Trigger Warning: [free speech and offensive language]. This review contains strong racial and sexual slurs, discussions of –isms, or hatred of any kind (racism, chauvinism, classism, sexism, body-image shaming)
WHAT you have just read is a ‘Trigger Warning’. Increasingly common, a Trigger Warning is a notice at the start of any piece of writing, or audio or video to warn would-be readers, listeners or viewers that something potentially upsetting or offensive is on its way. The underlying implication seems to be look away, do not read this, or turn off your radio or television set.
This modern innovation has inspired Spiked-online editor Mick Hume to write an impassioned polemic in defence of freedom of speech which he claims is under threat, mainly because many of us don’t want to offend anyone. His new book, Trigger Warning, claims that politeness or fear of causing offence is undermining the hard-won rights of freedom of speech and thought that we like to think are the foundations of our society.
“The Islamic gunmen who attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo acted not just as the soldiers of an oldish Eastern religion but also as the armed and extremist wing of a thoroughly modern Western creed… a creeping culture of conformism. The cri de Coeur of these crusaders against offensive speech is You-Can’t-Say-That.”
The gunmen who shot up the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Copenhagen café just cut out the middleman in order to stop anyone reading the blasphemies in Charlie Hebdo or listening to a debate in Copenhagen on the nature of free speech and blasphemy.
Western culture seems to have fallen out with its own core value of free speech. The author brands the crusaders in question as ‘Reverse-Voltaires’. The famous phrase, attributed to the French freethinker had him saying, “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Hume’s Reverse-Voltaires in effect say, “I know I’ll detest and be offended by what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it.” They don’t wish to debate or dispute arguments that they find offensive. They would deny the other person’s right to say it in the first instance. The author’s charge is that these Reverse-Voltaires’ personal emotions and feelings come first. They want to be protected from words.
What has happened to the West’s liberal lobby in defence of free speech? They still speak up for oppressed dissidents in other parts of the world but at home, too many professed ‘liberals’ have gone over to the other side and want to restrict the ‘wrong’ kinds of speech. To many, censorship even seems cool.
Under King William III of glorious, pious and immortal memory, the need lapsed in 1695 for a Crown licence to publish anything. The recent Leveson Report called for a new State-sanctioned regulator to police press freedom. Even Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty gave public support for a new Royal Charter to limit press freedom.
Hume notes sadly that the remaining Pythons – who thirty-five years ago fought massive battles against Mary Whitehouse and quite a few Church of England bishops in order that everyone could go to see The Life of Brian – have effectively switched sides and joined a secular crusade for less press freedom. Illiberal liberalism now rules the roost so that black activist Jasper Lee rejoiced in closing down the controversial Exhibit B at the Barbican with the claim that censorship was a blow for free speech.
Today, free speech is attacked in the name of defending rights and freedoms. Even worse, there is now a blurring of the line between public and private spheres so that recently a large number of public figures and celebrities were monstered for thoughts expressed in private phone calls, texts or emails that were leaked, often by former friends or partners. As Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine put it, “there is surely only one solution to the alleged scourge of people saying bad things in private – put a telescreen in very home to capture our banter and alert the morality police to the utterance of dark or daft thoughts.” just as was the case in Orwell’s 1984 where people were encouraged to shop colleagues, neighbours and even family members. In 1984, Orwell’s Thought Police didn’t just punish those guilty of thoughtcrime but served to encourage others to practice ‘crimestop’ – the faculty of stopping short before embracing any dangerous thought.
Hume puts the importance of freedom of thought and free speech in its historical context in a short outline of free-speech heretics, something we as Dissenters and Non-Conformists know – or ought to know – well. The right to freedom of expression and conscience was not handed down to us as a gift from the gods or from kings and aristocrats as an act of condescending beneficence. It had to be fought for and defended, over and over again.
We have heard a lot about Magna Carta in the past few months, given that its 800th anniversary was recently celebrated in great style. It did have a genuine role against arbitrary state power by establishing the idea that the Crown is not above the law and that free men have certain rights, most notably the right to trial by a jury of their peers. However, the Magna Carta had nothing to say about freedom of speech in a society where serfs were virtually owned body and soul by the lords of the manor.
After William Caxton introduced the printing press into England in 1476, the Crown sought to control it under a system of licensing. Today’s attempts to muzzle and control the internet are not entirely unprecedented. Nothing could be published without permission of the Star Chamber. Any criticism of the Crown was branded as treason or seditious libel.
One early free-speech martyr was the Greek philosopher, Socrates who, mirroring present-day Britain and America ‘just went too far.’ He was accused of corrupting the morals of Athens youth by saying things that ought not to be said. He replied that even if they went to spare him, he would keep on saying the unsayable and asking forbidden questions. Socrates posed the question; should there be a right to be a heretic?
As Hume notes, notions of heresy change as society changes in history. ‘Heresy’ is a label stuck on you by someone else. “From the trial of Socrates to today the big battles have been about the right to go against the grain, dissent from respectable opinion and question the unquestionable.” – in short, the right to be offensive.
In an age when many people dismiss religion as repressive and reactionary, Hume reminds secular readers that William Tyndale whose struggle to publish the Bible in English ended in fiery martyrdom, as well as the other religious heretics, came up against the censorious power of the political authorities. Their demands soon melded into calls for press freedom.
In 1689, after the Glorious Revolution which brought the immortal King Billy to the throne, the Bill of Rights wrote freedom of speech and debate into English law for parliamentarians. The system of Crown licensing for printers and publishers ended in 1695. The philosopher John Locke argued in A Letter Concerning Toleration against the State interfering in matters of conscience or faith but three centuries later, the government is still at it.
Up until the last few decades, liberty of expression and free-speech had widened in the UK. The last prosecution for blasphemous libel was in 1977 when Mary Whitehouse took a private case against Gay News for a poem she didn’t like. The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in 2008. However, Hume argues that this has been replaced by a form of ‘blasphemy-lite’ – the new censorship of ‘hate-speech’.
Proponents of old orthodoxies now find themselves in the dock – often literally. This might make some folk smile a ‘slap-it-into-you’ wry smile but as Hume remarks, heresy-hunting still threatens free-speech even if the person on the receiving end is a bigot. Today, a myriad of unofficial and shifting speech rules and codes apply and woe betides anyone who falls foul of them.
The internet front
In China and Turkey the State authorities are open and honest that they censor opinions that they don’t like. But the internet is today a major front in the silent war on free speech. Here in the West we don’t censor in order to enforce political repression – perish the thought – but to protect the vulnerable against harmful and hateful words.
We hear a lot in the media about internet ‘trolls’ although there is no firm definition of the term. This hasn’t prevented a government minster threatening to quadruple prison sentences for writing words based on a shaky definition of what a troll actually is.
Some people on the internet are really horrible but ‘trolls’ have just as much right to say what somebody else doesn’t like as anyone else. Like everyone else, however, they have no right to be taken seriously. In case anyone was wondering, threats of rape, violence or murder are already illegal, so no new anti-trolling laws are necessary. Not only words, but the context in which they are used should determine the credibility or otherwise of any alleged threat.
The rise of the troll has led to the emergence of professional self-appointed ‘troll-hunters’ who seek to track down and punish these people. One recent tragic case concerned Brenda Leyland who killed herself after she was exposed on television as the women who posted a serious of online accusations against the parents of a missing child.
Another threat to internet free-speech emerged after a 2014 European Court of Justice case on ‘the right to be forgotten’. This led to a pianist demanding that the Washington Post take down a three-year-old critical review of one of his concerts and many others seeking to cast stuff about their past into an Orwellian memory hole.
Two centuries ago, the poet Percy Shelley was banned from Oxford in 1811 for publishing The Necessity of Atheism. Today, universities are all supposed to be about the search for knowledge, truth and free expression; what Disraeli called, ‘a place of light, of liberty and of learning.’ That’s no longer true in the US or in the UK where often students fight for freedom from speech. Berkley University in 1964 was where students founded the Free Speech Movement. By a twist of irony, students at the same university petitioned to ‘disinvite’ the comedian Bill Maher in order that they might feel safe.
Bizarro World has come alive in many universities so that self-professed liberals or radicals are in the forefront of campus censorship campaigns. In recent cases, people have been told that ‘people who do not have uteruses’ have no say on the abortion debate and various speakers have been banned under widening cowardly and reactionary ‘no platform’ rules. Once it was ‘no platform’ for racists and fascists. Now it is ‘no platform for racists, fascists, Islamic extremists, Islamaphobes, rappers, comedians, Israelis, climate-change deniers, Christians, atheists or UKIP members. Hume says that this would be better phrased as ‘no arguments’ as their proponents refuse to countenance any ideas other than their own.
Hume excoriates the use of ‘Safe Space’ and ‘Free Speech Zones’ in many US universities which restrict opinions to the zone and make them off-limits everywhere else and turn the rule into the exception.
Trigger warning migrated from a therapeutic took to help sufferers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to many books on the university syllabus and even to things like Downton Abbey. This misuse undermines two freedoms; the right to speak or write what you want or the right to read, listen to, or watch what you want.
