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Free Speech is Scary. The Solution: Speak Up

REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The parade of world leaders through the streets of central Paris made a mockery of the dead cartoonists; some of those who linked arms did all they could to suppress freedom of expression in their own countries.

Nick Cohen, in You Can’t Read This Book, lays out what he sees as the greatest threat to free speech that we currently face. Despite having been published in 2012, the situation described feels completely contemporary and is still very much a worthwhile read. His main message is that free speech, aided by new technology, should not be taken for granted, and that this applies to the freer Western countries just as much as the world’s less free countries. He divides the book into three parts: God, Money and State. Each poses a risk to freedom of speech in different ways. Each is assumed to have been mitigated by new technology. Each has harnessed this new technology for its own oppressive ends.

Mr. Cohen first discusses the issues surrounding free speech when it comes up against the wall of blasphemy. This is particularly felt along the fault lines between Islam and Western secularism. As Mr. Cohen lays out in detail, when the going gets tough, our commitment to free speech and expression in the West takes the path of expediency. Our collectively corroded spine was most devastatingly betrayed by our abandonment of Salman Rushdie, who was left out in the cold facing the guns, bombs and blades of the Ayatollah’s fatwa followers without the support of his fellow intellectuals and many in government. He was a troublemaker, in their view, who had it coming to him. Did this apply to his publishers and translators who were firebombed, and even killed?

The failure to stand up to the Islamic fundamentalists and their blasphemy censorship when it came for Mr. Rushdie was prophetic; Ayaan Hirsi Ali proved too independent-minded for the self-proclaimed universalists and lovers of freedom in Holland, and she was forced into hiding for preaching what she thought were universal values that the Dutch held close to their hearts; it turned out that it was really her fault that the murder of Theo Van Gogh caused all the trouble it did. The massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in 2015 displayed the moral lacuna at the heart of modern culture: They also brought it upon themselves. The parade of world leaders through the streets of central Paris made a mockery of the dead cartoonists; Palestine under Mahmud Abbas is not exactly a haven for satire of Muhammad or Islam. Meanwhile, the inanity of holding up a pencil rather than the cover of Charlie Hebdo in opposition to the Kalashnikov completed the act of the metaphorical grave dancing that took place that day.

Those who linked arms in Paris would know of Britain’s suffocating libel laws that allow virtually anyone from anywhere to bring libel suits against those who might have portrayed them in a less than flattering light. As Cohen outlines in his discussion in the part titled Money, on how the wealthy sue these libel laws against those who can’t fight back for lack of funds, these laws allow the rich to stifle those who might speak out against their activities. Robert Maxwell is given as a prime example in the book as well as the company Trafigura, while others that are not include Saudi Arabian royal despots as well as other oppressive statesmen and religious authorities. Those in the world of celebrity must also be included; recall Roman Polanski and his suing of Vanity Fair for claiming that he had an affair shortly after his wife’s death. His aim was to emphasise his sexual fidelity and to seek damages against those who would impugn that. Never mind that he was a convicted child rapist.

As Mr. Cohen demonstrates, high finance and industry is an equally perilous realm, where censorship of nonconformist social opinion is expressed in the radioactivity attributed to whistle-blowers who can never again gain employment in their industry. As Mr. Cohen lays out, the libel laws of Britain are also a blessing for the world’s wealthy, as they allow for them to buttress their claims of innocence with the dignity and authority of centuries of tradition bound up in English common law. Any such information that remained in the wild that could potentially prove damaging could now be hammered as the product of fake news producing liars and maniacs, backed up by an innocent verdict by the world’s most respected legal system. Those like the oligarchs of Russia, and foreign financial institutions, can use the British legal system to repair and reinforce the reputation that they are too corrupt to maintain. Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you respect it seems, with a side order of vindictive satisfaction at the potential ruination of your accusers.

Ruination of opponents is now even more achievable for the authoritarian governments of today, thanks to social media and the internet. When Mr. Cohen published his book in 2012, the fact of censorship on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook was fast becoming a reality, and they have not signaled an end to state repression that many assumed. This was seen in Belorussia, where as Mr. Cohen describes the authorities censoring social media and the web, shutting down opposition and targeting opposition activists. It was and is also seen in Syria, Russia, and China.. The techno-utopians reveal their profound ignorance of history before the Google IPO by not appreciating that new technologies not only benefit those in society; they also benefit those in power who wish to stay there and will use all the tools at their disposal to keep it that way. Just think of the printing press in the hands of the Catholic Church, the counter-Reformation and counter-Enlightenment, and on and on. Think too of the use of radio and film for propaganda used by the state in the 20th century, and for repressive security measures in the form of surveillance technology. The fact that the techno-utopians think that the tools they have built would not be used in this way, against the very ideals they supposedly believe in, just displays for the entire world to see that they are not the gods they wish they were.

When you combine the hazards of our increasing reliance on huge online outlets for our communication with the fact that these outlets are run and controlled by self-styled progressives who are heavily invested in social-justice activism, part and parcel of which is the suppression of hate-speech, whatever that may be and which often shifts according to activist utility, the potential for suppression of free speech even without state intervention is alarming. One can see this poisonous cocktail brewing in Europe, where hate speech laws are closely aligned with the hate speech codes of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Having considered all of this, the prospect for freedom of speech looks bleak. Whether it is Islamists with bombs and blades, or oligarchs and celebrities with the jackhammer of their own personal fortunes, or the use of the web by the state to reinforce its own existence and control, the possibility of free speech looks increasingly remote. Only America has an unequivocal commitment to free speech instantiated in its laws.

The increasing difficulty surrounding free speech, and its use to draw some order from chaos through truth is precisely why we need to keep speaking. It is our primary duty and responsibility. Freedom of speech is arguably the cardinal value; it allows for the formation of coherent thought, for the solidification of ideas in the world that, when they are articulated, can rise or fall on their merits. Articulating our thoughts and ideas, and the discussion and argument of those ideas between people enables us to stumble towards the truth. If we cannot do this because of fear, we lose part of what it is to be human. There are already sufficient forces arrayed against those who are attempting to extract some sort of order from the chaos of potential through truthful speech. If we are too scared to make arguments and to put forth ideas and engage in self-censorship, we have already lost. We must all keep defending and keep making the case for freedom of expression in the West because its continued existence is never guaranteed.

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