Let’s Speak Freely

Predicting outcomes is fine as long as failure is also allowed; then, it is a useful skill. But as soon as investments have to be certain, they cannot take place — because risk is always real. Today, the gap between ‘certain’ and ‘likely’ has been pushed almost as far as it goes.

This matters when it comes to free speech. People want to predict the outcomes of speech, but the difference between safer speech and unfree speech cannot survive another push by the protectionists.

They are protectionists in two senses: because they want to protect vulnerable groups from the possible adverse consequences of speech, and also, because they want to restrict the market so that only their own speech prospers.

Their words say that they are protecting enumerated groups from injury. Their strategy for doing so is to foreclose on free comment. Most of us would be happy in a society where all comments made caused no injury — real or imagined — but that is hardly the point. The point is that foreclosing on comment destroys the whole business.

In a truly liberal arrangement, free speech was viable because power was broken up. People could say what they chose because no one could take total control. Checks and balances between institutions sharing power forced us to live with deadlock or horse-trading, and both were better than either conflict or unfreedom.

In a mass democracy, on the other hand, and one which has suffered a trahison des clercs, matters stand differently. The institutions were torn up, not defended. They did not set up a force of inertia any more against sudden gusts of opinion. In Britain it all tracks back to half-unwinding of an uncodified constitution by Blair, coming, as that did, on the very eve of the social media explosion. Once contradictions are no longer in deadlock, and one must win, things said become ‘unacceptable’, and after terrible shifts this way and that, some must be silenced into losing.

It got still worse. Once politicians — who had become our political clerks — side-stepped the responsibilities of their institutions and granted referendums, they let all sorts of banshee out. Many people want to silence those spectres. But once a referendum is granted, and the rules are what they were at the vote, that is that: so then we question the viability of the system.

It is not the system, but the cowardice in the system. Want of courage is the major political problem that now we have. It is the rule of lawyers which has undermined the rule of law with threats of litigation that inspire as much fear in participants as their great debts do.

Behind both processes, the winnowing of institutions and the pre-emptive elimination of speech, stood cost/benefit (though that observation does not help us now; the very same people who thought they were liberal were fully behind that principle). More exactly, what drove the mindset through which people wrecked our resilience was the combination of cost/benefit analysis, and, leaving nothing sacred: speech was to be pruned away like waste; in fact, when it came to the potential for litigation, that amounted to the same thing.

Free speech needs to be sacred. (A number of other things do, too.) Defending it will always be a cause of appearing to defend the most egregious people who exploit it, because they are the only people who push things so far. But defending free speech does not mean defending the things which are spoken. A group may call itself ‘a free speech site’ but we should no more allow the Right a monopoly of the term ‘free speech’ than we should let them have a monopoly on the national flag.

Leaving companies free to decide who speaks and who does not is not the same as a value-neutral public space, and when companies constitute an oligopoly it is certainly not the same as a liberal-democratic balance of powers. Even controversial outlets descend into contrarianism for the sake of it because they, too, need clicks. These are the people who call it self-censorship when in speaking your mind, you also mind your speech.

Paying for waste, for margins of risk, for the forgiveness or persistence of error, is not the lean, mean machine of the market. It is the old, asset-strippable institution of democracy. A disgusting President and a disgrace to his office must now set up his own system, front and back, to tweet freely. But even if he is in a position to do so (and probably he is not): who else is? And who’s next?

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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