I went to the Free Speech Union’s ‘speakeasy’ in Oxford last week. A great event, packed out, with lots of interesting conversation and a short talk from an Oxford philosophy professor on the dynamics of groupthink.
The FSU is a much-needed lobby group and union, fighting for its members’ basic and essential free speech rights, which are so seriously under threat now.
It has to be said that the meeting was dominated by ‘chattering-class’ types like me – writers and academics – which is inevitable in a newish organisation set up by a well-known journalist after his own appalling hounding and attempted cancellation.
A few of us mentioned this overrepresentation: how important it was to promote the truth that free speech isn’t just an issue for those whose livelihoods depend on writing and teaching. For every academic who needs protecting there will be thousands in ‘ordinary jobs’ who are bullied – self-censoring or literally shut down – into cowed silence. The free speech of a transport worker, fired for saying we don’t live in an Islamic state, is at least as important as that of an Oxford don. After all, as the don said: “People like me are very difficult to sack.” Not so the transport worker. And – to its great credit – the FSU represented the latter in a case he won.
I spoke as a teacher (interestingly, the only one there) who warned how chronic the situation of free speech in schools had become. I had the impression that people were mostly aware of this, but not of how critical the issue is – of the tsunami which will hit us all when the current generation at school are in positions of power. I heard many who were naïvely confident in the ‘pendulum effect’ – that the overreaches of wokedom will inspire a refreshing backlash. I’m less sure that this will do much for the everyday person (like me) who’s been badly affected by the authoritarianism which we face. Wokedom exhibits classic ‘anti-fragility’ and is often strengthened for being attacked, its favourite position.
Perhaps most striking was the assumption that we do still enjoy freedom of speech. We don’t. Most people self-censor, to an extraordinary extent. Indeed, a number of people I spoke to at the event were using just those verbal ticks to indicate to a listener that they’re not racist/sexist/transphobic/whatever. This has become so ingrained and instinctive many don’t even notice it.
My main concern was urging the FSU into thinking hard about how to promote itself in schools. A very difficult ask, but vital. From my experience in teaching, little if any effort is made by teachers in promoting an understanding of free speech in pupils – in direct contrast with the huge amount done on ‘not causing offence’ or the need for ‘safe spaces’. Pupils draw their own conclusions. I’ve yet to teach one who really understood what free speech means, as an idea and in practice. At best, they saw it as always contingent on ‘not causing offence’. More often, they thought free speech was simply being allowed to open your mouth.
I’m a free-speech absolutist from my fundamental beliefs in individual rights but also because its absence means not one of the myriad problems we face gets acknowledged, still less addressed. I think the FSU is stronger on the first point (the philosophical argument) but could do more to stress the practical benefits. That would broaden its appeal. It needs to empower and embolden people so that they stop self-censoring and fatalistically thinking they need to keep quiet.
So many times – and I understand the argument – I’ve heard: “It’s not worth speaking out, I can’t risk it.” In the long run, many will regret such timidity and bear scars from the battles they didn’t fight in a loss of self-respect. It’s unhealthy, not just for society but for the individual, to feel and think strongly then repress it.
Every issue on which free speech is restricted – be it Covid, race, gender, immigration, whatever – is made far worse. Its absence in literature means this artform is vanishing. The scandals around grooming gangs, childcare, transitioning of prepubescent children, vaccine safety (incoming!) were – and are – all enabled by its numerous enemies, perhaps deliberately.