28 April 2022

Free speech is not hate speech – whatever the authoritarian left try to tell you

By Marc Glendening

Should commenting on the deportment of Angela Rayner’s legs be a hate crime? Wera Hobhouse, a ‘Liberal’ Democrat MP, thinks so.

Whenever today’s mainstream left-wingers disapprove of something, they typically do two things: profess their respect for free speech as a human right, then, usually in the next sentence say this does not include what they subjectively define as hateful.

Sadiq Khan offers a prime example of this tendency when he states: ‘Freedom of speech is vital, but free speech does not mean a free pass for hatred’. And this is the man who once labelled moderate muslims ‘uncle Toms’ on Iranian Press TV.

By using this kind of double speak, progressives give themselves licence to dictate the parameters of what they rest of us are allowed to say. Heads we win, tails you lose. The implication of Hobhouse’s argument in relation to the Rayner affair is that whichever Tory MP who allegedly said what he said to the Mail on Sunday would, in her illiberal, speech-controlled utopia, be prosecuted and potentially sent to prison. But for what, exactly? For making a tasteless, boorish observation? She really wants people criminally prosecuted for that? If boorishness is to be clamped down on, then perhaps we can start with Rayner herself. It was she who called Conservatives ‘homophobic, racist, misogynistic… scum’.

Being idiotically abusive should not be a crime in a society that has any pretensions to being free and democratic.

What I call the Culture-Control Left (CCL), of course, have no intention of applying their postmodern, anything goes, definition of ‘hate’ in a consistent way. Rather, they want to award themselves the right to say whatever it is they want to. In their world, anti-hate speech laws would be imposed in an asymmetrical way. Black Lives Matter will remain free to label pale-skinned people collectively as ‘white supremacists’ and ‘racists’. Feminists will always be at liberty to claim that all men are part of a ‘patriarchy’. Stonewall and its allies can castigate those who express the slightest scepticism about transgender ideology as hate-mongering ‘terfs’.

The police and CPS will always use the powers they have to suppress and punish freedom of expression broadly in accordance with the contemporary left’s view of what is and is not acceptable. One outrageous symptom of this is the placing of thousands of people who have been reported for expressing gender-critical opinions on ‘non-crime hate incident’ databases (which have since been scrapped, thankfully).

At the core of the CCL’s speech prohibitionism is the contemporary left’s belief that speech is a technique of power – one they believe is deployed by those with ‘privilege’ to suppress the identity groups they assert are oppressed. This is a worldview that is not only impossible to verify through empirical evidence, but demands that what we are allowed to say must be severely curtailed in order that the new left’s particular understanding of social justice be achieved. This interpretation of language is, if taken to its logical conclusion, incompatible with that of liberal democracy. Take this quote from Nadia Whittome MP: ‘We must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate is an effective, rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.’ So the fundamental concepts on which our freedom is built – such as doubt, disagreement and enquiry – are now forbidden.

As Madeline Grant so rightly points out in relation to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, some on the left now routinely conflate free speech with hate speech. Within the inner core of the CCL sit groups like Extinction Rebellion and BLM, who have overtly expressed a desire to dispense with liberal democracy altogether. XR have awarded themselves the right not only to disrupt oil refineries but to block the distribution of newspapers they disapprove of. This has been supported by Labour politicians Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler.

The drift of the contemporary left towards authoritariansm, albeit to varying degrees, is alarming. However it does offer the opportunity for liberals of all stripes to form a united front in favour of free speech and cultural freedom more widely. To make a defence of this most basic and necessary of individual rights a popular line in the ideological sand. The ‘Respect my sex if you want my X’ campaign initiated by a group of gender-critical women is one example of how a resistance is beginning to assert itself. It will be interesting to see how leading Conservative politicians position themselves in this new frontier of the culture war.

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Marc Glendening is Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.