I did not expect to enjoy Andrew Doyle’s Free Speech and Why it Matters. I like Andrew himself very much and our values closely align. However, I seem to be missing the part of the brain that appreciates satire, although I recognise its value for puncturing pompous and self-righteous narratives. I was expecting Doyle’s new offering to be a humorous exploration of the excesses of authoritarian Social Justice censoriousness. I was wrong. In fact, Free Speech and Why it Matters is the primer that we have been needing for some time. It is alarming that so many people living in societies that have flourished precisely because they are underpinned by liberal values are either disdainful of those values or desperately confused as to what they are. As those of us over thirty have grown up within a system where freedom of belief and speech and tolerance of diverse viewpoints are clearly a societal good and a norm, many of us have never learned to articulate what liberal principles are and why they matter. We therefore find ourselves singularly unfit to defend them and prone to being led down either Critical Social Justice rabbit holes or post-truth populist ones.
Moralistic thought-policing seems to be intuitive to humans: history bears witness to our tendency to set up societies that do this and to how badly this has worked out for minorities. Liberalism, on the other hand, with its central concept of the marketplace of ideas—in which one can believe somebody else to be factually or morally wrong and yet not try to punish or silence her—is relatively new and counterintuitive. Nevertheless, it has achieved the greatest advances in knowledge and human rights—including minority rights—that human societies have ever seen. It must be defended and bolstered.
Other books have been written with this intention. The masterpiece in this genre remains Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors, which is accessible but detailed and incisive in its dissection of various ways of thinking and advocacy for liberalism. Similarly, Ian Dunt’s How to be a Liberal, which takes a historical look at the development of liberalism, is clear and persuasive and Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities captures the spirit of liberalism and demonstrates its effectiveness at producing genuine and sustainable progress. I recommend that those who have liberal intuitions but find those intuitions hard to articulate read all three of those books. But first, I suggest they read Free Speech and Why It Matters.
At only 98 pages, Andrew Doyle’s slender book consists of a series of short essays, each of which addresses a common issue regarding freedom of speech and cuts through the confusion and misconceptions that surround it. Doyle begins by evidencing the scale of the problem. Incredibly, there are still people who insist that there is no real threat to free speech, even though 120,000 so-called non-crime hate incidents involving speech have been recorded in the UK and a man who posted a limerick that some considered transphobic was contacted at his workplace by the police, who told him they wished to “check his thinking.” Is it ever acceptable for the police to check someone’s thinking? Unless there is strong evidence that the person may have become radicalised into a terrorist mindset and could pose a threat to the physical safety of others, it is hard to see any justification for this.
Doyle addresses the legal aspects of the problem in depth in his chapters on incitement and hate speech. He points out that harassment, threats and defamation are already rightly illegal, but expresses concern about the subjective nature of the concepts of incitement and hate speech, which can be used to justify silencing certain ideas in order to prevent harm. It is already illegal to encourage and facilitate violence, but too often censorious ideologues claim that the mere expression of ideas is itself incitement to violence. Doyle convincingly argues that the “potential to influence” cannot be regarded as a crime in itself. If someone were to take my criticism of the work of Robin DiAngelo or the policies of Donald Trump as an inspiration to violently attack either of them, that person would have acted on his own initiative and be solely responsible for his actions. I myself have simply argued that DiAngelo’s ideas are bad and should be countered with better ones and that Trump should be ousted through the democratic process.
Likewise, hate speech, Doyle argues, cannot be meaningfully defined. The concept relies on subjective interpretations and personal perceptions. Doyle cites the Crown Prosecution Service’s definition of a “hate incident” as a non-criminal act that is “perceived by the victim or anybody else” as motivated by hostility or prejudice against someone on the basis of certain protected characteristics (race, religion, sexuality, disability and transgender status). By this logic, Doyle could perceive any criticism of his book as a homophobic hate incident and, as a woman with a disability, I could perceive any criticism of this review as an ableist hate incident. That would be ridiculous.
Doyle’s reference to the typical Social Justice advocate as “that confusing and rare phenomenon: the well-intentioned authoritarian” is very similar to Rauch’s concept of the “kindly inquisitor.” I doubt that this phenomenon is rare, however. I think it is always with us, but manifests in different forms at different times and places. Even those regimes that have tortured and killed others for believing in God in the wrong way have believed that they were saving souls from eternal torment by stemming the deadly contagion of heresy. While Social Justice is a modern, western phenomenon that exerts its power via Diversity, Equity and Inclusion boards, rather than inquisitors, and whose punishments involve job losses and social ostracism, rather than torture and execution, it is a manifestation of the same human impulse to prevent heretical ideas from contaminating society.
