Freedom of speech, thought and conscience is central to a civilised society. If you doubt it, look at any country without it or where it is severely curtailed, where people are murdered for trying to tell the truth, locked up and facing a show trial for reporting the inconvenient resistance of an outraged people, or even worn down with the daily banality of pretence at obeisance to an official truth, as beautifully described by Czeslaw Milosz:
Informing ... is the basis of each man's fear of his fellow-men. Work in an office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labor required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears. After work one goes to political meetings or special lectures, thus lengthening a day that is without a moment of relaxation or spontaneity. The people one talks with may seem relaxed and careless, sympathetic and indignant, but if they appear so, it is only to arouse corresponding attitudes and to extract confidences which they can report to their superiors.So why then are we being so pusillanimous about defending free speech, why are we so feeble in the face of those who would destroy it, why do we accord the same status to lies that we do to truth, why do we invite its enemies on to Question Time?
For me the answer is that the liberalism of our days is not robust, combative, radical; it is complacent, lazy, deluded. It thinks that you can effectively confront fascism with reasoned arguments.
Have these liberals learnt nothing from history? Reasoned debate can only take you so far. And, though they happily quote John Stuart Mill they don't seem to have thought much about what he actually had to say.
Mill's essay On Liberty offers a splendid defence of freedom of thought:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.This is superficially straightforward. One person's right, by definition, imposes a duty on others, and specifically on governments, to respect it. Here the right to free speech imposes a duty not to deny such a right to anyone, whatever their opinion. However, it does not entail a duty to broadcast their views. These two are often confused. Just because you may not criminalise views you despise, it does not mean that you have to put them on your TV screens.
The right to free speech implies a negative duty to refrain from suppression, censorship and prosecution. It is not a positive obligation to promote, facilitate and host opinions that you, or any institution you may be a member of, find obnoxious. And that applies as much to a public body. The law may insist on a party political broadcast, but appearing on a politically based entertainment programme? No, that is not a legal obligation, it is, rather, an editorial choice. And there is a suspicion that audience size may just have been a factor in the decision.
But there is more. Mill provides three main utilitarian justifications for liberty of speech. The first two, that its restriction is an assumption of infallibility on the part of the censor and that the opinion suppressed may, in fact, be true are commonplace. It is his third that I find the most interesting.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experienceIn other words, Mill has a dialectical theory of truth; it emerges, develops and is refined by the conflict of ideas. More than that, without contest, it dies. So what duty does this impose on others? I would argue that it most certainly doesn't insist on quiescence, let alone acceptance, instead it creates a duty to be a partisan on behalf of truth. Freedom of speech is an active and combative concept.
So how is that combat to take place? I am certain that Mill had in mind the civilized contest of the debating chamber and the printing press. These were the instruments of his time. I am equally sure that he was talking about the necessity of contest in doctrine rather than the disputation of clear and incontrovertible empirical fact. However, in his reliance on human reason alone, he is on much weaker ground. Reason founders on the rock of irrational belief and malign ideologies. Truth may win out in the long term, as I think Mill assumed, but in the short term it can be overwhelmed, leaving behind a pile of corpses.
An example. The Civil Rights campaigners of the 60's did not sit with white racists in the TV studios and debate with them until they saw sense. They sat at segregated lunch counters, registered to vote, took to the streets, faced the beatings and the jailings, and risked their lives until they forced the federal government to confront the reality of segregation and take action as consciences stirred. That activism was both an exercise of free speech and of the duty to confront. Out of that struggle came desegregation, if not equality. Engaging with peoples' emotions, their gut instincts, their consciences, is a way of springing their reason into action.
The BNP is searching for legitimacy. It is their tactic, as it was Hitler's during his accession to power (together with control of the streets by force). The act of denying them legitimacy, as in not inviting them to appear as respectable guests of TV programmes, does not infringe their free speech, no one is stopping them printing material, holding meetings on premises where people are prepared to admit them, or removing their sites from the internet. No, it is in itself a symbolic act of free speech. It says that 'your views are not acceptable', 'you may have won seats in elections, but we will only give you the barest minimum that the law insists on', it says to the whole of society, 'they are illegitimate'. It is a militant assertion of common values. It is, once more, the exercise of the duty to contest.
Then again, my attempt to redefine speech as action leads me into pitfalls. How far do we go? Is terrorism free speech? By engaging with emotion do we thereby abandon reason? On closer examination, Mill's principles, too, appear slippery and imprecise. This shows that principle can only take you so far. We cannot escape the need for moral choice, to make a judgement. Such moral judgements may be based on instinctive emotion, a sense of right and wrong, but that too is grounded in real historical experience. And how much experience do we need?
I see us facing a choice between a passive and active liberalism. The one is based on the assumption that reason will prevail, it is urbane and civilised. The other comes from a sense of alarm at the power of an irrational evil that needs to be confronted. It accepts the necessity of free speech but refuses any notion of moral equivalence and equal legitimacy. Its faith in the power of reason is limited. It urges action. And every time I read and re-read Mill, especially in the light of the conflicts of his day, I am convinced that he was an activist.
So, to what Voltaire didn't say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, we should add "and I take up the duty to confront, condemn, ridicule and, if I choose, ignore or take action against dangerous lies and nonsense. And, what is more, I feel no compunction to help you spread them". It appears the BBC thinks otherwise.