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 These emergency powers were repealed by the country’s National Assembly in June 2020, but the fact that Orbán had the capacity to potentially shut down criticism of his government’s response to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.