Free speech, like oxygen, is a fundamental basis for any society that wishes to proclaim itself to be both free and healthy. Without it, the extension of the franchise, the conception of the NHS, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality would all have been impossible. And yet, everywhere we look, we observe that free speech is under threat from people claiming themselves to be liberals.
When a video was released of Clive Lewis telling somebody to ‘get on your knees, bitch’, he was demonised as a misogynist who should have the whip withheld. It did not matter to these critics (who, like it or not, were Tories desperately on the hunt for somewhere to score a political goal) that the person Lewis said it to was a man, or that everybody at the time found it amusing. The illiberal liberals seized on it as an example of, well, god knows what.
We see this hysteria, as I have previously written for this website, at the University. From a debate about abortion being cancelled because a certain feminist group did not want to hear from somebody who is pro-life, to calls for Germaine Greer to be no-platformed because she doesn’t think a man altering the appearance of his genitals makes him a woman, to Peter Tatchell being banned for barely discernible reasons, it is clear there is an open assault on freedom.
Before we can consider a solution, we must consider the origin of the problem. For some, this problem is a result of a generation that lacks resilience, and one that cannot stand to be told that they might be wrong. Technically, this is true. It is also true, however, that this does not tell the full story.
Since the end of World War Two, the people of Britain – as a collective – have not had their lives threatened by total war. They have led relatively comfortable lives, and this has triggered a peculiar feeling of collective guilt. Where their grandparents had to fight for their lives, they have to fight to catch the bus on time.
As this new post-war generation became parents, they were destined to project this variety of Stockholm Syndrome (a strange attachment to oppression) onto their children. They taught them that, around every corner, there is danger. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’, the mantra of the modern parent, has been coupled with anti-bullying campaigns that suggest a falling out within your friendship group (a traditionally brief experience in the life of a five-year-old) is an act of bullying.
Where once children were taught that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’, they are now taught that words have the potential to do them great damage. They have internalised this to such an extent that, when they go to University, they believe that the world owes it to them to be comforting. New ideas that challenge their preconceptions are perceived as a literal danger to their mental wellbeing, and stress is pathologized to such an extent that therapy dogs have introduced at some universities so as to help students calm down.
Allow me to make something very clear: this is an overwhelming bourgeois preoccupation. Working class children experience first-hand that the world is not comfortable, and that it certainly does not owe them anything. Middle to upper class children, on the other hand, live a life of privilege in which they can afford to spend time anxiously wringing their hands at the thought of a disagreement. One need only look at Spiked’s University Rankings to see that the universities with the most toxic anti-free speech are traditionally (and factually) attended by a high proportion of private school pupils.
Now that we have identified the cause of the manifestation, we must consider what to do to about it. The answer, this writer contends, is very simple: we must roll back the idea of society owing people comfort. Down with the pathetic anti-bullying messages, down with the therapy dogs, down with the societally universal view of acceptable opinions. We, being those of us who are concerned about the danger of a society that preaches niceness over reality, must demand a revolution.
This requires a shift in the way people consider their position within our society, and their culture. One way of achieving this is for media outlets to actively present two completely opposing views, demonstrating that open debate won’t – in actual fact – kill you. Inspired by Battle of Ideas, ran yearly by the Institute of Ideas, we can promote free speech by confronting people with arguments and debates that they otherwise would not care to engage with.
Free speech is under sustained ideological attack. This is neither an exaggeration of, nor a deviation from, the truth. Make no mistake. Unless we, and by that I mean the collective known as humanity, begin to take steps to wind back the damage, this society will descend into tyranny.
After all: one group deciding it has the right to pontificate on what is and is not ‘right’ to believe, it opens the floodgates for any other group to take up the mantle. You may like the nice people at Everyday Sexism but you won’t like who fills the gap when they disappear.
It is a fact that freedom of speech is the most fundamental freedom, without which all other freedoms mean nothing. Let’s start acting like it.