Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?
William Collins, 320pp, £12.99
In February this year, the feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite had her show cancelled at Goldsmiths, University of London. The reason? It depends on who you ask. The organisers cited security concerns over a threatened picket line, or that Smurthwaite did not sell enough tickets (although the show was free entry for most). According to the comedian, however, it was cancelled because the student feminist society objected to her previously stated views on decriminalising prostitution. The thing was, Smurthwaite’s show was not about prostitution. It was about free speech.
This episode gets a passing mention in Mick Hume’s new book, Trigger Warning, alongside a number of other examples following the same trajectory: a particular person or group being refused a platform to speak, followed by a denial that such a “no-platforming” was intended. The students who don’t want to hear speakers unless they agree 100 per cent with everything they have ever said are strangely reluctant to admit what they are up to.
While students represent the vanguard of what Hume dubs the “reverse-Voltaires”, this problem extends beyond university campuses. Hume takes us on a tour of rampaging online mobs, of comedians censured for jokes, of a football culture cleansed of its working-class roots. If his book had been written a few months later, no doubt he would have included Tim Hunt, the scientist who was made to resign a honorary fellowship at University College London over comments he made about women in his field. Everywhere we look, people are being silenced in the name of preventing offence.
Hume paints a scary picture – or, at least, it would be, were it not for his style, which diminishes the substance of his argument. Trigger Warning is stuffed full of all the clichés, from Churchill to Voltaire, via the mandatory Orwell references. Once he comes up with a phrase that he is proud of (the reverse-Voltaire-ism “I know I will detest what you say, and I will fight to the end of free speech for my right to stop you saying it” is a favourite), you can expect to read it several times over. Occasionally, Hume’s sledgehammer repetitions and laboured elaborations make Trigger Warning read like an undergraduate essay. By the time he informs us on page 20, still in the prologue, “This book aims to put the case for unfettered free speech,” reader fatigue sets in. Trigger Warning could have been half the length and would have been better for it.
Or he could have substituted some of his ponderous rhetoric with passages that address the gaps in his exposition. Hume displays a total disengagement with one specific form of reverse-Volataire-ism: that of men towards women. His chapter “A Short History of Free Speech Heretics” would have been better titled “A Short History of Men’s Free Speech Heretics”. He makes no mention of the “scold’s bridle”, the metal mask with a tongue clamp that was forced on the heads of women who spoke too much. We learn nothing about the “witches” whose tongues were cut out before they were burned at the stake. The anti-suffragette posters of a crying woman with her tongue nailed to a table make no appearance.
From the contemporary landscape, the rape and death threats sent to Kathy Sierra, an American computer programmer, for daring to write about technology, are absent, as are those sent to Sue Perkins, merely for the rumour that she might replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear (though we get a long section on Clarkson’s right to free speech). Hume talks about “Twitterstorming mobs of online crusaders”, whose sole aim is to terrorise those they disagree with into silence, without mentioning “Gamergate”, the mass online attacks against women in the gaming industry, which included rape threats and at least one campus shooting threat. Given Hume is clear that “direct threats of violence” do not come under free speech, these are curious omissions.
They are also dishonest ones. Hume presents the online mob as one-sided: coming from the once liberal left, against the newly oppressed working-class white man, like Dapper Laughs, the comedian who claimed a female audience member was “gagging for a rape”. This suits his argument that people are being imprisoned for “tweeting insults”. There is little doubt that there have been overzealous prosecutions, the most infamous being the “Twitter joke trial”, in which Paul Chambers was arrested and fined almost £1,000 for tweeting – in frustration at cold weather disrupting his travel – that Robin Hood Airport in Yorkshire had “a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
But Hume does his argument a disservice when he suggests that all those who have been prosecuted have done nothing more than cause offence (or, in Chambers’s case, make a wilfully misinterpreted joke). He not unreasonably takes issue with the Malicious Communications Act 1988 over its inclusion of being “offensive” as an imprisonable crime. However, the act also prohibits direct threats – and has been used for this purpose. The problem is not as simple as his argument wants it to be.
Hume is at his best when he addresses the equivocal nature of the language used by the anti-free-speech warriors. Like their hypocritical stance in attempting to “no-platform” while denying it, their language is intended to obfuscate and disingenuously reframe. Rather than debate people they disagree with, they pathologise them as “phobic”: whore-phobic, trans-phobic, you-name-it-phobic. Similarly, people are labelled as “deniers”; for example, “climate change deniers”. Hume points out that the intention is to shut down discussion – after all, who wants to debate a pathological liar?
Hume argues that it is always better to engage with deniers and phobics and refute their arguments than simply to outlaw their speech. Anyone who has seen the magisterial tearing-down of the climate sceptic James Delingpole by the president of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, would struggle to disagree. It’s just a shame that these sections, which contain genuinely interesting insights – such as the origin of the cliché “There is no right to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre” (a 1919 US Supreme Court ruling that convicted an anti-conscription activist under the wartime Espionage Act) – are so comparatively short. There is an important and necessary book waiting to be written on this subject. Sadly, Hume’s effort is not it.
Caroline Criado-Perez appears at Latitude Festival (16-19 July)