When people are imbued with an ideology, they generally don’t reason their way to conclusions, but instead rely on prepackaged and relatively fixed ideas that function as heuristics for easy, kneejerk decision-making: “Four legs good, two legs bad.”
We are very good at identifying this flaw in others. But as a general rule we are terrible at identifying it in ourselves. And so it is with modern liberals and the shibboleths and slogans which dominate their thinking. When it comes to an issue such as whether or not a Pro-Palestinian protest should go ahead on Armistice Day, they imagine themselves to be “refusing to accept oversimplified interpretations of reality or outsourcing decision-making capacities to an already established creed”, all the while mouthing precisely the kind of oversimplified, creedal slogans that they so decry in others. And so the argument is trotted out, as it always is: “But enlightenment values! But autonomy as long as it doesn’t encroach upon the rights of others! But tolerance of intolerance!” And the result is liberal’s great error: complete inertia when it comes to the protection of dearly held values, including freedom itself.
Let’s go back to basics. As Stanley Fish once put it, there is no such thing as free speech – and it’s a good thing too. Freedom of expression for people buying and selling child pornography would be bad. So would freedom of expression for slanderers. So indeed would freedom of expression be bad for teachers in indoctrinating children with whatever stuff and nonsense pops into their minds. So would it be for sexual fetishists who wish to parade their peccadillos in public, including in front of children. So would it be for people who possess state secrets. And so on. Sane people all realise this. John Milton, often wheeled out as one of the first advocates of freedom of speech (or at least opponents of censorship) was all in favour of ‘extirpating’ people who had what in his view were dangerous opinions (i.e. Catholics). The difference between him and us is one of degree rather than of kind; we basically are happy for Catholics to have freedom of expression (although not if they silently pray outside abortion clinics or speak too loudly about the contents of the Bible), but not child pornographers, who we metaphorically burn at the stake.
So when it comes to freedom of speech, what we really mean is that we want free speech within acceptable limits. The limits are the rub; that is what we are arguing about. And the important thing about the limits is that they very often themselves derive from competing freedoms, and indeed competing freedoms of the same kind. Two people have the right to exercise freedom, and those freedoms clash. And it is of course necessary, in those circumstances, for somebody (the State) to decide which freedom wins; otherwise the victory will just go to the side who shouts the loudest or has the biggest (literal or figurative) stick.
The issue of the Pro-Palestinian protest is precisely this sort of problem. On the one hand, yes, we have the freedom of protestors to protest. But on the other hand we have the freedom of people who wish to publicly express the sentiments they bear towards members of the armed forces killed in war. Those freedoms are not reconcilable, because the manner of the protest (which will be loud, boisterous, etc.) will clash with the manner of the act of remembrance (which requires quiet and solemnity). In short, the State has therefore to pick which freedom it chooses to protect – that of the protestors or that of the rememberers. There is no middle ground. There is a winner and a loser, and the State has to decide which is going to be which. If it doesn’t, the victory will by default go to the ones who are willing to shout the loudest, and there are no prizes for guessing which side that will be.
The point, as trenchant critics of liberalism (Stanley Fish among them) have always observed, is ultimately that the idea of freedom for everyone is a fantasy. Freedoms clash. And when they clash, decisions have to be made as to which freedom wins. Those decisions will always ultimately be political ones, and will therefore rest on judgments about value. And those judgments will not derive from objective reason, but feeling. The issue of the Armistice Day protest, seen in this light, is therefore actually a very simple one. We have to decide which freedom we want to win. Is it the freedom to protest? Or the freedom to express gratitude to the dead? I know which one, on this particular day, I think matters more.
The wider issue, of course, is that – to go back to an earlier point – if one does not choose which freedoms one wants to protect, and by extension which values one wishes to enshrine, then the alternative will be that freedoms will default to those with the muscle and vocal cords to exercise them. The problem for liberals, then, is that their own “four legs good, two legs bad” thinking (we might summarise it as “tolerance good, intolerance bad’) blinds them to what is actually at stake, and shuts down precisely the kind of rational thinking which they claim to embody. Freedom is never absolute, only contingent, and if you don’t choose which freedoms are important to protect, based on the values you think are important, then somebody else with a bigger stick and a keener sense of the values they support will get to decide instead. And whoever that is, they are probably going to be a lot less tolerant and nice than you are.
Dr. David McGrogan is an Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School. He is the author of the News From Uncibal Substack.