“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, end of chapter 2 entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”).
Mr Timothy Squirrell has had an extremely tough week. After his endorsement of Christ Church Oxford’s decision to revoke a debate on abortion, between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, Squirrel has been the recipient of substantial personal abuse. I myself have regrettably contributed to the barrage of insults and abuse he has received, and I duly apologise. However, although the virulent abuse he has received is thoroughly unjustifiable, his views are in the public domain, and therefore merit scrutiny and examination. The aim of this post is an attempt at explaining why Mr Squirrell misunderstands freedom of speech; both, as a concept, but more importantly as an attitude.
Mr Squirrell contends, in a recent blogpost, that freedom of speech isn’t an indivisible right. He believes it is conditional, rather than essential, and thereby needs to be critically evaluated against more concrete rights; notably, the right to be protected against hearing inflammatory or threatening speech. Squirrell, by believing it is crucial to tie freedom of speech to the very particular circumstance’s of its usage, operates under a consequentialist framework. He says:
I said that there are some limits to freedom of speech, without prescribing what they are in any given instance, but listing five factors which need to be taken into account and weighed up when setting up any kind of debate: what might be said, who is speaking, where it takes place, what the subject is and how it’s framed.
As it happens, I also believe freedom of speech isn’t an indivisible right, in the sense that I can think of a circumstance whereby it would be appropriate to deny public platform. But, the criteria I deploy, to determine whether or not a public platform should be revoked, are infinitely more parsimonious than Squirrell’s. Rather than relying on biological determinism (identity politics), or pre-emptive consequentialism (assuming an implausible outcome), I believe any speech can be permitted- if and only if- it doesn’t play an explicit causal role in inciting physical harm or endangering individuals. Apart from that very specific, singular caveat, I believe freedom of speech is an essential component of open, progressive societies. That explanation is freedom of speech as a concept, and Squirrell fails to address its characteristics honestly. He relies upon employing a category error to build his supposition. He argues that speech itself-irrespective of whether it’s done as a means of exhortation or in the context of a debate- can constitute a material threat to a victimised group, and this is the basis whereby it ought to be revoked. He argues:
it is not only their right to feel safe in a space that they call their home, but it is the obligation of the college to make it safe.
Can anyone honestly say, that by simply hearing a negative view, against abortion, the well-being of women are endangered? Mr Squirrell seems to imply that if Mr Stanley says “I think abortion is wrong”, not women who abort ought to be threatened, but “I think abortion is wrong”, sufficiently threatens the well being of women. In this sense, he misunderstands the concept of free speech, as he conflates a moral expression, which would be done in a context of a debate, with an exhortation to harm or endanger particular individuals. This is why category errors are useful in this context; they integrate varying types of speech crudely together, and induce hysterical emotion rather than moral clarity. As Hume noted, ‘reason is the slave of passions’, therefore category errors appeal to us in a very primitive sense. The pro-life position is wicked, especially when argued by men, therefore airing a pro-life position constitutes an immediate threat to the well being of women-irrespective of whether it is a critical dialogue or not. Critical debate, therefore, ought to be secondary to the moral orthodoxy of insulating the vulnerable from ‘dangerous ideas’. Squirrell unapologetically fetishises the status of vulnerability by adding:
We’re beginning to realise that we don’t need to be ashamed of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We’re beginning to realise that sometimes we have to prioritise the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of our friends and colleagues over the ability of privileged people to come in to our homes and say whatever they like.
Apart from the condescending paternalism, of this lachrymose nonsense, what really strikes me is the implication that women think uniformly. Rather than being, naturally diverse and individual agents, Squirrel’s presentation of women amounts to viewing them as a uniform bloc. This ‘analysis’ is hostile to nuance, as it undercuts the possibility of women being pro-life. It is also averse to the ruddy context he likes to valorise; many women do oppose abortion and usually on religious grounds. Therefore, although the issue primarily affects women, Squirrell’s hostility to the pro-life position on the grounds of protecting women suggests that, women are inherently in favour of abortion, and this is patently untrue. Rather than protecting women-who naturally don’t think uniformly-Squirrell’s ‘analysis’ is an ideological short hand for exulting the pro choice position into a semi-religious status, which treats conflicting views as Haraam and eschews dissent.
Now, not only does he misunderstand freedom of speech as a concept; what it is. But Squirrell also misunderstands it as an attitude; why it’s vitally important. His viewpoint is seemingly, that of antipathy, to an attitude which celebrates the critical exchange of ideas in a transparent forum. This is again informed by the supposition that any critical method of enquiry, which relates negatively to a particular context, constitutes a material threat to the individuals within that context. This viewpoint is wrong in all conceivable senses, but two prominent fallacies protrude.
First of all, when a value is chained determinedly to its context, and partitioned to suit the emotional impulses of like minded people- it loses it’s objective essence. The objective essence of free speech is one that manifests itself in untrammelled critical dialogue, the free exchange of ideas and the indiscriminate celebration of debate. Rather than viewing freedom of speech objectively, what Squirrell’s ‘analysis’ amounts to is viewing freedom of speech as an arbitrary, conditional right, imprisoned by caveats, and lacking a defensible core.
Secondly, Mr Squirrell severely lacks perspective. Squirrell’s reliance on impulse, rather than objectively derivable argument, mean one thing; if one asserts freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right- without explaining coherently what constitutes an absolute right- one leaves themselves vulnerable to the axiomatic framework they employed. Being determinedly consequential means that, if the arbitrary conditions are met, Mr Squirrell’s freedom to speak publicly, can also be revoked easily.
What if, Mr Squirrell, you were convinced of a moral position? This moral position is an unpopular one in that particular context. Yet, your right to express that position, in a public platform, is denied on the basis of protecting the emotional well being of a particular victimised group. What if, you were an atheist just prior to the enlightenment, then an unpopular moral position in that particular context, and your right to express your views in a public platform is denied, on the grounds that your atheism constitutes a material to the well being of, say, Catholics-downtrodden, vulnerable to hostility, marginalised. Should this particular context, rather than attacking ‘women’s autonomy’ but people’s religious beliefs, dictate that the right to express ideas be censored?
I’m not making a direct comparison between atheism and being pro life (not least because I’m actually pro-choice). I’m arguing that the attitude which directly facilitated the flourishing of atheism and previously dissident viewpoints is being attacked, vigorously, and on the same basis; the nebulous invocation of threat and a corresponding paternalistic impulse.
Freedom of speech shouldn’t be partitioned by contexts, or expunged by collective emotional impulses (‘The tyranny of the majority‘) but should be deduced, and defended, on foundational a priori grounds. The attitude, which underpinned the rise of progressive values, against the yoke of reactionary authoritarianism, ought to be supported vigorously.
If pioneering progressives didn’t subsequently jettison the foundational, liberal axiom that no position should be treated as infallible, and all ideas should be made permissible, why should we? This sinister complacency ought to be resisted. Just because, the view you happen to dislike is being censored, doesn’t mean, or even suggest, you should throw away your principle in an abject whimper. You become hostage to a sensibility which animates fluctuating orthodoxies, and antagonises objectively grounded reasoning.
Defend what initially allowed progressive values to flourish, and resist what justified the initial opponents of this flourishing; that context-driven moral impulses ought to subordinate debate and argument. And concomitantly, ought to subordinate objectively grounded principles. This is why Mr Squirrell’s viewpoint is a contemptible affront to the ideals of the Enlightenment.
By Tom Owolade