Mick Hume, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?
Once upon a time, kings and priests censoriously decided what we citizens could say and hear. Centuries of Enlightenment philosophers, religious dissidents, and civil liberties champions struggled to expand the definition of allowable discourse, calling free speech a necessary human right. But something funny happened: once the seeming libertarians achieved cultural supremacy, they began silencing others, just as they themselves had once been silenced.
Marxist journalist Mick Hume has gotten zapped by Britain’s exceptionally restrictive libel laws, so has personal connection to the consequences of un-free speech. During the Cold War, officials silenced his semi-Soviet ideology; more recently, speech police have dinged his supposed lack of multi-culti empathy. He considers both options equally chilling, as both encourage dull, conformist thinking expressed through studiously bland and unthreatening language.
Hume considers this the diametrical opposite of freedom. We’ve become pathologically fearful to face controversial ideas, to question received truths, or kill bad beliefs with facts. This isn’t just philosophical principle to Hume; he believes we’re starving the taproot of free democratic society. "The best way to counter hatreds and ideas we despise is not to try to bury them alive,” he writes, “but to drag them out into the light of day and debate them to the bitter end."
Hume considers three common areas subject to moralistic silencing: the Internet, universities, and entertainment. Many jurisdictions have passed laws against Internet “trolling,” even though no meaningful definition of trolling exists; one person’s troll is another’s non-conformist truth-teller. University speech codes have so thoroughly stymied some campuses that today’s most important issues cannot be discussed. And attempts to silence rowdy sports crowds or insurgent comedians have created potentially dangerous pushback.
We’ve witnessed the rise of what Hume calls You-Can’t-Say-That culture, a two-pronged spear, "not only You-Can't-Say-THAT, but also YOU-Can't-Say-That." Vocal spokespersons, mostly unelected and chosen by their ability to argue stridently and write clickbait, attempt to circumscribe not only what constitutes acceptable language, but who constitutes acceptable speakers. This has, in practice, produced a narrowing of discourse that forcibly silences certain groups, while punishing True Believers for changing their minds.
But You Shouldn’t Say Damaging Or Violent Things!
Hume agrees. But he also distinguishes between words and actions. Threats of imminent, physical violence or attempts to kick-start riots aren’t speech, they’re action, and deserve treated appropriately. Jerks saying mean-spirited things aren’t acting, they’re speaking. If we silence them, their bad opinions merely fester. Better instead to rebut them publically, dragging bad arguments into the sunlight.
But People Say Hurtful Things About Minorities!
They’ve always done so; and historically, we’ve fought to ensure minorities have the opportunity to answer back. Hurt feelings, or even outright bigotry, mustn’t negate civil liberties. What more subjective criterion could possibly exist to limit speech, than one’s feelings. While actions that measurably harm minorities, like lopsided access to education or work, go unabated, verbal demonstrations of ignorance are prosecuted like violence.
But Small Offenses Now Breed Big Offenses Later!
Do you esteem humans so lowly that you believe we’re mere machines of persecution? Democratic advances always proceed against exactly that “slippery slope” fallacy. Attempts to forcibly silence bigotry often prove disastrous for progressives; as Hume writes, with ample evidence, "control-freak governments and judges will always take requests to restrict one kind of speech as an invitation to restrict another."
British himself, Hume’s examples of legal proceedings against free speech come significantly from Britain. As Hume admits, America’s First Amendment makes flatly outlawing bigoted speech difficult. But Americans readily resort to tweet-storms, shaming campaigns, and other extra-legal techniques to derail free speech. Hume even quotes Hillary Clinton promising to use unsportsmanlike techniques to silence speech she finds objectionable. “Illiberal liberals,” Hume writes.
Hume’s argument contains plenty to anger liberals and conservatives alike, as his definition of free speech excludes sacred cows. But it also contains an important warning, too. As women, gays, and minorities fought for freer speech throughout the Twentieth Century, civil discourse widened. Now, arguably, it’s narrowing again. If we don’t demand truly free speech, we may see narrowness, silencing, and repression unseen within our lifetime. Consequences will be dire.