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19 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:22pm

First Thoughts: Some speech is freer than others, the danger of the desk, and sex resumes

I predict a summer of romance, as released singletons embrace the opportunity to mingle freely outside of their household. 

By Rachel Cunliffe

Will Boris Johnson legislate to protect Holocaust denial on university campuses? Labour’s shadow equalities minister Charlotte Nichols raised the question in the Commons last week, after the universities minister suggested the government’s free speech bill would do just that. Cue a hasty clarification from No 10 that “Holocaust denial is not something that the government would ever accept”.

Forgive me for being facetious, but why not? The entire point of the legislation is, the Tories say, to tackle “the chilling effect of censorship on campuses”. Holocaust denial, while abhorrent, isn’t illegal. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be included under a law designed to protect controversial and offensive speech – except that the Conservative Party “does not stand for anti-Semitism”, as the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted. So, are they prepared to censor it? If so, why not racist or homophobic speech too?

It is interesting to see this government belatedly confront the thorny reality of the free speech cause: you can’t claim to champion it then only protect speech you like. You also can’t use it to stop people disagreeing with you. One of the examples of campus “cancel culture” cited by the Department for Education was an open letter from academics criticising a professor at Oxford for suggesting the West should be proud of its imperialist history. It is unclear how insulating the professor from opposition would protect his speech without unjustly silencing his critics.

Similarly, when I interviewed the anti-woke London mayoral candidate Laurence Fox earlier this month, he talked with enthusiasm about the importance of free speech while also suggesting people should be banned from calling him racist.

Philosophers have grappled with such contradictions since Voltaire. The row over Holocaust denial suggests the Conservatives still have some thinking to do.

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[See also: Alan Rusbridger: “The young have no grounding in the classical view of free speech”]

Dying from home

We all know about Zoom fatigue and the erosion of work-life balance due to home-working, but I didn’t realise until this week the trend could cost lives. According to a global study from the World Health Organisation, 745,000 people died from working long hours in 2016, through increased stress or a rise in unhealthy behaviours such as drinking more and exercising less. Researchers believe the pandemic has exacerbated the problem: under lockdown, the number of hours worked increases by 10 per cent. And on average, people who work from home put in more unpaid hours than those who don’t.

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I’m not disparaging the benefits of home-working – I love the flexibility, and I’m not shocked by this week’s Ipsos Mori poll showing how little we’re looking forward to commuting when Covid restrictions end. But now the novelty has worn off, maybe we need a more honest conversation about who benefits most when workers turn their homes into offices. Perhaps it’s time for a new slogan: Leave Your Desk, Take a Walk, Save Lives.

Flingtime in springtime

An indoor pint at a pub might be the symbol of the latest round of unlocking, but for millions there’s an even more important liberation: for the first time in months it is no longer illegal to meet inside with someone not in your household or bubble. Ergo, England’s de facto sex ban has come to an end.

So much of Covid policy has focused on families or couples, it’s easy to forget the three million people who live in house shares, which means no bubbling – and therefore, unless you strike up a pandemic fling with a housemate, no sex.

I’m not entirely certain everyone has been sticking rigidly to these rules, which have made non-cohabiting intimacy illegal across parts of the country for most of the past 14 months. Still, I predict a summer of romance, as released singletons embrace the freedom and opportunity they’ve been denied this past year. The Covid baby boom we were told to expect at the start of the pandemic never materialised – it turns out spending 24 hours a day together isn’t conducive to passion. But I suspect the picture could look rather different in nine months.

This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy