What’s fair cop when it comes to free speech?
By Nick Cohen
Freedom of speech is everywhere debated but nowhere understood. If you want proof of my admittedly rather sweeping pronouncement, look at the Twitter ban on Donald Trump. As a symptom of a culture so polarised it feels on the verge of civil war, it cannot be bettered.
Conservatives describe it as a “terrifying” act of censorship. “If the tech monopolies can deny a platform to the leader of the free world, then they can deny a voice to anyone,” as a writer in the Telegraph put it. Leader of the “free world”? Trump? A man who gave comfort to Erdogan, Putin and every other autocrat he could find.
No one who believes in a free world, let alone aspires to lead it, can engage in conspiracies to deny the result of free elections, and then incite murderous mobs when they do not get their way. To describe the silencing of Trump as “censorship” is correct in as far as it goes, but it is a form of censorship liberal systems of thought have always accepted as legitimate.
John Stuart Mill, whose “harm principle” – that the individual should be free to do what he or she chooses, as long as they do not harm others – was adamant on this point. The state has every right to call for the police when a demagogue was inciting his followers to attack others.
“If the tech monopolies can deny a platform to the leader of the free world, then they can deny a voice to anyone”
On these grounds, a far rightist is free to argue against Islam. A far leftist is free to argue against Zionism. But if they incite their followers to attack a mosque or a synagogue or pump out hatred of Muslims or Jews so vicious they are likely to incite violence, the state must intervene. The move by Amazon Web Services to decommission social media site Parler isn’t sinister by this measure but a legitimate policing action. Parler was the space where neo-fascists met to plan violent assaults. It had to go.
You must have noticed how hypocritical British Conservatives have become. They say they support freedom of speech, but only when it suits them. They hate the BBC with a fanatical fury, while their leader, Boris Johnson, threatens its independence along with the independence of Channel 4. It’s too easy to say the interests of right-wing media owners explain their determination to censor. Their desire to increase their profits matters, of course. But “follow the money” isn’t always the best advice and cynicism does not always lead you to the truth.
Regardless of the business concerns of the Murdoch family, genuine hatred exists on large parts of the right for any journalism that contradicts its worldview. Facts they don’t like, contrary opinions broadcasters have a legal duty to air, pain them like blows from a cudgel. Psychic wounds can be as real wounds, and they feel as if liberal thugs in the pay of an elite media conspiracy have assaulted them.
The most pressing danger to our freedoms and, on occasion, our jobs, comes from a hyper-intolerant left.
If I were to stop there, I assume liberal readers would be happy. The right is full of dangerous hypocrites. It says it favours law and order, but not when its own supporters go on the rampage. It says it favours freedom of speech, but denies it to its opponents.
In my world of left-wing journalism, however, or in publishing, academia or any other liberal profession, what the right says barely matters. The most pressing danger to our freedoms and, on occasion, our jobs, comes from a hyper-intolerant left.
To this day, “McCarthyism” is a left-wing boo word. But McCarthyites are what many on the left have become. Like the anti-communist inquisitors of the United States of the mid-twentieth century, they say that the smallest evidence of heresy is enough to justify the loss of employment. Regardless of whether the opinion affects the performance of their target’s professional duties.
It is not much of an advance to replace the inquisitorial question of the 1950s, “Are you now or have you ever been a communist?”, with “Are you now or have you ever been a bigot?” They have an advantage over previous generations of heresy hunters.
Twitter and Facebook feeds provide them with continuous and instantly accessible streams of evidence they can reproduce or twist to convict their chosen victim. If you made an off-colour remark in a café or bar in the twentieth century, no one could conclusively prove you had ever said it. If you make it on the web, it can be used in evidence against you for as long as you live.
Liberals have no problem with social media sites banning Donald Trump or anyone else on the right for raising mobs. Nor do I.
Liberals have no problem with social media sites banning Donald Trump or anyone else on the right for raising mobs. Nor do I. The difference is that they want them banned regardless of whether they incite violence or not. To justify it, they expand the concept of violence exponentially to say that any argument they do not like makes ethnic minorities, trans people or women “unsafe”.
The objection to JK Rowling, for instance, is not that her arguments about the dangers of giving puberty-suppressing drugs to children under the age of 16, or allowing men to self-certify as women without proper regulation are wrong. (For that would require the production of evidence.) Rather she is accused of driving trans men and women to suicide.
No evidence has ever been produced to substantiate the claim. But the web ensures that if enough people amplify the accusation online, it becomes real and anyone who questions it becomes a transphobe by association. Where once a potential censor had to prove that words incited actual violence, now they have only to say that words make someone, somewhere, feel “unsafe”. Whether they are “unsafe” is irrelevant. The feeling is enough.
You must have noticed how hypocritical British Conservatives have become. They say they support freedom of speech, but only when it suits them
Running through these debates is the shock of the new technology. As I said above, I can see no objection to punishing Donald Trump. But the arguments I used were from John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century philosopher, and the legal disputes around the abolition of theatre and book censorship in the twentieth century.
They feel less and less relevant, even to me. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google and Amazon are private companies that have grown to dominate the whole public square. So vast is their power, the punishment of Trump has to date not come from the American state, arresting and charging him with sedition, but from Twitter.
It is too glib to say a private company has the right to refuse to host anyone it does not like. We are not talking about a newspaper deciding to print one writer and reject another but about unelected executives taking decisions that can effectively cut off an individual from the rest of the world.
We are at the beginning of a new era of mass communications, and whatever your politics, you ought to know that there are no guides on how to regulate it
They are also American executives responding to their own interests. (With the Democrats now in power, you can see why they would want to appeal to the new masters in Washington.) Eighty per cent of Twitter and Facebook users are outside the US and have no conceivable means of influencing its policies. There is no way you can appeal to a British court to force them to rescind an unwarranted ban that I know. Just as there is no way for you to force them to stop allowing a malicious mob to persecute you.
We are at the beginning of a new era of mass communications, and whatever your politics, you ought to know that there are no guides on how to regulate it. Anyone who pretends otherwise is telling you a lie worthy of Donald Trump.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and the author of What’s Left and You Can’t Read This Book. He is locked down in a basement in London and losing his mind.