The Daily Star (Lebanon)
July 1, 2011 Friday


The classical doctrine of free speech is under strain in the West

by Robert Skidelsky



Recently, at a literary festival in the United Kingdom, I found myself
on a panel discussing free speech. For liberals, free speech is a key
index of freedom. Democracies stand for free speech; dictatorships
suppress it.

When we in the West look outward, this remains our view. We condemn
governments that silence, imprison and even kill writers and
journalists. Reporters Sans Frontières keeps a list: 24 journalists
have been killed, and 148 imprisoned, just this year. Part of the
promise we see in the "Arab Spring" is the liberation of media from
the dictator's grasp.

Yet freedom of speech in the West is under strain. Traditionally,
British law imposed two main limitations on the "right to free
speech." The first prohibited the use of words or expressions likely
to disrupt public order; the second was the law against libel. There
are good grounds for both - to preserve the peace, and to protect
individuals' reputations from lies. Most free societies accept such
limits as reasonable.

But the law has recently become more restrictive. "Incitement to
religious and racial hatred" and "incitement to hatred on the basis of
sexual orientation" are now illegal in most European countries,
independent of any threat to public order. The law has shifted from
proscribing language likely to cause violence to prohibiting language
intended to give offense.

A blatant example of this is the law against Holocaust denial. To deny
or minimize the Holocaust is a crime in 15 European countries and
Israel. It may be argued that the Holocaust was a crime so uniquely
abhorrent as to qualify as a special case. But special cases have a
habit of multiplying.

France has made it illegal to deny any "internationally recognized
crimes against humanity." Whereas in Muslim countries it is illegal to
call the Armenian massacres of 1915-1917 "genocide," in some Western
countries it is illegal to say that they were not. Some East European
countries specifically prohibit the denial of communist "genocides."

The censorship of memory, which we once fondly imagined to be the mark
of dictatorship, is now a major growth industry in the "free" West.
Indeed, official censorship is only the tip of an iceberg of cultural
censorship. A public person must be on constant guard against causing
offense, whether intentionally or not.

Breaking the cultural code damages a person's reputation, and perhaps
one's career. British Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke recently had to
apologize for saying that some rapes were less serious than others,
implying the need for legal discrimination. The parade of gaffes and
subsequent groveling apologies has become a regular feature of public
life.

In his classic essay "On Liberty," John Stuart Mill defended free
speech on the ground that free inquiry was necessary to advance
knowledge. Restrictions on certain areas of historical inquiry are
based on the opposite premise: the truth is known, and it is impious
to question it. This is absurd; every historian knows that there is no
such thing as final historical truth.

It is not the task of history to defend public order or morals, but to
establish what happened. Legally protected history ensures that
historians will play safe. To be sure, living by Mill's principle
often requires protecting the rights of unsavory characters. David
Irving writes mendacious history, but his prosecution and imprisonment
in Austria for "Holocaust denial" would have horrified Mill.

By contrast, the pressure for "political correctness" rests on the
argument that the truth is unknowable. Statements about the human
condition are essentially matters of opinion. Because a statement of
opinion by some individuals is almost certain to offend others, and
since such statements make no contribution to the discovery of truth,
their degree of offensiveness becomes the sole criterion for judging
their admissibility. Hence the taboo on certain words, phrases and
arguments that imply that certain individuals, groups, or practices
are superior or inferior, normal or abnormal; hence the search for
ever more neutral ways to label social phenomena, thereby draining
language of its vigor and interest.

A classic example is the way that "family" has replaced "marriage" in
public discourse, with the implication that all "lifestyles" are
equally valuable, despite the fact that most people persist in wanting
to get married. It has become taboo to describe homosexuality as a
"perversion," though this was precisely the word used in the 1960s by
the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who was praising
homosexuality as an expression of dissent). In today's atmosphere of
what Marcuse would call "repressive tolerance," such language would be
considered "stigmatizing."

The sociological imperative behind the spread of "political
correctness" is the fact that we no longer live in patriarchal,
hierarchical, mono-cultural societies, which exhibit general, if
unreflective, agreement on basic values. The pathetic efforts to
inculcate a common sense of "Britishness" or "Dutchness" in
multi-cultural societies attest to the breakdown of a common identity.

Public language has thus become the common currency of cultural
exchange, and everyone is on notice to mind one's manners. The result
is a multiplication of weasel words that chill political and moral
debate, and that create a widening gap between public language and
what many ordinary people think.

The defense of free speech is made no easier by the abuses of the
popular press. We need free media to expose abuses of power. But
investigative journalism becomes discredited when it is suborned to
"expose" the private lives of the famous when no issue of public
interest is involved. Entertaining gossip has mutated into an assault
on privacy, with newspapers claiming that any attempt to keep them out
of people's bedrooms is an assault on free speech.

You know that a doctrine is in trouble when not even those claiming to
defend it understand what it means. By that standard, the classical
doctrine of free speech is in crisis. We had better sort it out
quickly - legally, morally and culturally - if we are to retain a
proper sense of what it means to live in a free society.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor
emeritus of political economy at Warwick University. THE DAILY STAR
publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate