Supporting free speech means fighting censorship, and that means getting your hands dirty

via Jane Mejdahl @ flickr
via Jane Mejdahl @ flickr

Views expressed not necessarily those of the Free Speech and Secular Society

Not many people genuinely believe in free speech. They might go through the motions of professing the contrary, but when confronted with the difficulties of holding the position they normally favour a desire for peaceful coexistence. It is nothing to be ashamed of, almost every good person I know falls into this category. Though like most revolutionary positions, communal harmony does not feature high on the free speech agenda, and when a marriage between the two cannot be made the latter must always prevail.


We who believe in free speech know that it is a strenuous value to uphold. It sometimes leads us to support the rights of people to say and do things we find repulsive. Often this leads others to assume that we share in those views, no matter how forthright we are in asserting that we do not. Worse still, if someone is then censored for expressing said views, we argue that they should be reprinted or re-expressed. That last part is a real friend loser.


Most people follow the first principle in so far that they themselves would not silence others. In this regard they can be said to hold a passive support for free speech. However, when faced with censorship their support for the victim stretches only as far as the extent to which they approve of the censored content. They abhorred the Charlie Hebdo murders but stopped short of posting a copy of the cartoons because they found them to be in bad taste. They sympathise with filmmakers when they receive death threats, but think they were stupid to make a comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong Un. They focus on the perceived smug self righteousness of Salman Rushdie rather than the fact that a British citizen was forced to live in hiding for the crime of writing a book.


Such people, though they might presume the opposite, do not believe in free speech. Where they fit on the spectrum is somewhere within the vast ethical expanse between Joseph Stalin and John Milton. They might not be censors themselves, but they are not willing to actively oppose censorship.


What we are left with is quite a difficult gap to bridge, because the majority of people still believe that they believe in free speech. Debates surrounding the topic would be greatly improved if they were able to rid themselves of this burden, yet so many remain perennially confused. The contemporary niagara of journalists and academics who intentionally obfuscate the term is a big contributing factor.


Rather than attack free expression for what they believe it to be, these intellectuals cling to the notion by moving the debate from a substantive to a hermeneutic one. They argue that true free speech doesn’t punch down, or upset deeply held sensibilities, or reinforce systems of privilege. As far as I am aware, none of these caveats have anything to do with the the premise that one should be free to say or write anything one wants provided it does not directly incite violence. Those that propose the opposite give off the distinct impression that their support for free speech stretches only as far as causes with which they agree. Though they are unwilling to give up on a term that has such purchase and so seek to redefine its true radical meaning.


The best argument put forward by such people against the version of free speech presented thus far is that it is too strenuous. Why should you have to get your hands dirty by fighting for the rights of someone whose views you detest? Surely not silencing them yourself is enough? Why should you have to seek out the censored works of a holocaust denier, rather than just not be the one to silence him? Why should you re-publish a cartoon if you think it is racist, just because the creators were killed for drawing it?


From the perspective of the liberal individual there is no answer to these charges. After the November Paris attacks I argued, quite brilliantly, that demanding outward displays of morality from others often underlies a child like understanding of ethics. For this reason it must be stressed that those who pose such questions aren’t the enemies of free speech. They just aren’t dependable allies either. Nonetheless, this charge of being overly strenuous has a lot of purchase. It does intuitively seem overzealous for an ethical position to reflexively necessitate championing the rights of bigots and dangerous ideologues. Especially if all they plan on doing with those rights is be insulting and abusive to others.


This would be a damning argument were the proposed alternative not just ethically hollow but naive to the point of utopianism. It can be described as thus: I support your right to free expression and will not take part in attempts to silence you. However, when others do so my support will be dependant upon the extent to which I approve of you and the content you produce.


Unfortunately for such people, the factors that make up one’s approval or disapproval are entirely subjective. What I view as verbal bile they may see as a risque critique. What they view as the perpetuation of rape culture, others may regard as protecting the principle of innocence until proven guilty. For this reason, any hope that the majority will harbour sentiments on censored content that always maps onto their own is detached from reality at best. If the day comes that someone decides to murder them for expressing an opinion (the ultimate in censorship), they can expect to stand alone, friendless and at the mercy of powerful forces.


Stretch your minds back to the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The argument frequently put forward was that the cartoons were racist or caused undue offence. Therefore, regardless of how condemnable the attacks were, the content should not have been re-published. Suppose that almost everyone took this view and decided not to republish the cartoon. It is reasonable to assume that that the 1% that would do so would find themselves dead or in hiding soon after.


Suppose that after killing off all offensive satirists, extremists turned their attention to other forms of expression. Attending a church, wearing the poppy, or blaspheming in general were now likely to see you murdered on the street. What grounds would these people have to ask for a show of solidarity from the rest of society? The only distinction they could produce between themselves and the murdered satirists would be that their cause is less offensive, a term which is wholly relative.


The salient problem, as is the same with all ethically utopian positions, is that the conditions needed for this stance to bear fruit are ultimately unattainable. Take pacifism as an example, often valorised as an ethical position that we should work toward. However the only set of circumstances in which pacifism could bring about widespread good are so entirely alien to the human condition that the pursuit of it becomes a ludicrous folly at best and morally abhorrent at worst.


Imagine, as Gandhi suggested, that the right thing for the Jews of Europe to do during the holocaust was to walk willingly toward the gas chambers in an attempt to arouse the collective conscious of the world. Even if we accept this as an honest prescription, then what could the rest of the world have done if they were all already committed to pacifism? The answer is absolutely nothing barring the violently naive hope that the Nazis would have a change of heart.


The same position, though to a lesser extreme, runs true for censorship. If you opt out of the struggle when it concerns others, then what gives you the right to ask for help when you bring forth the powerful ire of the censor? Others will simply reflect your views back and say that they aren’t the ones who censored you. Why should they be expected to put themselves on the line? Why should they risk offending someone on your behalf, or bring about their own demise in solidarity with your plight?


Like censorship, violent intentions exist, and in order to stop those who harbour them a counterweight must always be in place. The ethical implications of refusing to accept this sad reality is not something we should valorise. If we refuse to get our hands dirty in the fight, then all we are doing is opting out of a game that will be played with or without us, and whose effects we cannot escape.