Free speech is impossible. Merely to be intelligible, all communication depends on shared rules. Some of those are basic (you can read this because we both know English), but most are contextual (how you interact with your scary new boss is different from the way you address your children). Who can speak, who gets heard, and who makes the rules about what one can say is always about power, as much as about judgments of harm and danger.
Faced with what we can all agree are illegitimate restrictions of speech (murdering cartoonists, say, or suppressing peaceful protest), it’s natural to cry “Censorship!”, and to celebrate “free speech” as a fragile yet vital political norm – especially when the terrain is, say, Hong Kong, Thailand, Belarus or Iran. Yet when it comes to the everyday chaos of our cacophonous culture in the west, it’s much harder to see eye to eye on what kinds of speech rules are necessary, desirable, or legitimate anywhere – on Twitter, in print, or at work.
One reason is that “free speech” isn’t really a norm, but a slogan: a label each of us applies to language and conventions we approve of. People complaining about threats to free speech sometimes don’t like the way new norms and voices are challenging their own. Why shouldn’t Boris Johnson be allowed to talk of “piccaninnies”? How can anyone expect me to refer to a person as “they”? It’s a free country, isn’t it?
None of this is new: what free speech means has been controversial for about 400 years. Our modern concept of it began as a radical Protestant argument – that it was pointless to punish Christians for arguing about dogma and worship, because these were questions to which ultimately only God knew the answers. It was this freedom of speaking and printing that John Milton famously extolled in his Areopagitica (1644): the liberty of speculating about God’s hidden truths. It was never meant to extend to debates about public affairs, politics or morality.
After 1700, with the advent of mass politics and mass media, “freedom of speech” and “liberty of the press” turned into political catchphrases, eagerly deployed by muck-raking journalists and government critics. But they were phrases without any settled meaning or legal substance. Early 18th-century politicians who loved to trumpet “free speech” while in opposition invariably found ways of restraining or corrupting the press as soon as they gained power.
All the same it grew to be a supremely popular ideal, which in due course made its way into national and international law. In the hundreds of written constitutions drafted around the world between 1776 and 1850, press liberty became the most commonly enumerated right of all; since 1948, freedom of speech and expression have been guaranteed to all the world’s peoples by the UN declaration of human rights.
Though the British have always prided themselves on defending free speech, they have never agreed on its meaning. “I am well acquainted with all the arguments … which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim it ought not to,” George Orwell wrote in 1945, denouncing the fashionable views of “liberals” and “intellectuals”. “I answer simply that they don’t convince me … if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
In recent years, that sentiment has been championed by many commentators who see themselves, like Orwell, as upholding liberty and common sense against the dangerous tides of fashionable nonsense. The English Free Speech Union, for instance, whose leading lights include Toby Young, Douglas Murray and Nigel Biggar, believes that “free speech is the bedrock on which all our other freedoms rest, yet it is currently in greater peril than at any time since the second world war”. This time, it seems, the threat comes not from totalitarianism or government censorship, but from “digital outrage mobs on social media”, student “speech codes”, university “no-platforming”, and the general spread of “trans orthodoxy”. Welcome to the free speech wars.
Charlotte Lydia Riley begins this timely and stimulating volume of essays with a bracing takedown of Orwell’s assertions. It’s “not, strictly, accurate” to claim that “tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England”, nor that British civilisation had for hundreds of years been “founded on … freedom of thought and speech”. Apart from anything else, “there was no free speech in the British empire for most of its subjects”. As for his jeremiads against people for adopting “right-thinking” orthodoxies and “self-censoring” their speech as a result, “Orwell was frequently antisemitic, racist and misogynistic, so it’s possible that his views here aren’t important.”
Though Riley herself contributes only an introduction to the collection, it maps out the book’s main themes: who gets to exercise free speech and who doesn’t? What happens when powerful voices are challenged? How and why has free speech been “weaponised” in various contemporary debates? What is really happening in universities and on the internet, “the new wild west of free speech”?
That is a lot to be getting on with, but thankfully the book’s 22 chapters are brief, easy to digest and frequently fascinating. Almost all of them reject the classic liberal presumption that society consists of equally autonomous individuals, whose beliefs are made up of abstract notions they rationally assemble – choosing and discarding freely from a universal, neutral marketplace of ideas, in which all propositions are always given a fair and equal hearing.
Nor do they agree that communication should always be regarded as distinct from, and less potent than, other kinds of actions. Instead, they explore the messiness, social inequities, and inherent contradictions of how, in a world of increasingly diverse voices, we collectively think about, and clash over, our definitions of speech, action, rules and identities.
Beyond that, each contributor has a different focus. Though most of the authors are based in universities this is not an academic treatise, but a guide for the interested general reader who, surveying this cultural minefield, would like “to understand the shape of the terrain, and to defend themselves and aid others where needed”.
Andrew Phemister uses the history of the first “boycott”, in the 1880s, to show that the right to free speech is usually “not a question of who can speak, but who is obeyed”. Sam Popowich delves into the room-booking policies of US public libraries, to show how their staffs have come to be divided about the notion of “intellectual freedom” and the supposed neutrality of public spaces. Emma Harvey and Edson Burton, who work in a community arts centre, describe what it’s like to reluctantly arbitrate between “the competing truth claims of equalities groups”. Omar Khan explains why definitions and challenges to racist speech should not focus primarily on personal intent, but on the structures that perpetuate racial stereotypes and inequalities.
Several authors bravely report back from dank corners of the internet, on “alt-right” ideologies, the Red Pill and “manosphere” communities, the world of online political fandom and the structural biases of social media platforms. And a clutch of essays spotlights campus speech politics – for example, what it was like to be the archaeologist who suddenly “came under concerted attack” for adding a brief “content warning” to the reading list of his course on the forensics of genocide and modern warfare (the unfortunate fate of Gabriel Moshenska).
The important issues of principle that this collection raises in passing have long attracted in-depth attention. In an entire book devoted to ideas of free speech it’s somewhat surprising to find only a single brief reference to John Stuart Mill, and none at all to contemporary theorists such as Catharine A MacKinnon, Jeremy Waldron or William Davies, whose arguments would buttress many of the claims made here. For though the particular flashpoints have changed over time, the underlying cultural divisions surrounding free speech go back a long way.
More than 25 years ago, the brilliant critic Stanley Fish wrote There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (1994). As well as the argument encapsulated in its title, he also maintained that, though “free speech” was a meaningless catchphrase, it nonetheless remained a supremely powerful rhetorical weapon. Although speech could never really be free, he urged, one should always claim to stand for it – if not, your political opponents will inevitably grab the rhetorical high ground and say “we’re for free speech and you are for censorship and ideological tyranny”. At which point whatever serious, worthy argument you’re really trying to make will be almost impossible to salvage.
The Free Speech Wars essentially purveys the same message, simplified, updated, and exemplified for our own time. If you’d like to understand what on earth is really going on when politicians and commentators these days pontificate about “censorship”, “cancel culture”, “no-platforming”, “safe spaces” and the rest, it’s an excellent place to start.
• Fara Dabhoiwala is writing a history of free speech. The Free Speech Wars: How Did We Get Here and Why Does It Matter? is published by Manchester University (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.