I have been meaning to put up a review of Nick Cohen's polemic on free speech, You Can't Read This Book, for some time. With a brief hiatus at a hectic time, this is the moment for me to post some comments on the book. A regular reader of Cohen's journalism will be familiar with many of the examples he gives and the case studies with which he illustrates his main themes. These include religious extremism and the manufacture of offence, Britain's egregious libel laws, the suppression of free speech in the workplace and its contribution to the financial crash, as well as the ludicrous case of the prosecution of Paul Chambers for a joke tweet. Gathered together as part of a coherent whole, they tell a damning story. The book has garnered a big batch of complimentary reviews and quite rightly so. If you want an overview of the contents, go to those (or better still, actually read it), instead I want to highlight some broad points that particularly struck me.
There are four main strengths. First, the book is readable. If I were still teaching the modules on political thought that I used to deliver as part of our part-time degree programmes at Hull, it would be a set text. There is a premium to be placed on accessibility for getting people thinking about abstract political ideas and Cohen delivers. Secondly, he has no illusions that there is a technological fix for free speech. The Internet is just as potent a weapon for surveillance as it is for free expression. Cohen argues for the supremacy of politics over technology. Third, he includes the workplace as well as the public sphere, using the memorable phrase, "Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship." The damaging impact of managerialism is a worthy target of his scorn. But the final strength is down to his decision to avoid a conservative trap, political correctness.
There is a real reason why political correctness is not a free speech issue. Partly, this is because it is a form of institutional custom rather than criminal law, but the main point is that it falls into the category that Cohen takes from Mill, the one that sees him still argue for the prohibition of hate speech, that of preventing harm to others.
Political correctness, as it was termed by its enemies, is rooted in the recognition that language is an instrument of exclusion. The cries of 'it's political correctness gone mad' are expressions of resentment at the opening up of privileges to people drawn from outside establishment circles. Anne Norton put it beautifully in her demolition of Allan Bloom's prolonged whine, The Closing of the American Mind.
Bloom wishes to recover a world in which very ugly men – men who stutter and drip gravy on their shirts – become objects of desire.Though abused by zealots and, at times, made ridiculous by fools, political correctness is simply a form of etiquette that allows people to feel comfortable and to thrive in institutions that previously did everything in their power to exclude them, not least through sneering and demeaning language.
The most important point that Cohen makes, one that shouts out from the pages of his book, is that censorship is one of the most potent weapons that can be used by the powerful to secure their power. It is the foundation stone of tyranny. The first targets of the oppressor are the press, education and culture (read George Szirtes on Hungary for graphic examples of the far right in action). Not least of the evils that flow from censorship is that legal restrictions on free speech instantly create 'thought crimes,' making political opposition a criminal act. As a result, the fight for freedom of speech is central to the struggles of the oppressed. Anyone familiar with British labour history would be aware of the resistance to the Stamp Acts (aimed at preventing the working classes from reading the radical press by placing a tax [stamp] on newspapers to make them unaffordable), of the struggles of Richard Carlile against the laws of blasphemy and seditious libel, and of the free speech battles between socialists and the police over mass meetings in Trafalgar Square. Free speech was a central demand of the working class movement.
Yet there is a paradox in all this. Freedom of speech means allowing the expression of noxious views, of paranoid conspiracy thinking and of a whole range of lunacy. It is distorted by the inequitable ownership of the media and the power of wealthy interests. Yet, this is not an argument against the general principle of the right to free speech. Instead, we need to think more about another of Mill's utilitarian justifications.
Cohen uses Mill in making his argument, but concentrates on the harm principle. What interests me, and I have blogged on this before, is Mill's dialectical epistemology, the idea that truth can only emerge through free debate and that very same clash of ideas can prevent active belief from ossifying into dogma. So, he didn't just advocate the right to free speech, with its associated duty to ensure that it is respected, he argued for the necessity of challenge, a duty to contest. Though we may not criminalise the views of others, however obnoxious, we do not have to promote them, to stand by idly whilst they are expressed, nor wash our hands of our duty to actively oppose them. Tolerance does not mean passivity. And Cohen is certainly not passive. Instead he ends the book with a call for,
… a political commitment to expand the rights we possess to meet changing circumstances, and a determination to extend them to billions of people from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe who do not enjoy our good fortune.
And in writing this, he is standing in a long tradition of radicals who sought to challenge injustice and exploitation, as well as oppose the power of the oligarchs who would silence them.