Censorship and identity: free speech for me but not for you?

Sunday 29 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

Free speech is no longer presumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Until recently, beyond a small number of authoritarian dictators or reactionary cranks, it was unthinkable to openly oppose free expression, even if it was often espoused with endless caveats. But in 2017, after a gradual chipping away – through ‘I find that offensive’ tropes, trigger warnings and no platforming – free speech is now often explicitly queried. When a British TV breakfast show featured a ‘gay cure quack’ recently, the Guardian‘s Owen Jones declared that his views about LGBTQ people were ‘not simply a matter of opinion to be debated’. Free speech is dubbed an outdated absolute, or worse is seen as a ruse to excuse hate speech against minorities.

In this context, the rise of identity politics now means that free speech for all is no longer a given. As one US writer notes sympathetically, ‘political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo’. It is claimed that those with ‘privilege’ (‘well-heeled, white, straight, male’) historically used their status – under the mantle of free speech – to hog the public square in order to consolidate their domination. Now at last, victims of prejudice and discrimination have special speech rights that can trump and close down those ‘lifelong beneficiaries of odds stacked in their favour’.  In such a climate, the increasingly popular tactic of the hecklers’ veto – shouting down, even using violence, to silence opponents – has become a legitimate weapon in the fight for social justice.

Furthermore, it is not just what you say that is proscribed, but who is allowed to say it. A person’s words or ideas are considered secondary to identity, and it can be considered illegitimate to express opinions unless you are part of an identity group subjectively affected by any given issue. Identity groups are similarly afforded the authority to determine what is and is not offensive; those who challenge such judgements are often deemed guilty of ‘unconscious bias’. But as privilege itself is contested and definitions of hate speech notoriously subjective, increasing numbers of people can find their speech curtailed. In the UK, well-known feminists Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Linda Bellos have been disinvited as speakers for their allegedly transphobic views (as defined by trans activists). Recently, Edinburgh Action for Trans Health defended a brutal assault at a feminist gathering in London’s Hyde Park, organised to discuss government plans to allow people to legally self-identify their gender, saying it was ‘the same as punching Nazis’.

How should free speech activists respond to such new challenges? It no longer seems sufficient to cite the First Amendment, quote JS Mill, or cry academic freedom in trying to thwart assaults on free expression. There was a powerful illustration of this problem recently when protesters affiliated with Black Lives Matter gatecrashed an event at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and prevented the invited guest from the American Civil Liberties Union from speaking, chanting ‘the revolution will not uphold the Constitution’ and ‘liberalism is white supremacy’.

Is it time for civil libertarians to adjust their priorities, to ensure that people with ‘protected characteristics’ are given ‘particular respect’, and their views given a veto on what they deem as hate speech? Are those who argue for free speech – no ifs, no buts – too often providing the privileged with a licence to talk over the marginalised, even to incite bigotry? Or is identity politics the new tool of censorship and, if so, how should we respond?