Frustratingly, standing up for free speech has come to be associated with the political right in recent years: the assumption being that the censorious practices of cancel culture and no-platforming are largely propagated by the left. In addition, in 2020, free speech was too often associated with lockdown scepticism and anti-masking views and therefore seen as partisan or instrumental, rather than as a universal value. While these viewpoints should never be shut down, it is vital to reassert that free speech is, in its purest form, inherently progressive, and never reactionary. It helps us to understand one another, encouraging us to ask people why they think the way they do, rather than dismissing their views on sight. It forms the basis of intellectual curiosity, a quality that seems, worryingly, to be on the decline, especially among the young. Freedom of expression must extend to everyone, especially historically marginalised voices. The late twentieth-century movements for black, gay and women’s rights in the west were predicated on this principle.
Throughout this pandemic, the British government has come in for criticism from all sides, both for imposing too strict a lockdown and for not imposing lockdown measures soon enough. We live in a country that allows us the freedom to criticise our leaders. This fundamental right to speak and listen must be defended, especially among the young, if we are to get through this crisis while protecting fundamental freedoms for future generations.
Comedians can make jokes about Prime Minister Boris Johnson without fear of reprisal, a luxury which does not extend to every country in the world. Last year, Hungary’s hard-right premier, Viktor Orbán, gained the authority to punish anything he deemed fake news with up to five years in prison. These emergency powers were repealed by the country’s National Assembly in June 2020, but the fact that Orbán had the capacity to potentially shut down criticism of his government’s response to Covid-19 is frightening. Suggestions that some NHS workers in the UK have been prevented from speaking out about the virus should worry us even more.
Likewise, authoritarian regimes in China and Russia have been accused of suppressing infection and fatality statistics: a dangerously irresponsible and selfish policy. The importance of journalistic accuracy and integrity cannot be overstated: at a time when reportage from both sides of the political divide can easily veer into sensationalism, access to credible and reliable health information is potentially life-saving.
Young people have been especially hard hit by the current crisis, which has curtailed their formative educational, developmental and social prospects. It is reassuring, then, that students and other twenty-somethings are finally beginning to stand up for the right to speak freely. Cambridge University’s recent decision to reject worrying limitations on free speech is evidence that not all students are afraid of dissenting views, and that the woke stereotype should not be uncritically applied to an entire generation. Tolerance of different viewpoints is the foundation of any functioning democracy, and we should celebrate the potential to understand and engage with those of all backgrounds and positions.
At the 2019 general election, 56 percent of those 18–24-year-olds who voted chose Labour. Only 21 percent voted Conservative. The figures were almost identical in the 25–29 age bracket. The under 30s have always been left leaning. To enthuse young people about free speech, it must therefore be championed by the left. If it is made clear that free speech is not always centred on decisions to invite neo-Nazis to speak at conferences, but encompasses the rights of all those who have been traditionally denied a voice, it may be recognised as a fundamental principle once again.
Free speech is the most useful weapon of the dissident. It allows us to challenge power, and its reinvention as a right of centre cause should be both a source of sadness for liberals and a damning indictment of all those who call themselves progressives while limiting opportunities for all to speak. If young people on the left cannot admit to their own authoritarian tendencies, they will not be able to credibly call out equally heinous censorship from the other side. The pervasiveness of cancel culture can be overemphasised, but its existence must be acknowledged, as should the possibility that those on the receiving end may be women and men of the left.
At the beginning of February 2021, socialist filmmaker Ken Loach was met with a backlash when he spoke at his alma mater, St. Peter’s College, Oxford, as a result of past comments that have been interpreted as offensive to Jewish people, including a call for the deselection of Labour MPs who attended the 2018 Enough is Enough protest against antisemitism while Jeremy Corbyn was party leader. In response to demands for the cancellation of the Oxford event, an open letter was circulated in support of Loach, criticising the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. The signatories included philosopher Judith Butler, playwright Caryl Churchill and actor Mark Rylance. Support from Oxford students for the director, by contrast, has been muted. Clearly, there is still work to be done to overcome the worrying trend of campus no-platforming that has become ever more newsworthy over the past five years.
There is hope, however. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on students, but has also provided a pivotal opportunity for young people to organise and stand up for fundamental values. Now is as good a time as any for them to have their say, and that is why a new campaign, Free Speech Champions, has been launched, led by students and recent graduates, to create and facilitate spaces where everyone, especially the young, can exchange ideas, express themselves and discuss complex social issues without fear. Founded by people from a variety of social, national and ethnic backgrounds, it is inclusive of views from across the political spectrum. By fostering a welcoming environment for young people, and hosting thought-provoking discussions, we hope that we can play our part in defusing an issue that has become increasingly toxic, and pave the way to better clarity and understanding. Let’s reposition the narrative, and ensure that free speech can be used for the right reasons, to overcome inequality and allow everyone’s voices to be heard.
