AM: Seems the fastest growing group in the country is the MOPEDs – the Most Offended People Ever Discovered. The provenance of the term lies in the North where unionists would use MOPE as an acronym for diminishing nationalist grievances by dismissing them as the Most Oppressed People Ever. In a bit of discursive reversal the term can be employed against unionism although by no means exclusively, as they too are indistinguishable from the rest who are simply getting out of bed before dawn to make sure they catch the first offence of the day. While there might look to be some intelligent design behind a campaign to strangle freedom of expression and inquiry, it is not that straightforward, more a confluence of disparate groups ranting about whatever it is they take offence at. I heard it said by Pat Leahy on a Dublin radio station recently that people are now permanently primed to take instant offence. He was talking about the response to Leo Varadkar’s reference to priests getting up to no good behind the altar. Hardly the most insulting thing to be said yet immediately the clerics were out of the traps screaming that they had been terribly offended. Leahy is right, and I really do think we are seeing the most sustained erosion of free inquiry and the means by which we pursue it – freedom of expression. And it is almost by stealth, creeping up on us.
AG: I certainly agree that for at least the past decade or more, we have seen a steady, stealthy narrowing of the boundaries of permissible expression throughout self-described free societies. As you say, I don't think there is any kind of grand coordination involved, though there has certainly been an increase in state censorship. For instance, under the UK's Communications Act 2003, it is literally a criminal offence to post something online which someone might deem "grossly offensive", and the police have grown increasingly eager to investigate and prosecute such "crimes". I remember a few years ago the case of Azhar Ahmed, who received a criminal conviction along with a fine and community service sentence simply for making crass Facebook comments about the deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan. Since then there have been a number of similar prosecutions along with many more receiving formal warnings from the police about their social media content. There have also been serious concerns raised about the application of the Prevent strategy in British universities. In other European countries, hate speech laws are increasingly used to supress pro-Palestinian and left-wing groups.
However, perhaps an even greater cause for concern, I believe, is the growing tolerance of and even the demand for stifling and sanitizing expression and inquiry. To me, this is detrimental to public understanding. In the end, it is not so much about the right of individuals to speak as it is the right of ordinary people to listen, to think, and to understand without self-appointed or state-appointed cultural gatekeepers deciding for them.
AM: The English police have taken to investigating opinion that has not been defined as criminal. This is clearly the thought police in play. They even visited that religious idiot Jim Wells in the North over his dislike of gay people, I have long been taken by the view of the philosopher Anthony Grayling that:
Give any government, any security service, any policing authority, any special interest group such as a religious organisation or a political party, any prude or moraliser, any zealot of any kind, the power to shut someone else up, and they will leap at it with alacrity.
Because so many want to silence others on the grounds that what others say offends them, the state is not seen as censoring but upholding public order. All the while the muzzles are growing while the mouth is shrinking.
AG: Again, I agree, but I find that conversations such as ours are eagerly misinterpreted or deliberately misrepresented. To me, Anthony Grayling's observation stands on its own merits, but in certain activist and academic quarters, the fact that he is a white, middle-class liberal is enough to dismiss him out of hand regardless of the substance of his arguments. I think that much of this is sophistry: a kind of a woke ad hominem. Of course, none of this is to dismiss the existence and the impact of bigotry in society. I still see examples of racist, sexist and other bigoted thinking all too frequently, but I find that the least effective way of dealing with prejudice is to presume that its exists in people as a form of original sin and that it is something which needs to be muzzled rather than exposed, explored and scrutinized.
AM: Original sin – conveys a sense of muzzling what is labelled a dangerous thought being applied with religious like relish. Even dogs get muzzled when they bite not when they bark. We also have the Leftoid attacks on Angela Nagel over her article on immigration where all she tried to do was have the matter looked at from a Marxist perspective, relied on the writings of Marx to do so, and sought to show that the case could be made that immigration was an instrument of capital to facilitate the free flow of cheap and accessible labour for further exploitation. Sections of the left can be so censorious - I am very suspicious of them, seeing them as the Regressive Left.
AG: I thought Angela Nagle's article on open borders was a worthy contribution to an important debate. To be sure, the style of Nagle's piece was polemical, and while several writers did respond with reasonable yet robust critiques of her argument, the online reaction from many open-border activists was hysterical. And I'm not talking merely about anonymous uber-woke Twitterati: I saw a number of high-profile Irish academics and activists endorse blog posts and Twitter threads that called Nagle a "crypto-Strasserite" and falsely accused her of plagiarising Grover Norquist (even though she explicitly and carefully cites his article). Her current employers and her former university apparently received phone calls about her. While not strictly censorship, this is a kind of intimidation and it creates a climate in left-wing circles where dissenting views are punished and orthodoxy is rewarded. It is very disheartening but sadly unsurprising.
All things being equal, I think open borders would be a good idea. The problem is that right now, all things in the global economy are manifestly unequal. Therefore, I think the people who tweet "Open the borders now!" focus on a symptom of the problem rather than its cause. In the contemporary context, one in which organised labour has never been weaker, I think that an open borders policy merely empowers and entrenches corporate interests. As Angela Nagle points out, this is not a controversial political position: it is essentially what Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders advocate. More importantly, like prison abolition, open borders policy has virtually no support in the general population. Outside of the academic/activist left and the libertarian right, it's not even on most people's political radar let alone their political agenda. As Norman Finkelstein observed, left-wing politics has to be about reaching masses of people in order to bring about the most progressive, most enlightened goals that current circumstances allow. But this cannot be done if we go well beyond where people are at politically and what they are ready to support. If we piously insist on doing so, then we are no longer engaged in politics; we have become instead, in Norman's wickedly witty words, just another cult.
Of course, I think right-wingers can be just as censorious as sections of the left, if not more so. Look at how difficult it is to make robust critiques of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in mainstream American media without being blacklisted as an anti-Semite. Last month, we had Nigel Farage calling for the police to investigate Jo Brand for telling a joke! It's absolute madness!
AM: Open Borders, or closed borders, people should be free to pursue the inquiry as they see fit. Citizens should be allowed to explore all manner of ideas. I think we have to draw a distinction between what is an idea and what is an insult. To argue that black people are inferior to white people is an idea, an abhorrent one in my opinion but one that people should be free to advocate and then be forced to stand over when the time comes to pay the fare. Free speech is not a free ride. It is like a roller coaster – you have to face any turbulence that comes on the journey. By contrast, to call a black person a “nigger” is clearly not an idea but an insult and should be rightly prohibited in public discourse. All we learn from that is nothing about the black person but that the person using the term is a moronic bigot. In this I am minded of the manner in which David Irving was treated. The Austrians jailed him for Holocaust denial whereas when he sued Deborah Lipstadt for allegedly libelling him, she tore him asunder in the court. She later objected to his imprisonment in Austria saying:
I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens... Generally, I don't think Holocaust denial should be a crime. I am a free speech person, I am against censorship.
We see the same thing replicated in the Anti-Semitism discussion where bodies like the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, reprehensibly try to stigmatise people who see a point of comparison between Israeli war crimes against humanity and Nazi atrocities. Yet it has surprisingly little to say as far as I am aware of Israelis and their supporters claiming that the situation in the Middle East today is akin to the Holocaust. This comparison was in fact strongly criticised by Lipstadt.
AG: For sure, people should be able to put explore or advocate any idea. Moreover, we all must accept that our own ideas, arguments and even our most cherished beliefs also need to be subjected to scrutiny. None of us should be afraid of discovering that we are wrong because the likelihood is that we very often are. To a greater or lesser extent, each one of us is burdened by time/information constraints as well as cognitive errors and biases. It is therefore inevitable that even the most well-intentioned and intellectually honest individuals will draw unsound conclusions and even make massive errors of judgment. I've made quite a few myself and likely will make many more! As someone who has struggled with mental illness since childhood, I have had to come to terms with the fact that my own intuitions are often deeply irrational. Though it was a tremendous struggle, I found that embracing my own frailty and fallibility was a liberation from fear of uncertainty, from the terror of the unanswerable question: "What if everything I believe is wrong?"
And yes, there are beliefs like white supremacy that I find not only noxious but also completely unfounded and frankly idiotic. However, I do not think it is a good idea to suppress the advocacy of ideas that I (and probably the vast majority of other people) believe to be wrong and hateful. For me, it's really not about the rights of scumbags like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos. It's about the rights of the general population. Do we trust people to think for themselves or do we believe that they need an intellectual and moral elite to do the thinking for them? Do we want people to actually understand the reasons why white supremacy is wrong or do we want them to recite anti-racist slogans like the Nicene creed? Of course, I'm not so naive or utopian to believe that every controversy can be resolved by a good, old-fashioned debate. Indeed, I often find that a lot of what passes for "debate" on TV and radio to be vacuous. But the answer is not censorship from above; it is more engagement, more rigorous discourse, more incisive scrutiny of ideas and institutions from below.
AM: It also has to be about the right to hear. There is much obnoxious guff that passes for free speech and seriously objectionable ideas. But I want to decide for myself rather than have PC crowd decide for me. If they don’t want to listen to David Irving, then don’t go in. If I want to listen, don’t stop me going in. Finally, how do you respond to the accusation that is often bandied around that people resisting the PC gangs, the Woke culture, the myriad of state and self-appointed committees for public safety are free speech fundamentalists?
AG: Well, I suppose it depends on what they mean by the term "free speech fundamentalist". If it is someone who believes that no idea, argument or belief should be immediately suppressed without any public airing, then I'm a free speech fundamentalist. But as you said, free speech is not a free ride, nor should it be. Scrutiny and criticism are essential. And of course, we ought to be able to robustly challenge claims that we believe are deliberately false or malicious. I've no objection to libel law in principle, but in both Ireland and the UK, the law is obscenely imbalanced in favour of the plantiff. In Ireland, it seems to be the only occasion in which the defendant is presumed guilty until proven innocent! Thus libel law in both the UK and Ireland functions both as a tool of the wealthy to muzzle criticism and as a cash cow for the legal establishment. It results in many perverse judgments and farcical situations: for instance, multi-billionaire Denis O'Brien receiving a massive settlement simply for being called a "hypocrite" and subsequently managing to prevent the bulk of the Irish media from reporting speeches made about him in the Dáil.
Of course, I don't believe that freedom of expression necessarily covers every possible exchange of information — stolen credit card details, hacked passwords, recipes for chemical weapons, etc. However, when it comes to placing legal limits, I think each scenario needs to be considered separately, in its own context and on its own merits. If I had to sum up my position on the question of limits to free speech, I think AC Grayling, whom you quoted earlier, puts it best:
Restrictions on free speech have to be extremely narrow, extremely specific, case by case, one-off, and only very rarely, on the best justification, prior to the speech itself.
One thing I am sure of is the need for openness, transparency and public scrutiny in such matters.
AM: Share with me your Free thought for the day
AG: Never cherish your beliefs like religious relics. Always expose them to the most intense criticism because nothing is so sacred to be beyond questioning. As Charles Sanders Pierce put it:
enquiry is not standing upon the bedrock of fact. It is walking upon a bog, and can only say, this ground seems to hold for the present. Here I will stay until it begins to give way.
Alfie Gallagher blogs @ Left From The West