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David Irving: Should his lies about the Holocaust be given a fair hearing? (photo: Allan Warren, via Wikimedia Commons)

We live in censorious times. In an age of apparent liberty, a diverse army of self-appointed censors stands in the way of free expression. The most tyrannical of those censors are murderous Islamists like the Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said, whose attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo killed ten journalists and two policemen and was nothing short of the unilateral enforcement of a death penalty for blasphemy. At the pettier end of the spectrum sit student politicians desperate to wrap their peers in cotton wool by imposing campus bans on anything from sombreros to the Sun.

The combined effect of these censors’ work is a society in which, on both important and trivial matters, people are not as free to speak their minds as they should be. The time is therefore ripe for a book that takes account of these various assaults on freedom of speech and perhaps prescribes some solutions. Mick Hume, former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, founder of Living Marxism and the editor-at-large of the online magazine Spiked, has answered the call and produced Trigger Warning. Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech, he asks in the book’s subheading. He answers with an emphatic “yes”.

At his best, Hume delivers his supporting evidence in excoriating swipes. He savages those who pledge their commitment to freedom of speech before adding a “but”. The effect of that word, he writes, “is not simply to qualify your support, but to dissolve it altogether”. Hume calls today’s censors “reverse-Voltaires”:

The champion of free speech Voltaire said (in his own words this time): “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” The mantra of the reverse-Voltaires is more like: “Think of yourself and don’t let others enjoy the privilege of thinking any differently.”

Hume has spent his career writing pugnacious columns so, unsurprisingly, he knows how to deliver a rhetorical knockout.

But, unfortunately for Hume and his readers, a good book and a good column require different ingredients. He may be on the right side of the debate but I am confident that Trigger Warning will change no one’s mind. Those who realise that speech is over-regulated will find themselves nodding along. But those who disagree will not be challenged by Hume. This book, then, is a missed opportunity. What could have been a thorough, forensic skewering of 21st-century censorship and the flimsy logic that props it up instead amounts to little more than an extended column, a series of trots on the hobby horses beloved by Hume and his colleagues at Spiked, which these days serves as a kind of Marxists Anonymous, a place for Brendan O’Neill and his friends from the RCP to swap stories.

More disappointingly, Trigger Warning contains little in the way of advice as to what to do next. Polling commissioned for a report I wrote for the New Culture Forum last year found that one third of people in Britain believe they cannot speak freely on controversial subjects like immigration and religion. More and more are realising what Hume knows to be the case: that Britain, the home of Milton, Mill and Orwell, is a place where the censorious have the upper hand. It is a place where tweeting a joke can mean jail; where libel laws allow the powerful to silence the weak; where people are fired for expressing mainstream political opinions; and where a nebulous right to not be offended shuts down debate. Nowhere are the toxic results of the fear of offending more gruesomely clear than in Rotherham, where the abuse of more than 1,400 children, mainly by men of Pakistani heritage, remained hidden because councillors feared that by tackling the problem they could be “giving oxygen” to racists. 

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Anonymous
June 29th, 2015
8:06 AM
But but ...l support your right to free speech until a given time when somebody or other - maybe a judge - decides it is a lie motivated by hatred. Wow you really do not believe in free speech in any meaningful way. Next ban after holocaust denial would be any hate speech, any radical Islam. And would the hate go without a means of communication or a freedom to Believe in? Get a reviewer not so ensconced in Fighting marginal fascists to give his life meaning

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