Brendan O’Neill recently wrote a good piece for Reason Magazine entitled ‘The Slow Death of Free Speech in Britain (America, You’re Next!)’ in which he highlights and discusses the desperate state of free speech in the UK.
“America and Britain might be divided by a piece of paper guaranteeing free speech—you have one, we don’t—but we’re united by a shared new generation of aspiring speech-policers. And in Britain, it has often been the demands of these informal groups of heresy-hunters that have coaxed the state to take action against eccentric or outrageous speech. How long can the First Amendment hold out against America’s budding new censors? How long before the U.S. joins the U.K. at the funeral of free speech?”
It’s essentially true; freedom of speech no longer exists in any meaningful way here in the UK. Anyone who says something on social media or in a newspaper column that sufficiently disturbs one of these hysterical on-line petition-creator/police-caller types is not safe from arrest or a virtual rummage through their private data by the police. No newspaper column or advert is safe from State censorship at the behest of a minority either. This is the state of British society today.
The question is: how many of us see the current state of British society as a problem, as less than desirable or undesirable? If it’s not most of us, then that’s an even bigger problem; that’s the womb that incubates the devil baby of State censorship.
It’s easy to think that if free speech were enshrined in law in the UK as it is in the U.S. then we would not find ourselves in this shamefully dire situation, but that would be a mistake. Although free speech as a legal right might give one firmer ground for defence in a court of law, it’s no magic force field against State censorship or being hauled into court charged with the non-crime of saying words in the first place.
Just because a law protecting the right to freedom of speech exists does not mean that other laws that violate this right cannot come into being. To believe otherwise is to mistakenly conceptualize the law, specifically the gigantic body of positive laws that has come into being in the post-war period in the US and in Europe, as a coherent whole. It’s not. This cancerous lump of positive law is not like the legs of a spider, which are controlled independently but in unison to achieve a single goal, but like the tentacles of a jellyfish, which uncontrollably float about but all have the same purpose.
In the modern world of the giant State with its countless tentacles of positive laws floating throughout society, the law is as big a threat to free speech as it is its protector. The written American Constitution, which is essentially the codification of widely held moral principles, defends it. Positive law, the enforcement of all manner of central plans and the preferences of special interest groups upon society, attacks it. The former is David and the latter is Goliath, both born of the same mother.
In the UK, however, our David is rather more ephemeral; he exists only to the extent that Britons are morally outraged by State censorship of social media, the printed press and advertising. Our David is barely visible and fading fast.
These days the disturbing truth is that every time someone does ‘get away’ with saying something on social media or in a newspaper column that someone considers offensive, shaming, sexist, triggering, hateful etc, it’s usually only because it slipped under the radar. Because it went unnoticed by those who believe that the company that creates an advert featuring an attractive woman in a bikini is morally responsible for the emotional responses that people have to it and for any action they choose to take based upon that emotional state.
If you believe this, then you believe that it is justified to use force against anyone who ‘makes’ you feel inferior, or unpleasant emotions or think negative thoughts about yourself. Which must leads to the absurd and despotic logical conclusion of being able to use force against anyone at any time. And that’s the complete negation of morality, of individual rights and of free society.
The State is increasingly fulfilling the role of personal tool of censorship to every one out there who speaks like Martin Luther King but advocates State violence that Hitler himself would have been proud of. Censorship, fundamentally and on a psychological level, is an attempt to make the world change its behaviour so you don’t have to. Every time I look at attractive people in adverts I feel bad about myself, but I don’t want to change my diet or do exercise because that’s difficult, so instead I’ll convince myself that my feeling bad is everyone else’s fault and forcibly assign to them the moral responsibility for my own well-being. It’s also delusional. If I prevent everyone else from doing that which reminds me of the things I don’t like about myself or my life, then my problems will disappear.
Censorship, in a less complicated way, is also simply a way of shutting people up whom you don’t like for some reason, but whom haven’t actually committed a crime against you or anyone. It’s the equivalent of threatening someone you just don’t like with a baseball bat under their nose and ten of your mates behind you. Actually, it’s more like getting someone else to do that for you. Either way, that’s not civilised society. That’s mob rule.
What is perhaps the least enjoyable, shall we say, part of being a defender of liberty is having to stand up for the right to speak freely of non-criminal people whom we may completely disagree with or find odious. But do it we must in any little way we can; whether it’s conversations over coffee at work or conversations over the web.
We can, I hope, give reason and rational morality the required shot in the arm in order to light some tiny spark of outrage in the common man’s conscience. A seam of deeply corrupted morality that is currently permeating the minds of a significant proportion of young people today and a widespread indifference to public speech censorship amongst the masses is inching society down a dark alley – where it will be mugged and left for dead by collectivist despotism.
If this State micro-policing of the virtual and real world domains of public speech continues unabated, then what manner and quality of society and life awaits our children in a few decades from now? Will they ever criticise any idea or anyone in public? Or will they instinctively self-censor themselves having learned that doing so invariably leads to a ‘correction’, or punishment or harassment by the police or a government ‘standards’ agency? Will it be essential to use false identities and encryption and privacy tools when publicly speaking one’s mind on the web in order to evade arrest or confiscation of property by a State agency?
Hiding or falsifying one’s identity on social media and regularly using privacy tools to prevent your location from being traced is something everyone will now have to consider doing. For those of us who are not content to say only that which won’t incur arrest or State harassment it will be a necessity. Wearing masks to speak publicly may soon become a necessity, but we should never consider it normal.
Thank goodness that free markets have given us various technological ways of circumventing and negating State censorship of the virtual domains of public speech, but there seems to me to be no such escape routes in the realms of advertising and the printed press. The Internet will probably soon be the very last refuge of truly free speech, if indeed it isn’t already.