We’ve all become pretty saturated with free speech debates. Which matters more, my freedom to swing my fist or your freedom not to get punched in the nose? The jury still seems to be out. But the assumptions of the old soap-box tirades we have all heard are utterly outdated (here, I am addressing not legal standards but modern discursive norms). The traditional idea that free speech is virtually absolute, which is espoused by intellectuals such as Peter and Christopher Hitchens, adopts the convenient appearance of ideological neutrality, all the while pursuing a distinctly partisan agenda.
In their advocacy for discarding ‘political correctness’, the Hitchens brothers present themselves as the modern mouthpieces of the “Great Tradition of English Liberty”. Yet this is a tradition that does not integrate as seamlessly into modern life as they would have us believe. The old idea that “It is not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard. It is the right of everyone in the audience to hear”, comes from a world before modern technology distorted what “everyone in the audience” is able to hear, before the free marketplace of ideas faded into polarised online echo chambers which reinforce themselves rather than rationally convincing outsiders.
The Hitchens brothers present their ideas about free speech as ideologically neutral, enlightened defences that apply to everyone equally. Yet this should be seen as the smokescreen that it is. The freedoms of speech that they appear interested in protecting are the freedoms of those who hold radical, minority social opinions – the “unpopular” views, as they proudly call them. In a 2006 address at the University of Toronto, Christopher illustrates this point with the example of protecting the freedom of Holocaust deniers. “That person,” he argues emphatically, “doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speech must be given extra protection, because what he has to say must have taken him so effort to come up with.”
Yet what is the real-world impact of these discursive norms? When people with radical, minority views feel free to extoll such views, confident that their speech deserves not only respect but “extra protection”, the cost quickly becomes clear. To follow Hitchens’ own example: when workers use their free speech to openly deny the Holocaust, the result isn’t collective enlightenment, but the creation of an uncomfortable, even hostile, environment for their Jewish colleagues. The same is true for any historically marginalised community. Are those on the receiving end of such abuse, those enjoying their “right to hear” the opinions of others, likely to feel secure enough to offer a scathing rebuttal, or to even participate in that environment at all?
No. According to the Level Playing Field Institute, 2 million American professionals leave their place of work each year for exactly this reason: “Pushed out by cumulative small comments, whispered jokes and not so funny emails.” As a result of their colleagues’ views being protected, and even prioritised, their own ability to express their views in the same environment is curtailed. The reality is that the protection of one person’s free speech often comes at the cost of another’s. And it’s obvious whose speech Hitchens is interested in protecting.
It is also telling from whom Hitchens and his ilk accept criticism. When members of communities targeted by this unabridged freedom of speech do criticise the speaker, they are outright dismissed. “We’ve had invocations of a rather drivelling and sickly kind tonight for our sympathy,” Christopher tells his Toronto audience: “What about the poor f*gs, what about the poor Jews, the wretched women who can’t take the abuse?” the subtext is crystal clear and very familiar: toughen up, deal with it – this is what it means to have freedom of speech, after all. And yet, when those who have voiced their lauded “unpopular” opinions are themselves criticised and made to feel vulnerable, they rush straight to the nearest university to lament the unfairness of their treatment, as Peter Hitchens does in his 2015 Oxford Union speech. “The person who is disapproved of,” argues Hitchens in thinly veiled third person, “is classified with a pathology, described as suffering from some sort of ‘phobia’. He is then cast into the outer darkness amid wailing and gnashing of teeth.”Between them, the two brothers perfectly illustrate the inconsistencies that lie at the heart of their apparently ideologically neutral advocacy of free speech. Only those whose controversial, ‘outrageous’ views are protected are then allowed to protest when they feel threatened.
Let us see these arguments for what they are. Behind the oaky public-school accents and the thin veneer of enlightened ideological neutrality lies a partisan goal: to promote the normalisation of radical, minority social ideas. Remember this the next time you feel your heartstrings pulled by a tear-jerking defence of unbounded free speech.