It is difficult to estimate the strength of the tide against free speech in the Western world: in other words to navigate safely between the Scylla of panic and the Charybdis of complacency. But recently I have had two experiences that suggest to me that our attachment to freedom of speech is by no means so strong as to be unbreakable, and that those who wish to restrict it are a good deal more active and passionate, though not necessarily more numerous, than are those who want to defend it. In a world of monomaniacs, the reasonably balanced man, the man who sees the world as “so various, so beautiful, so new”, is at a perpetual disadvantage, engaged as he is on asymmetric (and boring) warfare against the fanatics of the latest mad orthodoxy.
This column appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Our current monomania is that of transsexualism which, as with all modern monomanias, is like the dawn that comes up like thunder outer Berkeley ’crost the Bay. Yesterday, for example, I read in the Times that the National Association of Head Teachers in Britain has issued “guidance” (the kind that communist dictators used to issue when they visited locomotive repair workshops or sausage factories, their words of wisdom on every subject being taken down by scribes), to the effect that there should be books in all schools for children under the age of eleven about “transgender” parents, and that “trans people, their issues and experiences”, should be “celebrated across the school”. This raises the interesting question of how exactly one celebrates transsexualism: dancing round a maypole hung with packets of oestrogen or testosterone, perhaps?
My first thought on reading this was, “What about the poor apotemnophiliacs?”, to say nothing of the acrotomophiliacs. The former are those who wish to have an amputated limb in order to achieve sexual fulfilment, and the latter those who can achieve such fulfilment only with amputees. (There surely must be an internet dating site to put them in touch with each another. If not, perhaps it will be the next Facebook.) Why, I ask, should they be left out of consideration? Is not the concentration on transsexuals yet another example of quadrilimbism, the unthinking and prejudiced assumption that two arms and two legs is the norm? Surely the teaching of the Battle of Trafalgar and Treasure Island offers splendid opportunities for the little ones to learn to be more inclusive in their thoughts? And surely offering early amputation to the tots who feel apotemnophilia coming on would help to save them years of preventable anguish and normalise the condition, if it is permissible to call something a condition which is, after all, both normal and to be celebrated like the summer solstice.
Then, of course, there is necrophilia. Surely it would be easy enough to adapt “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” so as to enlarge the infants’ worldview:
If you go down to the morgue today
You’re sure of a big surprise …
After all, it is beyond reasonable doubt that necrophilia harms no one, a dead body not being a person any longer susceptible to harm. Indeed, compared with sexual relations with living human beings, necrophilia is trouble-free, if the right hygienic precautions are taken; and there is by definition no need for contraception. Time for the six-year-olds to celebrate, then.
But to return to the two experiences I mentioned above. The first was a literary festival that turned into a riot, and the second was a talk that I gave to a large group of highly intelligent and well educated schoolchildren, or rather the questions that they asked afterwards.
The riot was aimed at preventing the speaker after me from speaking, and was successful in its aim. The rioters (some of whom thought it right to bring their children to the riot) said that the speaker after me had indulged in hate-speech, promoted hatred and was a fascist. It was certainly true that she had written or broadcast morally reprehensible things, in the mistaken belief that merely to offend politically-correct sensibilities in the grossest possible way was to perform a valuable service, or that two wrongs do make a right. I could therefore well understand why people might demonstrate against her presence, though a demonstration would also give publicity and draw attention to her.
A demonstration was not enough for the rioters, however. They assaulted the police, they broke into the building, they falsely imprisoned about forty people (including my wife and me), they assaulted people who wanted to attend the talk, and they undoubtedly used threats and menaces, all within the hearing and sight of the police, who did nothing. In the end, the speaker left without having spoken because she was in some danger. The police said they could not guarantee her safety, though their efforts in that direction seemed exiguous.
The justifications for the violent suppression of her right to speak were interesting. The local newspaper interviewed one rioter beforehand who said:
This is not about “freedom of speech”, this is about intellectual integrity and solidarity with some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people that suffer enough … I’m all for free speech but [she] just says provocative and offensive things to further her own career. I’m not supporting that under any circumstances.
This, of course, is pitiably argued and at a very low level of thought, but in essence it is what many students argue when they effectively prohibit speakers from their campuses. They may not represent majority opinion on their campuses, but they make the most noise, attend the most meetings, and—since righteous indignation is so pleasurable an emotion—have the most fun. Freedom suffers by default.
The second experience was in a way more alarming because it concerned younger, well-behaved, polite and intelligent children aged about sixteen or seventeen. I spoke to them about political correctness and its possible deleterious effects. I emphasised that what was morally permissible to say varied according to social circumstances, but that it was not for the law to codify, prescribe and proscribe. Freedom to say only what it is virtuous to say (and political correctness is not merely the suppression of what it sees as vice but, worse still, the promotion of what it sees as virtue) is to make freedom indistinguishable from tyranny.
It was clear to me from the questions that followed that the children had very little notion of what freedom actually was or what it entailed. For example, could it be right to allow climate-deniers to spread their falsehood and lies? The question begs many questions, of course: it assumes that it is beyond reasonable doubt that the globe is warming, that the warming is caused by man’s activities, that the warming is a wholly harmful phenomenon and that there is only one possible solution to it. I am insufficiently knowledgeable to pronounce on these questions and have heard eminent people whom I respect and whose integrity I have no grounds for doubting argue for very different conclusions.
But even if there were answers to these questions that were a good deal more certainly true than any answers that we possess today, it still would not be right to silence doubters and deniers: for error and even malice are the price of freedom. In the realm of intellectual freedom it is not truth that sets you free, but error, or rather the permissibility of error. And the freedom to tell lies is one of the most basic freedoms of all. There can be no freedom without it.
Well, the audience was only young and perhaps this was strong meat for their immature digestions rendered sensitive by a constant diet of modern pieties, as the young these days are said to be more likely to develop allergies because of the sterility and cleanliness of modern homes and ways of life (what they need is more dirt and early contact with potential pathogens). But soon they would be going off to university, where it was likely that they would encounter an even narrower and powerfully self-reinforcing view of the world. The pressure to conform would add to the natural self-righteousness of youth, which is often mistaken for idealism, and their impulse to censor in the name of their own irreproachable virtue would be strengthened and entrenched.
The long-term prospects for freedom of speech, then, are not altogether rosy. Those who value it are less vehement in their defence of it than are the self-righteous in their assault on it.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published last August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.