream legal or social recognition, but for some feminists such progress is threatening and undermining causes they have fought for over many decades concerning gender equality. This has led, for example, to some feminist Labour Party activists announcing they would resign from the party if transwomen were allowed to stand in women-only shortlists.

These are important discussions and reflect a very different society than even a few years ago. But are they the main issues facing freedom of speech? To some the answer is an unequivocal yes. The Academy of Ideas (until recently the Institute of Ideas) and their colleagues ‘Spiked’ have made much of their reputation claiming the territory of uber-libertarianism and claiming that a new age of censorship and proscription of freedom of speech and thought is descending upon us unless we act.

This was one of the themes in a Festival of Politics event last week in the Scottish Parliament entitled ‘Freedom to Offend’ which saw Claire Fox (Academy Director) and Joanna Williams (‘Spiked’) debate with myself and Nik Williams (Scottish PEN). Fox and Joanna Williams spent most of the time in a one and a half hour discussion debating about trans issues, student campuses and ‘no platforming’ of speakers they disagreed with, and the supposed over-reach of the #MeToo movement.

For those who don’t know, and this seems to include the Scottish Parliament who organise the Festival, the Academy/Institute and ‘Spiked’ are in fact the Revolutionary Communist Party – a once disrespectable Trotskyite group who rebranded in the mid-1990s with most of the same people in the same building. Their target has shifted from capitalism and the delusions of the left who weren’t revolutionary enough to critiquing bourgeois liberalism.

To some, such as the above groups, the rise of identity politics and the associated debates have led to a new age of illiberalism. Joanna Williams said that there was no such thing as ‘hate crime’ and has previously disparaged gender inequality saying ‘cut the crap about the [gender] pay gap’. ‘Spiked’ commentator Brendan O’Neill has even gone as far as to say that the most discriminated group now is the white working class, as they cannot make claims of victimhood which other identity groups can. This sort of comment finds common ground with the hard, and even extreme right, as well as bringing frequent media attention.

Despite the ridiculous over the top nature of these comments there is something in identity politics requiring further investigation. All politics and public life is in many respects about identity, but there is something particular about the claims of ‘identity politics’. It is seen by critics as claiming a special place and privilege which affords certain groups unique rights and the right to act and speak in a way different from others i.e. the majority. All of this has consequences for our democracy and freedom of speech.

It is helpful to put this in historical context. First, freedom of speech, the rights and limits to what could be said, whether legally or informally, have always been contested, disputed, and changing. Freedom of speech originally emerged in its modern context via the 1688 ‘glorious revolution’, and then American and French revolutions, centred on challenging absolutism and ‘the divine right of kings’. Freedom of speech began as a way to challenge power, privilege and injustice, but in the resulting centuries its curtailment has been used by those forces of reaction.

Second, there have always been those who thought they could take a short cut to the age of enlightenment: the French revolution being one example. There has always been a self-righteous, moralistic, and occasionally, puritanical character to an element of the left. Third, power matters. Historically marginalised and disadvantaged groups have a right to name themselves and the condition they find themselves in. And throughout history, many of those who are not of those groups have queried their right to do so, or claimed they are going too far. American writer Rebecca Solnit has gone further, writing that while ‘naming is the first step in the process of liberation’, it is equally important to call out the deception and lies all around us.

Fourth, all of this is never as clear-cut as it should be. Hence, look at elements in the Labour Party daring to define for Jewish people what anti-semitism is and is not. And a whole host of reactionary voices – from Claire Fox to American author Lionel Shriver – want to tell us that #MeToo has gone too far and such women who are making accusations should just grow up and accept the modern world.

Finally, there is no country in the world with an absolute freedom of speech: not even the US with its First Amendment. All words have consequences and carry responsibility – so when Boris Johnson says certain comments about Muslim women or Giles Coren declares ‘I am a racist’, they should expect to be challenged. That is part of public debate, not silencing, or assuming one group’s views should prevail over another.

A huge question underlying all of this is how we engage in public debate and act responsibly in public life. We live in an age of constant noise, but there are also telling silences. It is a time of multiple, competing platforms where who and what is an authority and expert has become muddy. This is a culture of instant opinion being possible with no mediation or gestation, and that can lead quickly to a downward spiral of accusation and counter-accusation.

It is an age of fragmentation all around us with the feeling that things are continually falling apart and that we struggle to come together in meaningful and constructive ways. And there are numerous paradoxes between this frenetic, hyper-active world of a thousand different opinions, and the brutal reality of the new masters of the universe online, of self-seeking, self-regarding algorithm authoritarianism controlled by the likes of Facebook and Google.

Many people want to blame where we are on the pernicious influence of social media. But it wasn’t social media that over many decades in the UK has legitimised racism, xenophobia and stigmatised asylum seekers, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups. It is just too easy and a bit lazy to blame social media for where we are. There is a generational perspective of ill-ease from older people; a loss from previous gatekeepers and shapers of public opinion; and a story of exhaustion from those who have been caught up in the whirlwind of social media.

Social media has exasperated existing and deeper problems. Clearly a culture of always being active and engaged is some kind of Aldous Huxley-like dystopia: slowly deadening the senses of people with things they like and seek out. But this tells us something about the human psyche and imagination. Katherine Ormerod addressing social media’s impact on our lives, assesses that it has become easier to engage, but ‘at the cost of the erosion of empathy’ leaving ‘no ‘safe’ spaces in the political or social media’.

Mainstream politics has failed us across the developed world. We have had a decade of flatlining living standards for the majority. We have seen the reality of self-interested crony capitalism which isn’t interested in most of us or our well-being. Meanwhile traditional identities and politics of the mainstream centre-left and centre-right have everywhere become discredited, hence, the rise of populist politics, and Brexit, Trump and even Corbyn.

All of this has aided the decline of traditional reference points in society, politics and what authority is. This has informed the obvious vacuum at the heart of so much public life, the decline of trust and the emergence of a culture of mutual suspicion. We have lost common rules for debate and discussion, not because of some procedural points about democracy, but because we have lost the shared knowledge and memories of what this should be for.

Putting back together the collective of how we live well together, respect and relate to each other will require thoughtful interventions. For some this isn’t even a problem, for they see the confusing, messy world as an opportunity to retreat into a bunker of the like-minded, whether Trump supporters or opponents, or the competing camps on Brexit or Scottish independence. We have lost something in this process.

We will not remake a pluralist public sphere by harking back to the past, engaging in simplistic libertarianism ignoring contested claims of legitimacy, or blaming all our woes on social media. The old tribes of closed class have gone all across the West. All around us people are erecting new tribes which claim their virtue but are as equally closed. Somehow we have to make to try to make new ways of belonging which acknowledge our shared humanity, and which embody kindness, empathy and respect for each other: values which have come to seem revolutionary in our current times.