But the Russians remained wild communists
One reason why not only Jews but many non-Jews as well suspect much criticism of Israel as being basically anti-Semitic is that Jews for many. many centuries, indeed for the past 2,000 years, have been the classic “Other” for most European and European-derived (e.g., North American) societies and cultures, hated first as “atheoi” in the Roman Empire for disbelieving in the pagan gods and refusing to sacrifice to the “divine” Emperor, then as “Christ-Killers’ by most Christians until quite recent times (it’s only in our own lifetime that the Catholic Church officially apologized for its centuries of Jew-hatred and “Christ-killer demonization). Even with the decline of Christian religious zealotry with the Enlightenment and after, even when few people cared about the “Christ-killer” trope any longer, a more general social and cultural prejudice against the Jews as “THE Other par excellence” still persisted in most European and European-derived cultures, very easily… Read more »
This is incredibly pedantic, but I haven’t read this article about the British left for one silly reason: The cover photo is not from the UK but is rather a picture from Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.
In my own personal experience over the years, the vast majority of the (non-Jewish) individuals I’ve ever had conversations with who have attacked oir bitterly criticized “Zionism” or all the actions and policies of Israel have also been individuals who have made disparaging remarks about American Jews as individuals, or indulged in anti-Semitic jokes and cracks about our mutual Jewish acquaintances, neighbors, classmates, or co-workers.
The fact that the young are left should not be taken too seriously. If my contemporaries had maintained their youthful allegiances we would all be living in a Marxist ‘paradise’ now. There ain’t nothin’ like paying taxes and a mortgage and bringing up kids to rub one’s nose in reality. Since I became politically aware the left have always been the howlers. I was at Uni in UK during the Thatcher years, and a visit by a minister at the time required military levels of security. Tony Benn and his ilk could walk unmolested into any Uni (or anywhere else). Even where the left are howled down, it is not by the right but by those even more left – it was not the ENL or Tory right who cancelled Suzanne Moore, Selina Todd or JK Rowling (or tried to). It is the hypocrisy of the left that gets me.… Read more »
Yet I have a philosophical problem with forming a state in the modern era on a basis of ethnicity,… well most of the First World states were founded on the base of ethnicity.. I know that Americans have biiig biig problem to understand ethnicity. like speaking different first language makes me member of different nation, but may have no bearings to my citizenship 😀
Has anyone noticed that much of the present-time troubles (and the troubles to come as well) of the world is being caused and fomented by back-to-the-past xenophobic cultic and/or tribalistic “religious” traditionalists. This is especially the case with the three semitic cults Juda-ism, Islam-ism and Christian-ism, and also in India too via Modi’s deliberately divisive politics.
What makes both Islam-ism and Christian-ism especially dangerous is that their “conservative” proponents all claim/pretend that only their cult contains and expresses the truth the one truth faith/way! Their cultic religion possesses the only authentic Divine Revelation. Consequently they also pretend that they have a “god”-given mandate to convert all human beings to
Speaking of the left and free speech my all time favorite outfit which does exactly that is the always excellent Media Lens outfit – now twenty years old. Check out the Ghastly Future essay which provides a comprehensive assessment of the vexed question of anti-semitism It is also interesting to note that, as far as I know some states in the USA have made it an essentially criminal offense to participate in the BDS movement, as did the Donald too. It seems as though the Israelis can have their cake and eat it too – but not the Palestinians. It is also interesting to note that some traditional Jews who live in Israel are very critical of the Zionist project too, pointing out, quite rightly that such a project is a heresy. Strange that the US government can provide tens of billions of dollars to the Israeli military machine without… Read more »
“In response to demands for the cancellation of the Oxford event, an open letter was circulated in support of Loach, criticising the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.”
When JK Rowling or anybody else criticizes or exposes a point of view about trans, everyone is called transphobic, there is no separation for you, because criticizing is not certain points of the trans movement is not the same as being against it.
In short: This goes for critics of gays, black movements, feminists, etc. Criticizing does not make anyone homophobic, racist, or sexist.
I’m sorry but I can’t believe the “good heart” on the left. And the most obvious here: If the Left were so in favor of freedom of expression, it would not need a text with that title!
«criticising the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism» – You know, I completely agree with them. There is no such thing as anti-Zionism. There is just a antisemitism.
Nobody on the left cares about black racism in South Africa or Zimbabwe. Everybody on the left worries about Israel.