Football and comedy
“Free speech is for (allegedly) fat and (mostly) white, male, working class football fans too.” In recent years, as money has poured into the game, there has been an attempt to ‘socially cleanse’ football terraces of its working class fan base, ostensibly to make the game more acceptable to the middle classes and ethnic minorities and more ‘family friendly’. While the thought appals many folk, a large part of the appeal of the game is winding up supporters of opposing teams by singing offensive songs. In Scotland, this can get you locked up under draconian legislation which is supposed to outlaw sectarianism. People have even been fined for singing God Save the Queen.
Players find themselves hung out to dry too. John Terry from Chelsea Football Club was found not guilty in court of calling another player, Anton Ferdinand of QPR a ‘fucking black cunt’ but nevertheless was sentenced by the English FA to a huge fine of £220,000 and forced to undergo re-education in etiquette and speech codes because of his ‘racism’. He was cleared in court of any offence but treated as guilty anyway on the grounds that he ought to have been some sort of ‘role model’ to young impressionable football fans. In today’s society, role model rules overcome the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Hume mourns the passing of the Jewish-American comedienne Joan Rivers. Loved and hated in equal measure, she never apologised to anyone who claimed to be offended by her acerbic brand of humour. Who, he wonders, will slay all those sacred cows now? The censors once were conservative politicians, policemen and priests. Now protests are led by illiberal liberals in the media, other comedians and activists.
The alternative comedians of the 1980s have created their own alternative comedic conformism. Most recent examples are the comic character ‘Dapper Laughs’, who was killed off by an illiberal liberal lynch mob. Interestingly, the West Belfast Festival, Féile an Phobail, is under pressure from some of the same circles to disinvite the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle because they disapprove of some of his recent material. Nobody, Hume observes, “is against free speech for comedians. Until, that is, they decide somebody has gone too far in offending their own views and hurting their feelings.”
Many opponents of free speech borrow – and distort – an argument first aired by Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes in an American court in 1919 that people have no right to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. Holmes said that there was no freedom ‘falsely’ to cry fire in a crowded theatre. His ruling against a US socialist activist assumed that Schenk could be punished after the fact for what he wrote in a leaflet against military conscription in wartime. He didn’t try to prevent its publication beforehand as Gordon Brown’s government did with the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders when he was banned from entering the UK in 2009. That was prior constraint and State censorship of an elected representative.
This raises the question, who decides? How can we make an informed decision if we cannot hear what a person has to say? The fire-in-a-theatre argument has generalised from a specific set of circumstances in order to shut down ideas that the offended person doesn’t like and doesn’t want anyone else to hear. Hume offers another quotation from Holmes, made in 1929. “If there is and principle in the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.”
Words will always hurt me
We used to recite a wee verse that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Today that has been turned on its head. Recently, Katy Hopkins – a B List attention-seeking celebrity motor-mouth who has re-invented herself as a professional troll – faced a petition to sack her from her Sun column because of ignorant and stupid comments she made about would-be migrants from North Africa drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. In fact there was more outrage and indignation over her shit-stirring article than there was over the actual deaths of would-be migrants.
Hume blames the rise of what he calls identity politics as a major cause of the modern outbreak of thin-skinnedness. When someone identifies with a particular identity group, they become fixed in it and will not accept any challenge to their worldview. It’s not only you-can’t-say-THAT, but YOU-can’t-say-that! The result of this is that we have privatised blasphemy and virtually criminalised criticism. Identity activists consciously and conspicuously go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. They look for something to be offended by. They stifle public debate by their insistence that speech is policed to protect hurt feelings of the few who claim to have been offended.
Taking offence has become the acceptable face of political censorship today. Of course, anyone is entitled to take offence at anything said or written by someone else but taking offence does not give them any right to take away that other person’s freedom of speech.
Hume attributes one ‘-ism’ as the most powerful factor in this outbreak of self-righteous umbrage – narcissism; I feel superior by my sense of outrage and offence at what these dreadful people are saying. It’s an outrage. It upsets me. It shouldn’t be allowed. The 2008 EU ‘hate-speech’ laws were drafted in order to promote tolerance and equality. One EU commissioner admitted that they were actually intended to “preserve social peace and public order” by protecting the “increasing sensitivities” of “certain individuals” who “have reacted violently to criticism of their religion”.
That went well, didn’t it? Hume argues that the hate-speech laws seem to have inflamed things by sanctioning the notion that offensive speech is a crime that ought to be suppressed or outlawed if it upsets someone, so speaking disrespectfully of Mohammed or of other Islamic symbols deserve punishment. By this reckoning, the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo staff privatised the penalty due for causing such offence. Thomas Jefferson argued that the State should keep out of religious disputes. “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods on no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Today people can be locked up or fined in the UK and Europe for expressing an opinion deemed insulting or offensive to someone else’s religion or identity group. Ask Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, who is awaiting trial for a sermon in which he claimed that Islam was spawned in hell and was of the devil. It looks like the State will be wading into religious disputes in future, if somebody makes a complaint.
