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ARTICLES

FREE SPEECH – SWORD OR STAFF?

Adrian White contributes to the debate

The ancient purpose of free speech was to let society benefit from the wisdom spread among the people, and this will be its point of return after the death of liberalism and consumerism. Free speech is the liberty without fear to impart thoughts in words; and its existence within a certain culture has led to progress in the apparent powers of human reasoning. This article concentrates on tendencies in modern Britain affecting the free expression of political opinions – the freedom, that is, to communicate opinions to a known or unknown public at a reasonable time, not an assumed liberty to interrupt or contradict at will (like Tatchell in Canterbury Cathedral).

The current debate about freedom to communicate ideas takes place in the context of two continuing factors – firstly the electronic revolution, and secondly the war against terrorism, the Government’s project to reduce Britain to an authoritarian State in order to assist the objectives of American foreign policy. Though State censorship may in time be used directly to suppress domestic opposition to British and American foreign policy, at present restrictions have two main aims – to lessen the threat of terrorism within Britain consequent on the attacks by the British Government on Afghanistan and Iraq, and to enforce compliance with tenets of the American philosophy commonly known as Political Correctness, a doctrine that is proving integral to the consumer society. One of the Government’s main tools of surveillance and oppression will be the new national database and its offshoots; another is the increasing dependence of the general public on telecommunications and the fear of being cut off from them; people used to chat to their neighbours for nothing, but now spend money talking to distant friends on mobile phones; they used to pay in cash, but now they pay electronically.

In tribes of old the expression of different opinions in the assembly on matters of public concern was encouraged in order to find the solution that best served the common good. In liberal society free speech is deemed a right irrespective of utility. But liberal thinking, combined with the endeavour to raise the cultural level of the masses, has been replaced by consumerism and with this gradual change the thinkers of our Establishment have redefined free speech as no more than the right to transmit words and images at will.

As the notion of free speech becomes extended and debased, having this right restricted by the State meets less resistance.

Of course certain kinds of ideas are very important to the consumer society, especially those that help stimulate demand, and form the art of salesmanship. Clearly too the system depends on ideas that produce machinery, transport and goods. Some of these goods, for instance books and films, are themselves a packaging of ideas. If books and films were stripped of all opinions and expressions frowned on by the State, they would not be so good, but their sale would not suffer, let alone sales of goods and services in general: witness the present economic expansion of censored China. Commercial companies have established a spurious right to free speech, the extension of a hawker’s freedom to lie and pester, but traditional political free speech is something a society does not need in order to remain consumerist; it is a survival of the days when disputes about religion and political ideas rather than the lobbying and jockeying of Big Business corporations were what swayed Governments. Free speech by members of the public on political questions now does little more than help articulate and express protest against the excesses of a system that in the main has other and private ways of perceiving and curing it own inefficiencies. The rulers of old did not consult the slaves.

We may take personal pleasure in the exercise and fruits of free speech, but its chief political value in the eyes of those of us who want to see the consumer society end and other ways of living emerge is that the survival of the right may help bring about the change.

In a small community the right to free speech was tightly policed by manners and custom, infringement of which could incur severe penalties; laws of censorship were not needed. When such laws are enacted, coming from outside the community they are often destructive of it. Like other laws applying to a wider territory they tend to undermine subordinate communities.

The printed word shows up contradictions not apparent in the spoken word; philosophy and science grew from the invention of writing. As an increasing part of the persuasive published opinion is broadcast on air rather than printed in the press, the capacity and taste among the public for reasoning declines.

Much is said of the power of the internet to spread views more diverse than those expressed in the older media. Undoubtedly it has been a boon to free speech. However because the sites are so many and the scope of each so narrow, this medium lacks the power of the older media to permeate society with an opinion: the information tends to come merely to those with a special interest. The internet encourages browsing, which precludes sustained thought. Indeed it would be interesting to see some statistics of the number of browsers introduced by the internet to difficult thinking.

Local newspapers have been closing for years; in newspapers and magazines nowadays fewer column inches are devoted to readers’ letters, and these are written or edited shorter than before: hence there is less published expression of sustained , various reasoned opinions held by members of the public and so less motive to form them. On the other hand new scope and freedom have arisen to vent feelings and unsupported opinions on the radio; however, the effect of such broadcasting is not so much to stimulate and disseminate ideas as to assuage the loneliness arising from the loss and decline of family and community. In fine, the change over the last hundred years that has taken us from local newspapers to multi-media has much reduced the chance for members of the public to express their views on fundamental political matters.

The right to command silence is an historic attribute of the highborn, the rich and the powerful. Thus a putative right of Big Business and its ally the State to silence criticism would stand on a customary base. But depending as they do on freely expanding electronic media they are unwilling to meddle directly where they can help it: monitoring of content is usually better tan obstructing use.

As we have seen, the Government is restricting freedom of speech on the grounds of stopping firstly the incitement of terrorism and the plotting of it, and secondly the maligning of certain overlapping groups defined by race, religion, sex, sexual proclivities and so on, or the maligning or disfavouring of individuals on the grounds of membership of those groups. Hardly anyone in Britain wants to be a terrorist; but the second restriction galls a large but declining majority accustomed to indulge in a certain kind of humour and intemperate talk that assists the cohesion of their society.

The prosecution of thought-and-speech crimes may grow onerous to a wider public through two tendencies in the State. Our Government like that of the Soviet Union is fond of setting targets. In Stalin’s day local police forces were allocated a target number of each class of criminal to arrest by a given date, and until the quota had been met, the innocent of the district remained in danger of the concentration camp. It is unlikely that the English system of law enforcement (however debased by Howard, Blunket, Clarke and their successors) would allow such randomness in criminal justice. However, presented with the target either of prosecuting a certain number of racists, homophobes, anti-Semites or Islamophobes etc. or reducing the percentage of reported offences, the police might well use national and European databases to single out for further investigation anyone marked as remotely associated with these ill defined crimes.

A second threat arises from the growing number of officials and official bodies dealing with such crimes: all have a vested interest in finding themselves work; so that even if the gravity of offences falls, the number of offences and arrests will not.

The very suspicion among the public that such a system of policing existed would exercise a chilling effect on free speech; and this oppression like so many evils of the modern world might end only when the Government lacked the revenue to pay for it.

Free speech is neither a necessity nor a goal of human society. Rural life works against diversity of opinion on the fundamental questions, or even discussion of them. It was from civilization (the predominance of city dwellers and their ways) that philosophy arose in Greece to tinge the religions of the Roman world, producing a faith that laid claim to universal truth wedded to universal empire. Revived in the monasteries diversity of intellectual opinion helped achieve their ruin and gave rise to modern philosophy, science and economics – then eventually to the current political and general ideas, infusing modern life, now assist its intellectual atrophy.

It is this modern way of life that is exterminating non-human forms of being and is set to do the same to the livelihood of the human race. Who wants free speech to perish now and leave us stranded on this course?

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