Free speech, one each. The myth of the oppressed rightwinger and what it tells us about politics today

Free speech, one each. The myth of the oppressed rightwinger and what it tells us about politics today

Life has hardly been tough for Toby Young. Admitted to Oxford University with BBC at A level after his father (the leading academic, Baron Young) phoned up on his behalf, he has glided through lofty positions without visible means of propulsion like a flying squirrel, mainly using the high elevation from which he started off to maintain his position.  

In 2018, he suffered a rare setback. Despite having no obvious qualification for the role, he had been groomed to be a non-executive member of the Office for Students by Jo Johnson, the universities minister at the time, brother of his good friend Boris Johnson. Other candidates’ social media utterances had been pored over in detail, and one candidate was rejected as a result.  

Toby Young’s past did not receive the same attention: which, it turns out, was unfortunate. Maybe it was his advocating progressive eugenics, maybe it was his railing against inclusivity, maybe it was his frequent tweets about breasts he saw on television. Maybe it was the cumulative drip-drip effect of his many public utterances showing him to be a snobbish boor with no empathy for many of those for whom the Office for Students had been established.  In the end, he had to resign from the role.

This evidently still rankles. While he kicks his heels waiting for his old friend the new Prime Minister to find him a sinecure, he is rolling the pitch for his own rehabilitation by launching a campaign supposedly in defence of freedom of speech. This has been taken up enthusiastically on the snowflake right. In the same vein, the Telegraph published an article by Kate Mulvey complaining that her Remainer friends were bullying her about her pro-Brexit views. 

The whole thrust of this campaign is completely misconceived. No one is stopping Toby Young from publicly critiquing the breasts of anyone who comes within his field of vision. He can broadcast his support for eugenics to the entire world. What he cannot stop people doing is judging him for his views and acting accordingly.

Likewise, Ms Mulvey is entitled to her pro-Brexit views. She is not entitled to insist that others respect them. If she doesn’t like how her “friends” think about her, she should find new and more congenial friends. 

In truth, this is not complicated stuff.  You can say what you like. And others can say what they like about what you have just said.  In turn, you can say what you like about their perspective. Just as Ms Mulvey has done, in the columns of a national newspaper.

It is odd that some of the Brexiteers who see themselves as the most iconoclastic want both to be able to trumpet their opinions and then not be judged for them (though I’m sure they would be happy to be judged approvingly).  It betrays an intellectual cringe on their part, a subconscious recognition that people whose opinions they esteem disdain their views. They should ask themselves why they esteem the opinions of those people and if they still want their esteem, why those people disdain their views.

Free speech is not consequence-free speech.  It is important that received wisdoms are challenged, to test out their weaknesses.  That does not, however, give the challenger any form of sovereign immunity.  

If you want to argue that child pornography should be legalised, that is your right.  If you want to do so, you should not be surprised if others decide that view makes you an unsuitable foster parent.  If you want to argue that animal welfare legislation is too stringent, go right ahead. You’re unlikely to get a job as an RSPCA officer afterwards. Those who want to take up controversial stances are going to need to face the consequences of expressing those views.

This applies especially in public life.  If you are taking up a public position, you need to be able to command the confidence of a broad spectrum of the public that you are going to be representing.  If you are going to spout views that are not consensus, you are going to need to accept that if many find those views offensive and they are even tangentially relevant to the public role you will be performing, they may well prove disqualifying.

If there is a problem, it is not that free speech in Britain is under threat.  It is that there isn’t enough free listening. The public domain is becoming a series of heavily defended rival fortresses.  Each scarcely engages with most of the others, spending all their energies bombarding their nearest rivals to crowd out conflicting approaches.  Inconvenient facts and logic are simply ignored. Arguments are not fought by dashing cavalry but in testudo formation.

This has become possible in large part because of the way that we organise ourselves online.  Political tribes form on Twitter, on newspaper comments sections, on Facebook. We don’t need to hear anything that we don’t want to hear anymore.

Sometimes things that we don’t want are good for us.  Paleo-Conservatives would do well to think at length about the real problems those in poverty suffer, and come up with meaningful solutions.  Fully automated luxury communists should consider how they propose to encourage and secure the wealth creation they need to rebuild society. You’re not going to be able to raid your opponents’ best ideas if you’re not listening to them at all.

To do that properly, you need to understand not just what they have to say on specific subjects but how they think.  That requires humility, empathy and caution. At the end of the process, you may find that they have uncovered something to which you have been oblivious.  That may require you to revise your view of the world. Are you prepared to do that?  

Alastair Meeks

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