Free speech needs saving from the tyranny of woke minorities, Jonathan Sumption has said. Speaking to the New Zealand Free Speech Union, the former Supreme Court Justice said that no one is entitled to intellectual safety as he warned of the devastating impact of “online lynch mobs”. Here’s an excerpt of his talk, as published by UnHerd.
John Stuart Mill anticipated many things, but he did not anticipate the internet. Social media can conjure up instant online lynch mobs. They make a powerful amplifier available to the most intolerant strands of opinion. The algorithms which determine what material is placed under people’s noses expose them only to sentiments which they already agree with, thus intensifying their opinions and eliminating not only dissent but even nuance and moderation. Mill assumed that the pressure to conform would come from self-righteous majorities. But social media has conferred immense power on self-righteous minorities, often quite small minorities.
The most remarkable illustration of this is the vicious campaign currently being conducted to silence those who believe that gender is based on an immutable biological fact. Polling evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of people believe that gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered by medical or surgical intervention, let alone by simple choice. That view is consistent with the current scientific orthodoxy, which regards gender as binary. Yet pressure from a noisy minority has created a situation in which the public expression of the prevailing and probably correct view about gender can lead to dismissal from employment, the cancellation of speaking engagements and publication contracts, and an avalanche of public shaming and abuse.
John Stuart Mill taught that the only purpose for which power might properly be exercised against individuals against their will was to prevent harm to others. But what we are presently witnessing is a subtle redefinition of the whole concept of harm to include the harm said to be caused by having to endure contradiction. The argument is that words wound, especially when they relate to another person’s identity or status; a university or a workplace where a person is exposed to disagreement must therefore be regarded, in the standard catchphrase, as ‘unsafe’.
The difference between violence and words is obvious. Violence is coercive. Words, even if offensive, are not coercive except in those cases where they are calculated to provoke violence. Yet in North America, Britain and much of the Anglosphere, this notion of harm has captured institutions. Recent research in the United States suggests that 29% of university professors have been pressured by university authorities into avoiding controversial subjects; 16% have either been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their words, their teaching or their academic research, while another 7% say that they have been investigated. Those working on any subject involving ethnic or religious sensitivities are particularly vulnerable. More than 80% of students report that they self-censor their work for fear of stepping out of line.
Underlying much of this debate is a fundamental challenge to the objective notion of harm. When interest groups object to someone’s opinion, harm is whatever they perceive as harm. It depends on ‘lived experience’, as the phrase goes, particularly when the offended group is an ethnic, religious or sexual minority. The desire to accommodate minorities who feel themselves oppressed is understandable. It assists social inclusion. But carried to its logical extreme it gives them a right of veto, an entitlement to silence opinions. And it is being carried to its logical extreme. In many countries, including Britain, hate speech is in some circumstances a criminal offence or an aggravating factor when accompanied by some other criminal conduct. The British police and prosecution authorities have agreed upon a definition of their own devising, according to which a hate crime means any action which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice. In other words, they have adopted a subjective definition dependent on the feelings of the victim rather than an objective assessment of the words used.
Worth reading in full.