The question of whether freedom of speech is under threat has been a point of debate for several years now. Some have argued that the notion of a free speech crisis is a right-wing myth; others that, although it is true that freedom of speech has been limited, this is a justifiable adjustment of the boundaries of acceptable speech against propagators of hate. I would argue that there is indeed a crisis surrounding freedom of speech, but that it is not merely a result of our becoming kinder and more wary of giving offence. Nor is this crisis simply the result of powerful forces on the left to whom censorship seems increasingly attractive—though that is indeed also a problem. Rather, the free speech crisis is a logical consequence of the way in which certain identities have been constituted, politicized and reified.
I recently participated in a debate about no-platforming and trigger warnings on university campuses. My opponent argued that these things weren’t wrong in principle—as I maintained—but had “gone too far.” But what did he mean by “too far”?
In a final-year module I took, the lecturer sent us an email, warning that the text we would be reading next—Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks—included the N-word and described the horrors of colonialism. If any student was offended or uncomfortable at this, he assured us, she would not have to attend the seminar. In effect, this meant that we could choose not to study a canonical anticolonial and antiracist text because of its inclusion of certain language—even though the writer is describing his own experience. Was this use of a trigger warning an example of going too far?
Similarly, pioneering feminist Germaine Greer has been on the sharp end of several no-platforming attempts due to her views on gender identity—even though debates about gender are ongoing and the question remains unsettled. Were these no-platformings an example of going too far?
No, my opponent told me, these were not examples of going too far because, in both cases, unfettered speech might cause trauma to those with “already marginalised” identities, who should not be reminded that their identities are subjects of political debate. But while that sounds compassionate, it suggests that those identities are peculiar and abnormal, deserving of different treatment and thereby unequal. It is this act of demarcation that politicises the identities in question and—more importantly—deprives people of the opportunity to step outside the realm of their particular experiences and enter into a domain that is genuinely universal: the domain of freedom of expression and knowledge. This is a subtle form of dehumanisation, which binds certain identities to trauma, fragility and infancy. Members of such groups are treated not as if they were full human beings—capable of making judgements and confronting and shaping the world—but mere victims. This approach reframes the curtailment of free speech as protection.
The debate about freedom of speech is not merely about what can and cannot be said. It is a battle over how certain identities are constituted, and what this means for our understanding of our humanity.
If you are a young black person growing up in Britain today, your ascribed racial identity—which you subsequently internalise—is imbued with distinct meanings. That identity is said, by contemporary antiracist activists in particular, to be intrinsically tied to a history of racialised subjugation and a present of systemic racism: racism that never ends, but only transforms itself. The more strongly you embrace this notion, the more authentic your identity will be. It is a way of thinking that confers certain privileges: absolution from responsibility, unquestioning acceptance of your lived experience, a licence to practise emotional blackmail and—above all—a sense of moral certainty. It defines you as different, as other. Black folk who reject this characterisation of blackness are regarded as less black and their perspectives are therefore seen as less legitimate.
For freedom of speech and productive discussion to flourish requires intellectual curiosity, respect for the views of others and a shared belief that the fearless exchange of ideas is a useful endeavour. Freedom of speech requires faith in individual moral autonomy and agency, since it presupposes that humans are capable of changing their minds. This seems incompatible with currently fashionable conceptions of marginalised identities.
As we have begun to think about racism and discrimination as part of the realm of the subjective inner self, a matter of individual feelings, we have come to focus less on observable racism than on the extent to which an individual’s conception of self is being challenged. To question notions of race (or gender) is now seen as challenging the existence of people with certain racial (or gender) identities—unless, of course, the discussion is wholly on their terms. This view holds that no discussion of racism or race is ever neutral or dispassionate, but always hyper-personalised. It has become difficult to objectively assess the nature and scope of present-day racism, in a world that confuses actual racism with challenges to people’s ways of making sense of the world and explaining who they are.
Clearly, this makes it more difficult to build solidarity around a genuinely post-racial, universalist politics. Many even think such a politics is neither necessary nor desirable—the moral authority our current framework offers is simply too seductive.
So, is it possible to have a racial identity that is constituted other than in the currently approved way?
Of course, it is. Many who embrace a racialised identity do not regard it as their defining characteristic, or instrumentalise it for political purposes. Some may choose to reinvent aspects of their racial identity or imbue it with meanings from which they derive pride and a sense of community, cultural and artistic inspiration or a way to remember their ancestors. Indeed, from the Civil Rights movement to reggae music, black Americans in the Southern states and Caribbean people have a rich history of a spiritually rooted, empowered and agentic sense of blackness.
Today’s identity politics, however, makes it increasingly difficult to constitute identity other than through a politicised victimhood. Take, for example, BBC3: a TV channel focusing on young people. Though it is supposed to reflect the perspectives of all young Britons, its conception of authenticity is deeply tied to identity politics. Produce Ash Atalla has remarked that the channel intends to highlight issues that “concern young people … gender, race, sexuality, identity [or] the environment.” This is a posture that resembles that of universities. These institutions—and therefore the moral, cultural and intellectual landscape more generally—fail to offer young people in general— including those with “marginalised identities”—ways to cultivate independence, debate and be challenged by a range of ideas, and gain experience of things outside the frameworks defined by their hyper-individualised identities. Instead, young people are encouraged to fixate on defining an inner identity—an identity narrowly defined by race, gender, etc.—and to engage the world through the lens it provides.