One of the most important issues Doyle covers is the inadequacy of current protections of freedom of speech in the age of social media. Laws that prevent governments from interfering with free speech are not much use when the marketplace of ideas is essentially owned by large tech corporations, which may censor certain views out of a genuine desire to do good or because complying with the dominant orthodoxy is good for business. A twenty-first century solution will be required to address this twenty-first century problem.
The chapter on common misunderstandings of free speech is particularly valuable and ideally should be freely available for everyone, but particularly for teachers. One of the biggest difficulties we face is that so many people seem to misunderstand what defenders of free speech are actually defending. Some believe that it is hypocritical to defend freedom of speech and then strongly criticise someone’s speech—even though one of the main strengths of freedom of speech is that it enables us to criticise and dismantle bad ideas. These people need to read John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglass and John Milton (from whose Areopagitica, a passionate defence of the free press, this publication takes its name). Others believe that supporting the freedom to express a vast range of ideas entails a responsibility to listen to all of them. No. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to choose which speech you want to listen to. If someone asks you if you want to hear the good news about Jesus, for example—or about anything else—freedom of speech defends your right to say no. It also denies you the right to stop anybody else from listening. You yourself can choose not go to church, for example, but you mustn’t stop anyone else from going. In the social media age, this means that you can block, mute or ignore people you don’t wish to engage with, but should not try to stop anyone else from engaging with them.
Sadly, one of the most common misconceptions is that freedom of speech exists to protect people’s right to be racist or bigoted. As Doyle is not afraid to point out, some people will use their freedom to speech to express horrible, reactionary ideas. However, he also argues that this enables us to know what ideas are in people’s heads and demonstrate how morally abhorrent they are much more effectively than if we force them underground or let them fester in people’s heads, unchallenged.
Even liberal-minded people, who are not at all woke, can fall prey to the belief that it is morally good to censor unambiguously horrible ideas. Some ideas, they argue, are so appalling that there is no good reason to allow them an airing. For example, why would anyone other than a Nazi want to allow people to say that the Holocaust was a good thing? It can be difficult for defenders of free speech to get across the fact that they agree that such an idea is appalling, but that they still want people to be able to express it. As Doyle points out, this is not because they support Nazis but because we should not set a precedent that the government gets to decide which ideas are too appalling to be spoken. This is very important. Silencing ideas widely considered appalling has not worked out well historically for religious and sexual minorities and, in a democracy, is always likely to favour the majority over minorities. Currently, a majority of people believe that we must protect religious and sexual minorities, but that may not always be the majority opinion. We can all think of governments we would not wish to imbue with the power to decide what is and isn’t speakable.
There is also the problem of social power, which Doyle addresses in his chapters on the social contract, cancel culture and offence. This is a much trickier problem because, of course, free speech protects people’s right to criticise and even express their abhorrence of certain ideas and this can result in a mass public shaming that can intimidate people into self-censorship. This is a needle that needs to be threaded carefully. Where does the marketplace of ideas—in which bad ideas are defeated by better ones—stop and mobbing, bullying and social cancellation begin?
Doyle argues that we need to separate legal and cultural sanctions and maintain a voluntary social contract that recognises criticism as different from censorship and cancellation. The right to criticise bad ideas honestly and civilly is a key tenet of liberalism—and such criticism often works, he reminds us. However, cancel culture seeks to denounce rather than criticise and the punishment is often completely disproportionate to the supposed offence. Cancel culture punishes without offering any scope for redemption and has the strongest impact on the least powerful. We can legitimately treat bad ideas with scorn and ridicule, and treat someone who expresses them as unworthy of our respect or friendship. This is all part of liberal freedom of belief, speech and association. But this is not the same as censoring, defaming, harassing, threatening or calling for the firing of individuals whose ideas we dislike. This creates an atmosphere of intimidation and impedes liberal social values. Likewise, we can feel deeply offended or revolted by certain ideas and express those feelings, without demanding that other people be silenced to protect us from our own feelings. This, Doyle says, is to subordinate reason to baser instinct.
Free Speech and Why it Matters also looks at the stultifying effect that cancel culture and the resulting self-censorship can have on art and education. When comedians can only pick safe topics to joke about and when artists are unable to step outside their own identity groups or take creative risks, culture stagnates. When scholars must stay within certain ideological bounds and never challenge orthodoxies, knowledge cannot advance. Since forming Counterweight, I have seen the same problem play out within large corporations, small businesses, social services, mental health services, emergency services and charitable and humanitarian organisations, as the experiences of the individuals who come to us attest. Every case is different, but in every case the need to conform to the Social Justice worldview and the fear of what will happen if the individual dissents have led to a tense and distrustful workplace and reductions in effective team work and productivity.
Many people have accused those who conform to orthodoxies they do not genuinely believe of lacking bravery. It is indeed admirable when somebody stands up to an authoritarian ideology at great risk to herself. However, it is a lot to expect. People have bills to pay and families to feed and racism is so widely regarded as morally abhorrent that it is natural to fear being accused of holding such bigoted views. As Doyle acknowledges, “Conformity and dishonesty for the sake of self-preservation are understandable but are an affront to our conscience and dignity.” They are indeed. My experiences at Counterweight suggest that more men fear losing their jobs, while more women are afraid of becoming social pariahs. Interestingly, while white people often regard the expectation that they must affirm that they are racists as an unjust smear on their character and an affront to their conscience, black and South Asian people are most likely to experience Critical Social Justice narratives as an affront to their dignity. This should not be surprising to anyone who has thought deeply about the psychological impacts of oppressed and oppressor narratives.
Free Speech and Why it Matters ends powerfully. Thirty years ago, Doyle points out, few of us would have imagined that police would be investigating non-crime, students demanding protection from ideas or politicians calling for legislation governing what can be said in one’s own home. Yet this is where we find ourselves in the UK right now. Where will we be in another thirty years, he asks, if we don’t succeed in pushing back against this?
It may be that … we will have resigned ourselves to self-censorship and conformity to the status quo. Perhaps all art will be a form of ideological reinforcement … Perhaps we will learn to live under the continual supervision of the state, tempering our every utterance in accordance with the accepted script? Such a scenario seems inconceivable to those who have not learned the lessons of the past. For the rest of us, it is certainly worth stemming the momentum of this new illiberalism … Even if we fail, at least we can say we tried.
I, for one, intend to try and I hope you will too.
Enjoyed the read. Thank you. Think we need to address the framework of thinking that underpins how we socially interact. Ideas such as recognising how being purposeful – how we help other people – is central to our social interactions. This can determine if what we say helps or doesn’t help other people. Like the idea that by enabling people to say what they want to say enables us to identify what they are thinking. This then enables us to identify if they help, or don’t help us.
Helen Pluckrose criticizes the idea that “supporting the freedom to express a vast range of ideas entails a responsibility to listen to all of them,” arguing instead that “Freedom of speech includes the freedom to choose which speech you want to listen to.” Thus, she writes, “If someone asks you if you want to hear the good news about Jesus, for example—or about anything else—freedom of speech defends your right to say no,” but it “also denies you the right to stop anybody else from listening.” I’m reminded here of my own reservations about the title of the “Aesthetic Realism” movement’s newspaper “The Right of Aesthetic Realism To Be Known,” which I used to sometimes see lying around on subway and bus seats, or sold by enthusiastic streetcorner vendors, in New York City in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There both is and isn’t a “right” of Aesthetic Realism, or any… Read more »
Helen Pluckrose wrote that by the nebulous logic of so-called “hate speech” laws, “Doyle could perceive any criticism of his book as a homophobic hate incident and, as a woman with a disability, I could perceive any criticism of this review as an ableist hate incident.” It reminds me of a college friend of mine moved to England in the 1960’s to complete his graduate work at Oxford, who wrote me of one time hearing a feminist speaker at London’s Hyde Park Corner declare that no man could ever fairly or competently review a book written by a woman. My friend asked her, “What about a mathematics book written by a woman?” She had no answer.
But it wasnt the dreaded Marxists that staged the “long march through the institutions”, it was whats-in-it-for-me, and I-want-it-now consumerist “culture created by TV and its 24/7 propaganda (brainwashing) machine the advertising industry – the programs were of course a central feature for inducting the dreadfully sane every person into the consumerist mindset. The dreadfully sane every person who watched/watches several hours of TV every day. That consumerist anti-“culture” has reduced all of human culture to rubble, and is now (inevitably) doing the same to the biosphere. We are quite literally Amusing Ourselves To Death as described by Neil Postman in his book – check out his book Techgnosis too One of the earliest critiques of the mono-cultural flatland produced by TV was Gerry Mander via his book Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television. Check out his companion book In The Absence of the Sacred too The Jesuits told… Read more »
Dear Helen, you endorsed Biden. Take the consequences
As I see it we really need to push back hard against the idea that freedom of speech is just freedom from government censorship. It’s much broader a value than that. And it starts with every one of us. It’s about our tolerance for unpopular speech. Government censorship in a democracy is a reflection of its people’s intolerance of speech, or an exploitation of same. The first amendment only protects against that, true, but that is far from the be all and end all of free speech.
Time for some sort of coordinated pushback. Some sort of Sanity Party. Unwoke. Classically liberal. Economically centrist. Pro civilization.
Thanks for an execellent article.
“By this logic, Doyle could perceive any criticism of his book as a homophobic hate incident and, as a woman with a disability, I could perceive any criticism of this review as an ableist hate incident.”
All too true and potentially even more ridiculous since “anybody else” need not have any protected characteristic themselves and could be anyone anywhere on Earth!
As a conservative Christian, all I can say is this site is truly one of those (nowadays rare) “safe spaces”, where reasoned debate, insight and analysis are not only welcomed but applauded. Twenty years ago I could never imagined communing with, let alone agreeing with, secular humanists – but much has happened in the 21st century and now the enemy of my enemy is my new friend. Suffice to say, I deeply appreciate everyone who is willing to take up arms in the battle against the woke mob. As per Shakespeare: Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows – and I really hope that this particular contagious misery can be defeated with inoculations of common sense/reason from all of us capable of producing it – hopefully resulting in a herd immunity. I really really hope so.
I write here only on the off- chance that Helen will read this comment and appreciate the profound admiration with I have for her and all those, certainly including Andrew Doyle, who use the platforms which they have earned to stand in support of free speech. I am Canadian, and increasingly concerned to see the subversion of Enlightenment values within our institutions of higher learning, our major media, and our politics. We have indeed been favored among nations. Without bloody civil war or revolution of our own, we were gifted the traditions and cultures, and protection, of the two most enlightened centers of the world, the United States of America, and Great Britain. It is heart-breaking to watch as the values which made those societies, and our own, so good and so desirable, give way to simple ignorance and nonsense. Here’s hoping we all come to our senses before it… Read more »
Okay, so I have written an essay where I put forward my philosophical objections to some of the arguments appearing in this review. As they are in summary form, I concede in the essay and concede here that it is possible Andrew Doyle has dealt with one or more of the objections.
Basically my argument is that Doyle does not appear to have consistent models of a) how to ascertain intention, and b) how to decide whether words can be ‘meaningfully’ defined.
These are indeed ‘philosophical’ objections and I am quite aware that they will not convince much of his audience, but I present them here for those who are interested in how a ‘free speech sceptic’ might respond.
https://metamodernstope.substack.com/p/frozen-peaches-on-banana-skins – despite the title, the essay is dry and sticks with the arguments.
Thank you Helen for your clear thoughts and comments on free speech and why it is so important. I would add that there are millions of people in Europe, still alive today that know what it means to live under a totalitarian regime and where they experienced “orwellian type” speech and doctrines. They are very sceptical of us “wessies” ( I am from West Germany) to be able to detect illiberal tendencies in our society. This is fading away fast as the younger generation seems to be oblivious to the dangers at hand. You are right, we did not have to defend free speech and the liberal order. We have to learn it quickly though but I am afraid that it might be too late. I wished I had your optimism.
Thunderous applause, Pluckrose. You should write more on this site.
All of us worrying about the leftist war on free speech will continue struggling with “how to deal with it” if we don’t get the big picture of the marketplace of ideas. It is a war on all fronts, not just on the media and specifically the mainstream media, which is essentially what Big Tech is now part and parcel of. Their content comes from everywhere, but is controlled – read: censored – by the “editorship”. They are private corporates, after all, and can do as they please. The observation “Laws that prevent governments from interfering with free speech are not much use when the marketplace of ideas is essentially owned by large tech corporations” is therefore only true in a small(ish) part. It is not for nothing that Gramsci, Red Rudi, Marcuse and their foot soldiers called this war “The Long March through the Institutions”. They had that big… Read more »