“There is time always, Bachchoo,
To talk of many things
As the Walrus did expound
On cabbages and kings
And yet this global fear
Clips conversation’s wings
The only news we hear
Is of Covid’s mutatings!”
From O For a Sip of Bepsi Kohla by Bachchoo
Without freedom of speech and opinion, there is no democracy. The system of counting votes and giving the majority the privilege of governing in fairness to the minority -- is only the first requirement. The rule of unoppressive, uncoercive law, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of speech – yes, even on Twitter -- are some of the rest.
Twitter has now banned Donald Trump’s outpourings, not because they’re left-wing or supportive of some mythical religious bias, but because very many of them amount to hate speech and incitement to break the law.
In Britain, there are laws against hate speech. Though difficult to define, the law trusts judges and juries to identify speech which calls for any sort of attack on the minorities -- or even a majority of the population. It’s a law that upholds decency, but “hate crime” shouldn’t stretch to expressing a questioning or dissenting opinion about, say, a religion. I am free to publicly proclaim that I don’t believe in virgin births, or that God engraves, by lightning, laws on stone tablets or indeed dictates books to prophets. I won’t have, I hope, crossed the line between a theological or scientific belief and incitement to attack any religious group or the buildings they pray in.
The definition of hate crime in any democracy should not deteriorate or ever be interpreted as “Disagree Crime”. Dictatorships and fascistic regimes, some, as in Turkey, based on religion and others on a mafiocracy, are universally known for their intolerance of dissent. Turkey locks up its journalists and Russia arrests and imprisons 11,000 of the protesters who took to the streets in favour of the release of a dissident politician. Other nations disgracefully encourage and allow curtailment of the freedom of speech or even fiction, on the grounds of dubious interpretations of religious sanctity.
In recent years, American and British universities have entertained insidious attacks on the principle of freedom of speech. Cambridge University, for instance, backpedalled in recent months on an edict they issued to “respect” all opinions. Several senior and junior members of the university interpreted this injunction as a “shut-up” call to all dissidence. They wanted the diktat to be modified to “tolerate” all opinions, while reserving the right to contradict and oppose them. The dissidents won.
Several prominent writers and academics, among them J.K. Rowling of the Harry Potter books, Germaine Greer, widely recognised as a pioneer of contemporary feminism and, most recently, Prof. Selina Todd of Oxford University, have been variously “no-platformed” by university student organisations because they’ve argued, in the media or through social media outlets, that transgender women were not really women and shouldn’t be afforded the reserved rights and spaces that belonged to the gender. They had rational and scientific arguments on their side and each one, and others on the side of these three, strongly aver that they are not denying social or political rights to transgender people, but insist on their own freedom, without censure and abuse from trolls, to hold scientific and biological arguments which deny that humans or animals can change gender because they want to.
In a recent case, brought by a young woman who was, when she was underage, subject to what she called pressure and “mind control” at the Tavistock Institute, the court ruled that influencing or indulging minors to change their gender and undergo medicinal, surgical and psychological therapy to so do, was unlawful.
This censorship, the denial of platforms to people whose opinions, politics or stances on any issues which the banning and debarring bodies disagree with, has been confined to supporters of what has come to be known as the “woke” agenda. People with doubts or dissenting opinions on race, gender, sexual orientation -- and politicians who have acted in favour of right-wing policies -- have been the targets of this denial of appearance on university platforms, sometimes being informed of the banning only hours before they were invited to appear.
The phenomenon has been taken up by right-wing commentators, who argue that this is an anti-democratic assault on free speech in the very institutions, the universities, where opposing arguments should be debated. Britain’s Conservative government, with an ear wide open to these commentators, has now resolved to legislate for “free speech” and appoint a sort of supremo to see that this law is enforced.
Prof. Todd has expressed her support for such a law. She says it’s necessary as the atmosphere on campus, perpetrated by self-appointed activists and attitude-enforcers, inhibits the expression of dissenting opinions -- about history, science, politics, sociology and even literature.
The National Union of Students’ representatives argue that there is no need for such a law and that it has constantly been vigilant about absolute freedom of speech in universities. A good cellar of salt should flavour this assertion.
Time will tell if this law and its enforcement have any effect. Perhaps every country with a claim to being democratic should pass such a law and appoint a manifestly independent “neyta” with powers to dismiss frivolous and outrageous attacks on the freedom of opinion and creativity from politicians and charlatans.