When an entire generation grows up embedded in this way of thinking—lacking the intellectual and cultural tools to transcend that narrow perspective—freedom of speech becomes exhausting, confusing, deeply personal, even traumatic.
According to sociologist Frank Furedi, the elites did not capitulate to identity politics; rather, identity politics has emerged from a section of the cultural elite itself, for whom it functions as a way of conferring recognition and validation, allowing the elites to determine which identities are acceptable and which are not and thereby control the ways in which people communicate with one another.
While young people have become the vanguard of this way of thinking, it did not originate with them. As I have written elsewhere, “Far from challenging the establishment, wokeness has become a means through which the establishment reinvents itself.” From multinational corporate censorship to government speech codes—on the pretext of protecting identities, civic and public life has become ever more policed, while citizens trust one another less and less.
The politics of identity provides a new way for elites to assert their legitimacy against the backdrop of an intellectual and philosophical vacuum. You can see this in the way the British Labour Party has struggled to develop any kind of coherent political or philosophical vision not bound up with identity politics. Without proclamations from on high about how racist, sexist and transphobic our society is, what does the party really have to offer?
Herein lies the fundamental problem. If we want to transcend our current circumstances, what should be our goal? Rugged neoliberal individualism has left many of us unsatisfied. What identity can we embrace that calls upon us to take on the world—to embrace beauty, goodness, truth, freedom, democracy and community; to see ourselves not as racialised objects but as autonomous subjects; to build solidarity across racial lines; to become participating citizens who value the free exchange of ideas and creative expression?
To break the bonds of politicized identities and painfully constrained speech, we need to channel a democratic spirit that is relational and participatory. This requires an ambitious political imagination—a vision of the kind that is frequently demonised in today’s climate, and has not been seen for several decades.
We should not abandon old institutions, but reinvigorate them, and build new ones. In recent years, many people have expressed discontent at the way in which institutions such as the universities, the BBC and the National Trust have advanced a deeply politicized narrative about contemporary Britain. Some people have even called for them to be defunded or abandoned. The rise of new media has been driven partly by the search for broader perspectives than those of an increasingly partisan and ideological mainstream media ecosystem. However, while alternative platforms and spaces that cater to specific audiences are to be welcomed, the need for institutions that speak to and reflect the views of all of us is perhaps even greater than it has ever been. A retreat into intellectual silos will do nothing to diminish the influence that historic institutions have on our culture. Therefore, rather than desert these institutions, we must reconnect them to their fundamental purpose. This means joining boards, committees and workgroups, writing emails, attending events, becoming school governors—in short, becoming full participants in the established system and asking questions about it from within. Our major institutions play a key role in preserving the past, in defending and cultivating excellence, beauty and truth. They are the lifeblood of our societies. They have recently increasingly abandoned these priorities in favour of a politicised agenda—and this has already led to a greatly diminished civic life. In an impassioned piece in the Washington Post, Cornel West decries Howard University’s decision to close its Classics department, arguing that it will lead to a “spiritual catastrophe”:
The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial … The removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. To end this spiritual catastrophe, we must restore true education, mobilizing all of the intellectual and moral resources we can to create human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue … Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity?
Similarly, Roger Scruton has described an “almost deliberate attempt to expel beauty from the place in human life that it naturally occupies … which is the centre.” Clearly, we have a moral imperative to restore our institutions, especially our educational ones.
The reorientation of these institutions won’t happen overnight. The creation of places where these ideas can be defended, interrogated and rearticulated is therefore important. Creating salons and large public forums for intergenerational and cross-cultural exchange and debate will be crucial if we want to create a culture of criticism and free exchange and embrace active, civic identities instead of victimised, racial ones.
There is an economic question here, too. Mary Harrington has argued that it is unsurprising that a generation born in a post-industrial, globalised and increasingly precarious society should embrace values radically different from those of its predecessors. We urgently need greater democracy: we need to confront economic, social and political realities as equals. The current iteration of identity politics, with its penchant for the suppression of speech, is a profoundly elitist exercise. This is supported by recent polling showing that majorities in the UK, the US and France agree that “people today are too easily offended by what others say.” Cultural and political elites expect praise for their supposed role as the protectors of minorities. Meanwhile, people from diverse backgrounds, are demonised for their political views. This partly explains why—despite accusations that he was a racist—Donald Trump increased his vote share among ethnic minority individuals in the 2020 election—a reality that has yet to be seriously reckoned with. The current dismissal of populism is due, in part, to the elites’ distrust of the public and lack of confidence in their ability to persuade others through the exchange of ideas. In such a context, how can proper value be accorded to freedom of speech? Democracy, in its deepest sense, is the belief in human equality, individual and collective agency, and the possibility of realising a better society through free and dynamic interpersonal relationships. Developing more effective and imaginative ways for citizens to participate in, shape and transform their communities would both encourage free expression and force us to lift our gaze from our individual preoccupations and internalised identities and focus on our role as citizens in the public square—where anything is possible.
It is easy—though often necessary—to decry the censoriousness of the woke. It will be much harder to change the social, economic and political conditions that have produced this cultural moment. Human beings are complex: we are fragile and robust, cowardly and courageous, emotional and rational, particular and universal. We aspire to create a society that tilts us towards the better sides of ourselves. It is only through freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas that we stand any chance of properly navigating our fraught existence, and exploring the depth and scope of our humanity. That is why we must all do our part to revivify public life.