A major reason why young social progressives are turning against free speech is that they can’t imagine being in a situation where the authorities don’t share their values.
This comes across very clearly in conversations about the limits of free speech, academic freedom, freedom of association and similar. Many are thoughtful, considered, reasonable people, willing to contemplate that maybe some ‘dangerous’ or ‘offensive’ ideas should be allowed to discussed, within certain limits. But as the conversation continues, you realise the unquestioned assumption is that the authorities making those decisions – the vice-chancellors, CEOs, HR Directors or government officials – will share their socially progressive views. They’re willing to discuss how far dissenting views should be permitted, but don’t imagine their own views could be the ones being suppressed.
Of course, for the last 15-20 years they’ve been right. Socially progressive views have had an almost absolute dominance across all our major political parties, in academia, in major public organisations and in the board rooms and diversity offices of our our big corporations. Maybe they’ve not always moved as fast as some would have liked. But while the young academic calling on the authorities to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ may feel they’re not doing enough, they can be very confident that the authorities will be somewhere between neutral and sympathetic and certainly will not discipline or dismiss the protesters for expressing ‘dangerous’ or ‘harmful’ views. They take for granted that if we restrict free speech, those being fired or arrested will be the anti-gay not the anti-marriage, the nationalists not the unpatriotic, the religious conservatives not the atheists.
But just because it’s like that now doesn’t mean it’s always going to be this way. Societies change.
One doesn’t have to look far to find reasons why social progressives might want to take a long-sighted view in defending freedom of speech. In many countries it remains severely suppressed. In Brazil, they’re shutting down entire socially progressive academic departments for being ‘harmful’. In Britain, until the late ’90s, a teacher could be disciplined and potentially fired for ‘promoting homosexuality in schools.’ In Alabama, legislators have just effectively made abortion illegal.
The Alabama arguments centre around the rights of the unborn child, back to 6 weeks after conception. Personally, I don’t agree with them: the UK’s abortion laws seem much more reasonable. But while the Alabama authorities haven’t yet done this, it’s very easy to see how pro-life authorities could use the arguments about ‘dangerous’ and ‘offensive’ speech, ‘speech being harm’, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘welcoming environment for students’ to rapidly shut down anyone arguing from a pro-choice standpoint. Do you think that a corporation or sports authority should legally be able to summarily fire someone who uses a personal social media account to criticise gay marriage as ‘not sharing our values’? Congratulations: the same argument would allow an Alabama corporation to fire anyone advocating abortion rights.
Many older social progressive activists know this all too well. When Peter Tatchell defended the Ashers in the gay cake row, it wasn’t because he’d changed his mind on gay rights; it was because he thought freedom of expression was more important, even for people with whom he profoundly disagreed. He remembers when the authorities weren’t on his side and knows that could happen again. As the saying goes, social progressives today ‘don’t know they’re born’ by comparison.
Freedom of speech, association and expression – both generally and in specific cases such as academic freedom – are not the norm, either temporally or geographically. They have been painfully fought for and extended over the centuries – and history has shown us they can very rapidly be reversed. Social progressives may be temporarily in the ascendant, but those who would hand the authorities greater power to silence, dismiss and otherwise suppress those who disagree with them are playing a very dangerous game with our most fundamental rights and liberties – one that will, in the long run, hurt them as much as everyone else.