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.