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The fantasy of “free speech”

The fantasy of “free speech”

Afua Hirsch speaking on a panel. Photo: courtesy of the author
Political correctness has gone mad, but not in the way that you think.
Our language has finally cast out most of its demons, and words that once promoted hate towards minority groups have—rightly—been relegated from everyday discourse. The ancient lexicon of hate speech—which, as Simon Lancaster explains in our March issue, has so often gone hand-in-hand with physical violence—is today heard less often. 
Travellers and transgender people have finally earned the right to hear others describe them in the same way that they describe themselves. Even language that isn’t obviously nasty has been tidied up. “Housewives” are no more: they have become stay-at-home mothers. The revolution might seem complete.
But listen a little more closely, and you will find that among those fluent in the new more polite language are those for whom the traditional spirit of hate is alive and well. Across the UK, Europe and America, mainstream pundits, instead of labelling others “savages,” as they might have a hundred years ago, now speak of protecting “our civilisation.” They “defend secular culture from the threat of immigration,” whereas their counterparts 40 years ago would have warned of having a “nigger for a neighbour.”

Outrage is a currency

This is the real political correctness gone mad: sanitised language being used to dress up vicious attitudes. Newly-polite preachers of hate are, they claim, interested in putting newcomers in their place not because they enjoy it, but in order to protect native workers from globalisation. The co-option of progressive language for exclusionary and reactionary ends has duped and confused us, leading many to conclude that the politics in western democracies is no longer about policy, only culture.
Whereas policy differences can be debated with facts, culture wars are fought by volume. Outrage has, in the UK as elsewhere, become as real a currency as Bitcoin. Right-wing media moguls invest in it, and reap the rewards—cultural anger harnessed as a tool to persuade voters to operate against their own economic interests. 
These culture wars are producing casualties on all sides, but those who are keenest to declare themselves victims are not those you might expect—those traditionally marginalised by the mainstream. Instead, it is the very people who have held the mike all this time who are the quickest to decry a “victim culture.”
These are the privileged, confident voices who have framed every debate since time immemorial, while all the while enjoying the luxury of never having to stop and think about whether they were framing the discussion in their own interests. The merest suggestion that a smidgeon of space might be made for a voice from a more “diverse” background (for which read anybody who is not a white, public-school-educated man) is enough to bring them out in hives. 
Suddenly, the traditional conservative commentator, not usually troubled by a concern for human rights, becomes mightily attached to them. When he is reduced to being one voice among many, he becomes convinced he is no longer able to speak his mind, or indeed to think freely at all. He howls that he has been gagged.

The most persecuted men…

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is the Old Etonian son of a Times editor, who is endlessly asked for his views on everything. He is now—for reasons that would be unimaginable, if not for his pedigree—earnestly talked of as a possible next prime minister. 
Yet he gains traction by posing as a champion of downtrodden right-wingers, intimidated from openly expressing their sexist, anti-abortion and other anti-equality views. 
Meanwhile, journalist and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos—a white nationalist, who has contacts that run all the way to the White House—has claimed he was victimised by his publisher’s decision not to publish his derisory book.
The most celebrated martyrs in the new culture war are not self-sacrificing figures, in the mould of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, risking everything despite an already precarious position on the margins. Instead, it is people like the former Google engineer James Damore, author of a now notorious memo in which he railed against “a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.” 
One of the ideas he thought deserved more attention was that “women are more prone to anxiety,” and that attempts to reverse historic unfairness represented “discriminatory practices.” 
It’s often said, as Lionel Shriver argues in the March issue of Prospect, that the people who have most to lose from racist and reactionary thinking are seeking protection from being offended. In truth, minorities find themselves endlessly, exhaustingly drawn into the argument about who is allowed to say what, whether or not it is a discussion they are seeking to have.

The only brown woman in the room

It happens to me often, in television debates, panel discussions and live events; whatever I am trying to talk about, I am challenged with “arguments” that presume to delegitimise my experience as a woman or ethnic minority. This is an inevitable consequence of being the woman, or brown person, in the room, and being required, often single-handedly, to provide a rebuttal. 
The stubborn idea that one token minority presence in such a space provides the necessary balance—not only to the panel, but to the weight of all history—remains standard in a society that continues to take a tick-box approach to diversity. 
Meanwhile, of course, it provides disproportionate space to sensationalist, “thinking the unthinkable” views about all the things which, supposedly, you aren’t allowed to say. (Just how often, for example, have you read a column or seen a documentary about, say, Muslims, earnestly marketed with the claim that it will raise the questions that others would duck away from?) 
The culture war, so often dressed up as a battle over free speech, in reality boils down to a refusal to engage with alternative points of view. And, no doubt, we all share a responsibility to listen. 
But views are not, and never have been, expressed in a vacuum. Whether we get to hear them, and the way we process them when they do, inevitably depends on what we know about the person speaking, just as it did over the countless centuries in which women and minorities struggled to be heard at all. 
It is striking just how many scandals have hit free speech advocates who got a little bit too free with speech of their own; think of Toby Young, (whose “humorous” tweeted picture-captions included “actually, mate, I had my dick up her arse”). Powerful allies lined up to defend Young, as of course they did when the new England women’s football manager, Phil Neville, quipped about domestic violence, and when top Tory Damian Green made untrue statements that would, in the end, see him forced out of Cabinet. 
All these men and their defenders claimed absolute confidence in the integrity of their character—a confidence that did not depend on the past public statements they had made. It depended, instead, on who they were: privileged white men.
And here we reach the heart of the matter. In an ideal world, views from privileged people who want to keep things the same would—like all other views—be presented in a marketplace of ideas, competing fairly with the perspectives that challenge it. This is how free speech is meant to work. 
But free speech doesn’t work like that. The marketplace of ideas, like many other markets, has monopolies, rackets and biases. Long-established “suppliers” of opinions with entrenched positions in “the sector” enjoy huge advantages. Marketplaces, inevitably, require merchants, arbiters and traders to work well. Why? Because the space in which they operate is rarely level. 
A young woman of colour—such as Halimo Hussein, for example, a student of Somali heritage who led the protest against a Churchill-themed café in north London last month—will find no friends in the Cabinet looking beneath her statements and finding the true, noble contents of her soul. 
Instead the tabloids singled her out, trawling through her social media threads, finding her lacking in gratitude to Britain since her family sought refuge here from Somalia—and calling on the powerful to shut down her right to protest. 
That Churchill’s white supremacist views about the inherent repugnance of the Indian race, or the expendability of Bengali lives, are well-documented and worthy of debate, will barely receive a mention.

Racism isn’t just another opinion

We seem to have regressed under the guise that each opinion has an equivalent, opposing view of equal merit—a view that feeds into existing inequalities to create a dangerous false equivalence.
Treating racism as an opinion like any other—as if it were a countervailing view contributing to balance, rather than a system of oppression—creates a kind of cultural amplification.
It sends us freewheeling back to a time when the most basic questions of social justice required lengthy battles. As one frustrated college professor in the US reported, his colleagues were spending valuable time asserting that they “believe in the dignity of all human beings,” and that “students of colour belong on this campus.” Apparently, we still need to make such basic points.
“Free speech” is all too often not about speech, but power. In countries like the UK—in which a level playing field has never existed—rights that seem equitable in fact provide disproportionate volume to a modern-day tyranny of the racial majority, and indeed the most economically-privileged minority. It’s a tyranny backed by a media that is quite happy to self-censor for commercial reasons, and promote views it finds most convenient, while quietly silencing others. 
Under such circumstances it’s hard to take those who claim devotion to free speech seriously, unless, or until, they practise what they preach.

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