By Brendan O’Neill
February 22, 2021
I’m glad sections of the left find the free-speech crisis so funny. Or ‘free-speech crisis’, as they always put it, those sarky quote marks signalling their scepticism towards the idea that there’s a censorship problem on campus and elsewhere in society. ‘Freeze peach!’, they cry at anyone who thinks it is a bad thing that people can be No Platformed, threatened with death or sacked from their jobs for expressing the ‘wrong’ opinion. Hilarious, isn’t it?
It’s hilarious when activists piss on the door of a feminist academic’s office because they don’t like her criticisms of gender self-ID. It’s hilarious when a disabled working-class grandfather is sacked from his job at Asda because he posted a Billy Connolly skit on social media that made fun of Islam. It’s hilarious when a Labour shadow minister loses her job because she dared to raise concerns about the grooming and rape of working-class girls in various parts of England. It’s hilarious when JK Rowling is bombarded with messages saying ‘fuck you bitch’, ‘bitch I’ll kill you’ and ‘choke on my cock’ because she wrote an entirely non-prejudiced essay on trans issues. It’s all so funny. ‘FREEZE PEACH’ lol.
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Make no mistake: when the cultural and media elites mock the idea of a free-speech crisis, when they insist cancel culture doesn’t exist, this is the reality they are denying. This is the abuse, demonisation and, yes, censorship that they claim is not real. Actually, it’s worse than that. These censorship deniers do not merely question the reality of these grim assaults on people’s free expression – after all, we can all see the tweets calling JK Rowling a ‘cunt’ and a ‘whore’, and we all know what urine splashed on someone’s door looks and smells like, so we know this stuff is real. No, they also implicitly justify these chilling crusades against open discussion. By refusing to describe these attacks as attacks on freedom of speech, they normalise them, they green-light them.
The censorship deniers ridicule the idea that people’s freedom of speech is under attack because they don’t care about the people whose freedom of speech is under attack. They support this censorship – of bad feminists, of old blokes who mock Islam, of people who are too right-wing – and that’s why they refuse to condemn it as censorship. It’s as simple as that.
The discussion about freedom of speech this week, and in recent months, has been frustrating. Both sides in this so-called culture war fail to see what’s at stake, fail to see why the free-speech crisis in the 21st century is so serious, and fail to appreciate why freedom of speech is so essential to human flourishing.
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Most obviously, the censorship deniers, those nominally leftish people who claim there is no free-speech crisis on campus or anywhere else, just cannot be taken seriously. Such is their ideological blindness to the problem of contemporary censorship that they have become impervious even to facts and information. I know from personal experience that you can provide these people with loads of examples of ‘controversial’ individuals being No Platformed, arrested and even physically assaulted for their political or moral points of view, and it makes no difference. ‘Nope, there’s no free-speech crisis’, they’ll say.
You can tell them about the Christian pastor who was arrested in Manchester and held in a jail cell for 19 hours for saying homosexuality is a sin and they’ll say, ‘There’s no free-speech crisis’. You can tell them UK police forces are arresting nine people a day for saying offensive things online and they’ll say, ‘Still no free-speech crisis’. You can remind them that the Scottish government is currently working on legislation that would make it illegal to say certain things in your own home and they’ll say, ‘I can’t see a free-speech crisis’. You can point them to news reports about the fact that a man currently faces six months in jail for making a joke about Captain Tom Moore on Twitter and they’ll say, ‘There isn’t a free-speech crisis!’. You can tell them that NUS officials maintain an actual blacklist of organisations and individuals who should never be ‘platformed’ – including not only the likes of the BNP but also Julie Bindel and George Galloway – and they’ll say, ‘There’s no crisis. It isn’t censorship. Freeze peach!’