Liberals used to campaign for disadvantaged groups to share equality with the rest of us; not special privileges for a self-identified group. Anyone can be and has the right to be offended but not to use that feeling of offence to curtail the rights of the rest of us.
Mind your Ps – Qs – Ns & Ys
Hume recounts a Football Association dinner he attended that was entertained by the black American comedian, Reginald D Hunter, who told amusing stories of how soccer baffled ‘this nigga’. A huge media shitstorm saw Hunter pilloried for racist language and behaviour. The FA’s anti-racism lobby group, Kick it Out now ‘condemns racial slurs, irrespective of context’. According to this idiocy, Hunter calling himself ‘this nigga’ is just as outrageous as a Klansman shouting ‘lynch that nigger’ at him. Fans of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club have similarly found themselves in trouble for calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’.
A similar storm of outrage burst over the head of the award winning actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a January 2015 interview when he referred to ‘coloured actors’. Never mind that he was speaking out against racism. He used a slightly old fashioned term to describe people of colour and was denounced on both sides of the Atlantic for his use of these dreadful words of power. According to the theorists of ‘irrespective of context’ Cumberbatch might as well have gone around whipping slaves and forging new chains for them by reminding their descendants of the bad old days of segregation and slavery. He was forced to make a grovelling apology for his hate-speech.
We are entering a cultural age where people like Hunter, Cumberbatch, the Yid Army or any one of us can be sacked, censured or censored for saying the wrong word, regardless of where they said it or what they meant by it.
Liars and holocaust deniers
Hume describes the recent trend for people who question the dominant view or current orthodoxy to be branded as ‘deniers’. ‘Denier’ is a religious term just as ‘witch’ was in the seventeenth century. To brand someone as a denier alleges a moral failure. That person is not just wrong but has no right to be heard. You don’t debate with deniers; you shut them up or lock them up or burn them. That’s what happened to Michael Servetus who was burnt at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva in 1553. He denied the Trinity. In Scotland, Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh in 1697 for denying the Trinity and the deity of Christ. All questioned the unquestionable and denied the prevailing orthodoxy – the ‘accepted version of truth’. All were regarded as subversive, dangerous and morally debased.
Holocaust denial is now the biggest thoughtcrime in the West. It has become a crime in almost twenty countries in the past two decades since the Holocaust became transformed from a historical event into a pseudo-theological universal symbol of absolute moral evil that must be taught in schools. The best way to deal with such nonsense is not to shut it down by locking up its proponents but to expose its fallacies and errors to the light of day. It”s not as if there’s any shortage of evidence.
Like all heresy hunters, the defenders of orthodoxy don’t just want to silence their opponents but to punish them for their secular blasphemy. Denial is meant to be “a refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion, or to admit it into consciousness.” A ‘denier’ is someone refusing to acknowledge what everyone knows is the undoubted truth, not a sincere doubter but a despicable liar.
Similar terms are now being used to refer to persons who doubt the current orthodoxy on man-made climate change. As the debate is settled and the question closed such doubters should be silenced. This is contrary to the opinion of John Stuart Mill who wrote, “To refuse a hearing to an opinion because they are sure it is false is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. That’s for popes, not scientists.”
Elitists believe that the ‘sheeple’ – ordinary people – need to be protected from the media. Their lack of faith in free speech reflects and reinforces their lack of belief in humanity. Hume argues that this is the main reason why there was an official cover-up of the scandal in Rotherham where gangs of Asian men abused white girls with impunity. The story was not suppressed by the authorities for years because it was false but because it was true. Social workers and officials feared accusations of racism and that community tensions would be inflamed if the full truth came out.
Today those who think of themselves as enlightened often demand less free speech and want to restrict press freedom. The puritans of the past look like open-minded humanists compared with today’s misanthropic illiberal liberals.
The right to free speech is not sectional. It has to apply to everyone – no matter how obnoxious – or it becomes undermined for others. Once media freedom is made out to be a problem the ‘solution’ offered is more state intervention and regulation. Orwell wrote that “A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
The crux of Hume’s argument is that free speech is not the problem but that fear of it is. “Without fighting for the heretical right to offend against society’s consensus views and to question the unquestionable orthodoxies of the age, many of the great political, cultural, scientific or artistic breakthroughs that we now take for granted would have been hard to imagine.”
Reverse-Voltaires claim that we will gain is a safer, more civil society where people will have to respect each other. Hume argues that we are all in danger of losing the meanings of words. Rules and codes shift and narrow the terms of debate as Benedict Cumberbatch learned to his cost. In fact, they close down any chance of debate which prohibits any proper discussion on the important issues of the day.
Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? by Mick Hume. William Collins Books ISBN978-0-00-812545-5 £12.99