A good question: Is freedom of speech under threat
One question, four answers
‘Can there be freedom if I am not heard?’
Freedom is always under threat and freedom of speech is no exception. The liberal instinct to see freedom in terms of limits and censorship can miss a systemic concern: whose interest does freedom of speech or expression currently serve in the UK? Aside from what is enshrined on paper, freedom of speech as an ideal exists largely for the elites. Freedom is largely unwelcomed by the status quo and those with vested interest, however much the mantras about democracy and openness. In this sense, freedom of speech is a myth – the powerful and privileged are the ones with greater freedom to express their views. And, with increasing inequalities, it is certainly a luxury that only the privileged can indulge in.
Reflect on who can speak, does speak, the voices that matter, and the various media that feed us with their views. Media pundits were delighted with Joe Biden telling Donald Trump to shut up. Who is asking why, in the 2016 presidential debate, Hillary Clinton could not say/do the same as a woman? Free speech is always threatened as it remains the domain of a privileged group of largely white men! I contend that freedom of speech in the UK is bent towards those who command massive resources and means. Yes, we all do have the right to express ourselves but in practice, the ones that have the economic means do so while the rest, starved of oxygen and can hardly breathe, are voiceless. Can there be freedom of speech if I am not heard and do not have a stake in determining decisions that would affect my life and thrivability?…
Michael Jagessar is Mission Secretary for Europe at Council for World Mission
‘It’s already been lost’
The good news is free speech is definitely not under threat. The bad news is that’s because it’s already been lost. As anybody over a certain age knows from experience, there is already far less of it than there was back when we were alive.
A gainsayer might respond that, if the ability to make other people’s lives miserable by using demeaning speech about their race, religion or gender has been taken away, that is no loss. And, depending on exactly what’s included, I might agree. Certainly, I set at nought the value of allowing bullying bigots to be spiteful with the excuse that they’re merely ‘not politically correct’.
But far more is being shut down than just the wilful giving of offence. We are confronted by new tribes who are expert in seeking out offence, in distilling it from innocuous language which it is their life’s work to problematise, and in proclaiming their victimhood or the oppressor status of those who were only ever minding their own business.
Of what do I speak? ‘Do not continue in generalities, Pearse, give us examples,’ they goad. But, as they (and you, and I) all know, I cannot. For I, too, need a job…
Meic Pearse is Emeritus Professor of History at Houghton College, New York
‘With a good argument, any opinion can stand’
I have three examples of freedom of speech from a university setting: in my research, in personal relationships and in the institution.
In research, I would say, freedom of speech is not under threat. I have been to countless lectures and seminars that could be classed as unpopular, or that I disagreed with. The culture is one of grounded research and a good argument, and if these things are done well, any opinion can stand.
As for the personal, my secular, research-orientated department is filled with Christians from countless denominations, cultures and views. Some treat the department as a seminary – in fact, many students come from seminaries. They then have difficulties following university procedures that do not put their faith at the centre but at the periphery, in equal standing with other belief systems. For example, the postgraduate committee of my school served rainbow doughnuts to celebrate LGBTQ+ month. Some Christian members argued that we were being insensitive to their faith and excluding them. A few months later, a poster was put up in the hall saying: ‘Would Luther have been able to post his 95 theses in the current university climate of safe space, hate speech and not offending others? Always be willing to respectfully dissent and challenge orthodoxy, whether religious or secular.’ … This example is an attack by the majority (even though many Christians would not agree with this) to an obvious minority in the school. Making people feel uncomfortable simply because of who they are and where they happen to study is not an act of free speech but an attack on another’s personhood…
Victoria Turner is a PhD researcher in ecumenism at New College, Edinburgh
‘Respect is under threat’
As a Muslim, I believe that free speech is, somewhat, alive and kicking in our country. However, the yardstick to measure what free speech means, and how it is delivered has become fuzzy. Can my Christian and Muslim friends speak about heterosexuality as a norm lifestyle without being labelled as extremists? Can my liberal friends indulge in criticism of some religious values without being hounded by those who feel that ‘religion’ is out of bounds and cannot be critically examined?
Sadly, free speech today, in many quarters, has become one’s right to offend, stigmatise and often humiliate a group of people. My faith has become a dinner table joke. Only recently, a comedian publicly made fun of 51 people who were murdered by a rightwing terrorist in a New Zealand mosque. His right to tell a joke transcended the hurt he caused to the families who lost a loved one. But it was about free speech, about his right to be satirical without the thought for those who may feel marginalised and discriminated against…
Anjum Anwar is a teacher. She worked as Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral from 2007 to 2016
These are extracts from an article published in the November 2020 edition of Reform