10 August 2020

How to protect free speech and heal the divided heart of liberalism

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It becomes ever clearer that there is a deep rift between classic, or old-fashioned liberals (OFLs), and new-fashioned liberals (NFLs). OFL’s – like JK Rowling – believe individual freedom is best protected by an environment of free speech and debate. NFL’s – like US Democratic Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez – see individuals as needing protection from the speech of others. In the name of protecting the weakest, one is open, the other censorious.

This cleavage runs through a wide swathe of contemporary battlefields: history, sexuality, race, ecology. Among the most scarred of these battlefields is speech and publication: what can and cannot be said, printed or broadcast. OFLs compete in horror stories of a lecturer deprived of tenure here, a commentator or executive forced out there, as corporations and institutions act in fear a loss of young consumers.

These rejects people an ever more crowded Salon des Refusés, wandering like Dante’s shades between the obloquy of their new-fashioned liberal execrators and the nervous succour of their old-fashioned liberal supporters. “And all he said was…” is the invariable punchline. Left-tending OFLs now find themselves drawn into the same cultural camp as right-tending OFLs – a cultural realignment now painfully evident in the New York Times, once a global pillar of old-fashioned liberalism, now – after a high profile firing and another resignation of two OFLs in the Opinion pages – itself a battleground.

Both sides have their sacred texts. The OFLs appeal above all to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, with its claim that speech and publication must always be open to debate. Among others, the NFLs have the work of the late Michel Foucault, whose view was that power determines what is true, and works to have that version generally accepted.

Re-reading some of Foucault’s essays recently, it struck me that what the NFLs have taken from his work – that “truth is a thing of this world…produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint” – may stand as something OFLs, NFLs and everyone else can benefit from.

NFLs tend to treat this observation as a recognition that power defines truth, and that therefore what we think to be true is in fact a weapon against the powerless – hence the need to dethrone it from a privileged position or, in some cases, to deny its existence at all. But my reading of Foucault is that he does not see the human creation of the truth as necessarily a bad thing.

“Each society”, he writes, “ has its regime of truth…that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true.” That is, truth is necessarily a product of social forces – and the more democratic society is, the stronger the civil society, the more engaged relatively powerless people are in its definition.

In this there may be a limited sphere of truce between the NFLs and the OFLs. They clashed over the Harper Magazine Letter of early July, in which some 150 well-known writers and scholars argued, on Millian grounds, that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” and that “the restriction of debate…invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” Truth, an agreement on basic facts, suffers from the lack of challenge. Hurt is caused, not by argument, but by its absence.

The NFLs responded by saying that these letter writers were the spoiled rich: if not all as rich as J K Rowling, then rich in platforms for their views. The writer Faith Pott wrote on Medium that “the reality is no person, however influential or powerful, is owed support and admiration, especially if their rhetoric is harmful to marginalized communities”. The NFLs have greatly expanded the scope and definition of “harm”: the truth, as they see it, is that western societies are systemically inegalitarian – and to offend against that truth is usually to do harm, and thus be open to censoring. That truth is therefore beyond debate, for NFLs. For OFLs, nothing is, and those claiming harm must bow to that.

So here’s a plan for a truce. OFLs rightly insist on the need for speech and publication freedom: journalism, scholarship, scientific research, justice itself become meaningless without it. But they admit the obvious: there is less of a platform for the obscure than the famed. It might be objected that the famed have worked hard to rise from obscurity and deserve their elevated platforms. But they’ve usually started in relative privilege or got a lucky break. The mass of the obscure often don’t.

The recognition that this is so should then have the consequence of ‘yes-platforming’. An example: a contentious article or broadcast or post garners strong reactions. Rather than simply having a long tail of outraged or supportive responses, these are curated, shaped into a story, queried, even followed for days in a chain of letters, pieces or posts. It isn’t enough to get another famous or accredited person to contradict the first. The varied voices of the obscure should be given prominence (with a proviso: real names must be used). Some may emerge as powerful performers: the media will return to them again.

Another example: a controversial speaker is booked for a university talk. S/he meets with opposition. Rather than caving into the censors, the authorities insist on the event continuing: but on the grounds that a substantial part of the meeting is devoted to criticism and questioning – with a strong mediator ensuring civil debate. The ‘powerful’ speaker is confronted with a series of challenges, rather than a few minutes of hurried speeches (or shouted insults) at the end. Both sides agree to abide by rules of civility and rational argument: a descent into name-calling triggers the ending of a contribution – in an extreme, of the event.

The media confer and withhold recognition. They do so for gain – of audiences and of profit. But they are the most socially engaged of private or public corporations. Their responsibilities should be wider, especially in the contest for what constitutes a truth. The marriage of Foucault and Mill – truly an adventurous coupling – could benefit both the new-fashioned liberals and their older cousins, and help convince both that they are part of the same society, and that much larger issues are at stake than conquering each other.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

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