Winner of the Orwell Youth Prize 2016 – Years 12 and 13
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”
It’s not often that radical feminists and men’s rights activists have much in common. But thanks to the National Union of Student’s No Platform policy, feminist Julie Bindel and male supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos can both share in the experience of being excluded from university speaking halls on the grounds that what they have to say is offensive. Not long ago universities were associated with unbridled free speech. Students used to relish any opportunity to shock and offend. Now they are more associated with attempts to restrict the freedom of expression belonging to ‘undesirable’ speakers.
Universities are not the only places where people are trying to stop others from saying things they don’t want to hear. In recent years the mainstream media has been reluctant to give exposure to people with unconventional opinions (e.g. climate change deniers, creationists, Islamist extremists and white supremacists). Whilst such standpoints may be highly unpleasant, distorted or simply wrong, that their holders are restricted from voicing them amounts to a significant curtailment of free speech.
Even at an individual level, people are increasingly protected from unappreciated opinions by the state. Just think of the man arrested by the police in London for interrogating a Muslim woman about the Brussels attacks. Certainly this incident could be described as Islamophobic, but why is the expression of Islamophobic, racist or sexist sentiments condemned? – because they are views unwanted by their recipients. We are witnessing the creation of a society which can no longer tolerate others holding the liberty to tell it things it wishes not to hear.
Worryingly many cannot see why this is a problem. After all, most of us don’t appreciate offensive or unwanted views when they are expressed to us – we walk on offended with our opinions unchanged. Surely it would be better if we weren’t exposed to these viewpoints in the first place? This attitude has the immediate effect of making liberty relative. If some views must not be heard then, unless we want no opinions to be expressed at all, it must be decided which opinions are acceptable. But who is to make these decisions? Should it be the state, risking a government able to silence its critics? Or perhaps students, a category not renowned for their consistency or moderation. Trying actually to identify such an authority is clearly laughable – of course we don’t want anybody to tell us what we are allowed to say. But if we accept that we can be told what not to say, somebody somewhere must have this power, and we would need to be clear who it is, and by what authority they decide.
The problem is that what exists now is a range of different media and social network groupings which turn at will to react against statements they dislike, often via social media. This does not remove the immediate liberty of free speech from their victims, for the backlash comes after the comments have been made. But it limits the ability for such comments ever to be made again – amounting to a restriction of everyone’s ability to say things others wish not to hear. The (over)reaction to particular comments leads to a general narrowing of views expressed. Hence we see many feminists driven off twitter by the vile abuse they receive for expressing views others wish not to hear – restricting their ability to express themselves in the long run. This liberty is not taken away from them by any authority. Instead their free speech seems to have been taken away from them by society in general.
This is highly illiberal. If liberalism is to mean anything at all it should mean the right to pursue one’s own course within the bounds of the law without interference from others. This allows us to maximise our own happiness without causing unacceptable harm to other people. As free speech is nominally protected by the law, that society is able to restrict it as it chooses is surely a breach of liberty. If you hold no unconventional views, this might not be too bothersome to you. But you should be concerned as free speech is the means by which we preserve our other liberties. How can we seek to protect our rights against a state armed with soldiers and policemen other than by using our voices?
As society gradually becomes more comfortable with the idea that unpleasant views shouldn’t be heard then there is a danger that the range of acceptable opinions gradually starts to narrow as every objection to an opinion is taken on board and we become ever more enthusiastic to partake in the often enjoyable experience of attacking people for doing things we don’t like. If this happens, then the liberty which stands between us and potentially losing all other liberties will gradually be eroded.
Furthermore free speech is the right which allows us to push for the creation of new liberties. Many would regard gay rights as one of the key liberties of our age. Yet this liberty was won by voicing unpopular views: one hundred years ago expressions of sympathy for homosexuality were treated with the same sort of revulsion that white supremacists encounter today. By cushioning ourselves from unwanted viewpoints we are potentially denying future generations liberties that currently we cannot even imagine. As universal suffrage was once something which few could conceive, it is likely that future developments will help to create a fairer and more equitable society. Thus the right to tell people what they do not want to hear is of the greatest importance, underpinning the liberties we currently have and the liberties we have yet to gain. Its loss at our own hands would be calamitous, exposing us to an illiberal present and an even more illiberal future. Consequently if we wish to live in a less offensive society, we must fight for the right to be offensive to others.