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The free speech delusion

Those who want to facilitate bigotry and shut down dissent among voices that have been silenced for too long are exploiting the language of free speech.

Oscar Wilde, who knew a few things about censorship, once wrote that he could "tolerate everything except intolerance". Today, the rhetoric of free speech is being abused in order to shut down dissent and facilitate bigotry. On behalf of everyone with liberal tendencies, I’d like to know why and how we’ve allowed this to happen.

Before we start, let's all take a deep breath and acknowledge that sometimes change can be scary. Right now, cultural politics are changing extremely fast. Right now, ordinary people can speak more freely and organise more efficiently than ever before.

That single fact is pushing culture to the left too quickly for some people's comfort, and the backlash is on – including from liberals who don’t like the idea that they might have to update their ideas. Writing on Facebook, Marlon James named this backlash "the Liberal Limit", and spoke about mainstream writers in every centre-left outlet from the Guardian to the New Republic who are:

“Tired of learning new gender pronouns . . . Tired of having to figure out how to respond to a Rihanna video. Tired of feminists of colour pointing out fissures in whatever wave of feminism we got right now. Tired of black kids on campus whining all the time. Tired of everybody being so angry because without their alliance all you coloured folk would be doomed. Liberal but up to the point where it scrapes on privilege.”

Every generation of self-defined progressives has to tackle the fact that progress doesn’t end with them. Every generation of liberals has to deal with its own discomfort when younger people continue to demand liberation.

Instead of doing that hard, important work, today’s liberals – particularly older, established white male liberals – are dismissing the righteous activism of today’s young radicals as petty "outrage". They are rephrasing critique of their positions as ‘censorship’ so they don’t have to contemplate the notion that those critics might have a point. They are enraged that they are being challenged, and terrified, at the same time, of being deemed regressive. But liberals need a reason to think of themselves as just while ignoring alternative views, and "free speech'’ has become that reason.

I hear the phrase "freedom of speech" so often from people trying to shut down radicals, queers, feminists and activists of colour that the words are beginning to lose all meaning.  So before that happens, let’s remind ourselves what freedom of speech means, and what it doesn’t. I didn’t want to have to write a listicle, but you brought this on yourselves.

Ten things "freedom of speech" doesn't actually mean, and one thing it does:

1. Freedom of speech does not mean that speech has no consequences. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be so important to protect speech in the first place. If you use your freedom of speech to harass and hurt other people, you should expect to hear about it.

2. Freedom of speech does not mean you never get called out. In particular, it does not mean that nobody is allowed to call you out for saying something racist, sexist or bigoted. At the University of Missouri, according to the New York Times, students erected a "free speech wall" because they were worried that if they said what they really felt they would be "criticised". There are a lot of words for the phenomenon of not wanting to speak your mind for fear that someone might give you a piece of theirs, but "censorship" is not one. "Cowardice" is more accurate. Right-wing students and aging national treasures are perfectly free to hold and express opinions, but freedom of speech also includes other people's freedom to disagree with them – including protests and demonstrations.

3. Freedom of speech does not mean that you’re not allowed to challenge authority. On the contrary – the principle of free speech is all about our right to challenging authority, including the authority of employers, educators and political candidates.Too many liberal public intellectuals seem to have forgotten that this process did not end in 1968.

4. Freedom of speech does not mean that all citizens already enjoy equal access to free expression and movement. The United States, for example, repeatedly congratulates itself on being a society that allows far-right racists to march, and even allows them a police escort, while young black men are murdered merely for walking down the street in search of snacks. Somehow, every modern argument for free speech in America seems to begin and end with the defence of bigotry. In fact, some people’s speech is always privileged above others’.

5. Freedom of speech does not mean that all views are of equal worth. The notion of a "marketplace of ideas" allows for the fact that some ideas are less worthy than others and can slip out of popular favour. The principle of free speech requires, for example, that we do not arrest a public figure for saying that transsexual women are disgusting – but it does not demand that we respect that public figure, or elect her to office, or invite her to give lectures. If what seemed progressive 20 years ago is  deemed intolerant today, that simply means that the world is moving on. 

6. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility for the consequences of your speech. Nobody else is actually stopping you from saying things other people might interpret as racist, or sexist, or transphobic. You are stopping yourself. And you're stopping yourself for a reason, because part of you knows that the world is changing, and it will continue to change, and you might have to change with it. You are allowed to make mistakes. What you can't do is ignore and dismiss the voices of less privileged groups and expect to hear nothing but polite applause.

7. Freedom of speech does not mean that "intellectual environments" like university campuses exist in a bubble outside politics. Universities have never been politically neutral. These are the same university campuses where young women are raped in large numbers, and  where the spectacle of young men marching into class with guns has become so routine reporters are struggling not to recycle news stories. And yet, somehow, it is not women and students of colour whose learning experience is deemed under threat – it is racism and rape culture that cannot be challenged on campus without calls of "censorship", or "political correctness run amok".

8. Freedom of speech does not mean that we are never allowed to analyse or re-interpret culture. The occasional use of "trigger warnings" on campus, for example, has been wilfully misinterpreted by those who did not grow up with them as an attempt to censor classic literature. In fact, trigger warnings are a call for cultural sensitivity and a new way of interpreting important texts. Which, correct me if I'm wrong, is part of what studying the humanities has been about for decades. Back in real life, nobody is going around slapping "do not read: contains awful men" on the cover of Jane Eyre. There are no undergraduate mini-Hitlers burning books in Harvard Yard. The people who've got carried away by outrage here are the people devoting endless column inches to denouncing trigger warnings. 

9. Freedom of speech does not mean that the powerful must be allowed to speak uninterrupted and the less powerful obliged to listen. Across Britain and America, students are organising to interrupt the speeches of transphobic and racially insensitive speakers. Black Lives Matter protesters have disrupted Democratic campaign events, demanding that their own agenda gets a hearing. Some of the most pernicious liberal attacks on the new radicalism imply that students and young people should never complain about the views of a particular speaker, educator or pubic figure, and that the place of the young is to listen, not to question, and certainly not to protest. ‘Respect My Freedom of Speech’ has become a shorthand for ‘shut up and stop whining.’

10. Freedom of speech is more than a rhetorical fig-leaf to allow privileged people to avoid thinking of themselves as prejudiced. Freedom of speech, if it is to mean anything, is the freedom to articulate ideas and the possibility that those ideas will make an impact.

11. Freedom of speech is the principle that all human beings have a right to express themselves without facing violence, intimidation or imprisonment. That’s it. That’s all.  It’s simple, it’s powerful, and it’s genuinely under threat in many nations and communities around the world. Somehow, those who are so anxious to protect the free speech of powerful white men and regressive academics fall silent when women are harassed, threatened and assaulted for expressing opinions online, or when black protestors are attacked by police. 

There is, in fact, a free speech crisis in the West. The crisis is that the very principle of free expression is being abused in order to silence dissenting voices and shut down young progressives. The language of free speech is being abused in order to dismiss the arguments of those whose voices have been silenced for far too long.

These are truths that should outrage everyone who pays more than lip-service to liberalism. In the name of free speech, those who have always enjoyed the largest platforms and audiences are defending their entitlement to do so without challenge or criticism. The free speech delusion has gone unchallenged long enough. It’s time to end this wilful stupidity.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum