What could have been a skewering of our censorious times is merely a missed opportunity
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.
Trigger Warning is not just a shallow take on an important subject; it is a sloppy piece of journalism. For example, in the book’s first chapter Hume writes: “To borrow a phrase from the techies, free speech might be called the ‘killer app’ of civilisation, the core value on which the success of the whole system depends.” In fact, he is not borrowing from the techies but pilfering, without attribution, from a neoconservative, Niall Ferguson, who has written a best-selling book called Civilisation: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power.
Spiked journalists make a living railing against the oversensitivity of the Left. But their attacks have become just as predictable, just as knee-jerk, as the ex-comrades they love to loathe. Contrarianism runs through everything they write. Hume’s rebellious streak has doubtless helped him expose the absurdities and hypocrisies of those who pledge their support for freedom of speech one day and suppress it the next. But contrarianism can blind, too.
When it comes the question of what to do about Holocaust denial, an issue given renewed prominence last month with Tony Blair’s recommendation that Britain criminalise it, Hume forgets to turn his contrarian autopilot off. Defenders of free speech are right to oppose the bans on Holocaust denial that are in place in many EU countries. Censorship cannot kill a bad idea. Hume, however, must take things further: Holocaust denial should not only be legal, it should be free from taboo as well:
In many circumstances, the Holocaust becomes less an historic atrocity to be taught, discussed and understood in its political context and more a matter of religious orthodoxy, a moral parable about human evil to be learnt by rote. This put the accepted version of what happened and why beyond question, something that secular authorities were no more prepared to have debated than the Pope might be willing to haggle over transubstantiation.
Later, he asks the reader to be as outraged as he is that “those who question the history of the Holocaust are treated as the secular equivalent of heretics today, pariahs to be cast out of civilised society”. Is that such a bad thing? It is hardly a free-speech travesty that David Irving, Britain’s most notorious Holocaust denier, is persona non grata at respectable universities. Perhaps the words of Charles Grey, the judge who in 2000 dismissed Irving’s libel claim against Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth & Memory, might remind Hume of the nature of the “historians” he thinks we are wrong to ignore. Grey said that Irving, “for his own ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” and “for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light”. He went on to make clear that Irving was “anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”.
To ask, as Hume does, for a fair hearing for all ideas, even after they have been exposed as lies motivated by hatred, is to stretch moral relativism past its elastic limit. Freedom of speech is such a vital liberty because it allows us to sort good ideas from bad ones, not because there is no such thing as good and bad.