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14 July 2021

First Thoughts: The real threat to free speech, eating insects, and why you should ask a friend out to dinner

What does Gavin Williamson, the free speech champion, think of the law designed to curtail the right to peaceful protest?

By Rachel Cunliffe

“We should not demonise those who disagree with us,” writes Gavin Williamson in his latest free speech tirade in the Telegraph. The Education Secretary is out promoting the government’s new Higher Education Bill, which would fine universities found to have stifled free speech and enable academics and speakers who feel they have been silenced to seek compensation.

A few months ago, I wrote on how the government was arguing with itself over whether its proposed legislation would protect legal but abhorrent speech such as Holocaust denial. But now I have a different question for Williamson, the free speech champion. Last week, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its third reading, despite numerous proposed amendments and objections from human rights groups. This bill would enable police to shut down any demonstration if it could potentially cause “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience”, or if it is simply deemed too noisy. It is hard to imagine a protest that is quiet and polite enough not to annoy anyone – making a stir is the point of protesting.

So what does Williamson think of the chilling threat to free speech from a law designed to curtail the right to peaceful protest? Or is he too busy playing at student politics to care?

A bug’s life

Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the fast-food chain Leon and now on the board of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, thinks we should be eating insects. He’s drawn up a national food strategy for Britain, which includes prescribing free fruit and veg to deprived households and encouraging the nation to switch from meat to bugs and plant-based alternatives (algae, fermented meat substitutes) to save our health and the planet.

Conflating the environmental and health arguments for ethical vegetarianism has always struck me as unhelpful. For example, when land use and farming methods are taken into account, coffee and cheese rack up higher emissions than pork or poultry, while the asparagus, green beans and berries that fly to your plate have a much bigger carbon footprint than foods that arrive by boat. Calculations about the ethics of what we eat become even more thorny when considering lab-grown beef or highly processed meat alternatives. Are we trying to improve animal welfare, reduce emissions, make food cheaper, or become a healthier nation? All are admirable goals, but I’m doubtful we could achieve them all at once.

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At any rate, while I’ve no objection to culinary adventurism (I’ve eaten locusts), I’m not sure that a pandemic – which is thought to have begun in a market where bats are sold as food – is the best time to convince people to experiment.

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Hope in vaccines

Snippets of positivity are hard to find mid-crisis, which makes the news that Oxford University has started trialling an HIV vaccine all the more uplifting. With the challenge unsolved after three decades of research, scientists are now embarking on a new strategy – using techniques developed while working on the Covid-19 jab. The thought that lessons from this pandemic could yield a solution to another is a reminder that, however dire things may have felt at times, the past 16 months have been anything but wasted.

Friend-zoned

I was 17 when I was first accused of putting a male acquaintance in the “friend-zone”. By becoming friends with him I had, apparently, cruelly denied him the chance of pursuing a romantic relationship with me. This piece of Nineties internet slang, popularised by an episode of Friends, is so ubiquitous it made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

Except, it turns out it’s rubbish. Research from a new study finds that two-thirds of couples started out as friends, with the average friendship lasting 22 months before turning romantic. Rates of reverse friend-zoning were even higher among young people and LGBT couples.

So if your love life has been on hiatus during the pandemic, take heart. You don’t necessarily need dating apps to find that connection – the ideal partner for you may have been your friend all along. 

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook