LONDON: Recently, at a literary festival in Britain, 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 the 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. Britain’s 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, however well-intentioned, 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 classic 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. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.