On Monday night I took part in a discussion on free speech in London for the think-tank Policy Exchange. The other speakers were ‘feminist comedienne’ Kate Smurthwaite, a student called Kitty Parker Brooks and the wonderful Munira Mirza. Jess Phillips MP failed to show up, which was a shame because I wanted to decide for myself whether she is the free-thinking future-leader acclaimed by Julie Burchill or the PC-party-line clutz who recently compared New Year’s Eve in Cologne to any night in Birmingham.
Anyhow, the argument I made was that two things are putting huge pressure on free speech and giving enormous impetus to the censors on campuses and elsewhere. These are social media and mass migration. Social media gives a megaphone to stupid and aggressive opinions that might otherwise have barely been heard. Meanwhile the unparalleled range of opinions brought about by mass immigration has produced a growing sense that in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic society too much opinion causes problems. Of course (as Flemming Rose suggests in his excellent book The Tyranny of Silence) rather than clamping down on speech, such a society will probably just have to get used to hearing a wider range of views than ever before. But not everyone agrees, and one current solution seems to be to clamp down on speech. This is principally done by exaggerating the power of words, equating words with actions and simultaneously lowering the bar on incitement. Thus mean and even harassing words are recast as plausible threats and acts of violence in themselves. No wonder the British police have asked for government guidance to find a way through this minefield.
I also noted an observation of Lord Moulton’s which I recently discovered thanks to Mark Steyn:
85 years ago English judge Lord Moulton, said that human action can be divided into three domains. At one end is the law at the other is free choice and between them is the realm of manners.
And it was very much in the realm of manners that something quite interesting occurred on Monday.
For Ms Smurthwaite’s presentation was notable in being almost entirely about herself. Some readers may recall that a year or so ago Smurthwaite appeared in the press when she was allegedly no-platformed at Goldsmiths University. This is her version of events. Others say that her comedy gig sold too few tickets and that a possible picket meant that the organisers decided the hassle wasn’t worth it. Either way that was wrong – Ms Smurthwaite ought to be free to entertain anyone who wants to hear her. But being ‘banned’ now creates its own industry and carries its own badge of pride, though for Smurthwaite it appeared a secondary preoccupation after the pride she seemed to feel over her sufferings on social media. Indeed her argument on free speech could be summarised as. ‘Shut up and listen to me because I’ve been no-platformed and got rape-threats.’
Now I’m not especially interested in feminism, because like gay rights and other ‘rights’ movements it seems to me to be a movement that has won. Perhaps it is ungenerous of me to point out that the people still on the barricades seem to be those without other jobs to go to. However, I am very interested in the ways in which people try to gain moral authority in the moral ghost-towns of our society.
Unprompted by me, at some point Munira Mirza made the interesting point that she thought I probably get rather more violent and more serious threats to my life than Ms Smurthwaite does. Rather than coming as a relief to her, this claim seemed to annoy Ms Smurthwaite, who immediately tried to get into some kind of game of death-threat top-trumps with me. I explained that I don’t talk about these things in public and wasn’t going to start now, leading Smurthwaite to joyously claim victory in the death-threat wars. Amid her jubilation I attempted to make a very specific, if apparently subtle, point. Today everyone – particularly people in the public eye – is able to receive harassing and even threatening messages on social media. But police time is not infinite, and so it is possible that the British police should not follow up on every single vile or even threatening thing said on social media. The police cannot become solely Twitter-based: there are actual robberies, actual rapes and other non-virtual crimes going on which must also concern them. If the police had not taken any interest in Ms Smurthwaite’s Twitter-feed then it might be that there was nothing they thought worth acting on: ie, as unpleasant as it was, perhaps her life was not actually at risk.
Which led Smurthwaite to reply that someone recently told her on Twitter that they were going to (if I remember correctly) ‘cut her head off and bash her face in.’ I calmly pointed out that from the point of view of the police the crucial thing is not whether someone has said such a thing (which certainly if said repeatedly could be prosecuted under the Public Order Act) but whether they are likely to do so. In other words, did the individual or any of their associates have any history of cutting off women’s heads? Did they have the capability to be in the vicinity of the potential victim? Or was this the pathetic thoughts of a young loser in their mum’s bedsit on another continent? Obviously in an ideal world nobody would send such messages. But in our world the police have to discern what is most serious and act on that. In the meantime I urged Smurthwaite and everyone else present against the self-harm of reading everything on Twitter or absorbing the me-centric politics to which it apparently leads.
At which point something happened which has probably never before happened at Policy Exchange or any other think-tank. Which is that a big, bearded ginger man at the back of the room suddenly bellowed ‘I’m going to punch your face in’ or something similar at me. There was some commotion and a touchingly English ‘I say, steady-on’ from David Goodhart in the chair. As I turned to look at the man who had shouted this at me he continued shouting something like ‘Was that a serious threat or not’. I sized up what looked like a junior member of the Flintstone family and said something along the lines of, ‘From you, mate, I’d say not’. Things calmed down, my estimate turned out to be right, and for the rest of the evening my face remained un-punched.
The whole thing was a reminder, if reminders were needed, of the preponderance of moral blackmail. I think most people are aware that they shouldn’t be bullied into agreeing with people just because they physically intimidate us. But it is equally important to realise – and perhaps more common today – that people try to bully others into agreeing with them by morally intimidating them. Strangely we seem to have entered a period where being on the receiving end of abuse (misogynist, racist, homophobic or otherwise) is not only something to be pitied but something almost to be envied. It is (and I notice this occasionally among some audience-members) almost a badge of pride. What those who wear it too proudly forget is that your email inbox and Twitter feed – however vile – neither makes your opinions true nor false and certainly in no way elevates them over the opinions of others.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.