The End of Free Speech?

By the narrowest of margins–283 votes against 282–the British House of Commons defeated the so-called “Racial and Religious Hatred Bill,” which would have imposed heavy restrictions on freedom of expression. Indeed, it would have in effect restored the threat of prosecution for “blasphemy” that once hung over the heads of the unorthodox.

Following the 283-282 vote, the language of the bill was amended, and it will evidently become law in its modified form. It’s a lot better than it was, but I think it is still likely to exercise a chilling effect on free expression.

Meanwhile, the European Union is talking about establishing a media code of conduct which would “encourage the media to show ‘prudence’ when covering religion.”

“We are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression,” said EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini . “We can and we are ready to self-regulate that right.” It is said that the projected media code would be voluntary…anyone want to guess how long that voluntary status would last? The arrogance of Commissioner Frattini, who evidently thinks he has the authority to say “we” on behalf of all the people of Europe, is not encouraging.

And in New Zealand, it sounds like some high-ranking government officials want freedom of the press to be viewed through the lens of its effect on foreign trade.

The U.S. is by no means exempt from this kind of thing: particularly in the universities, pressure for intellectual conformity has in many places reached stifling levels.

For several hundred years, freedom of expression in the Western world has been on the increase. There have been local and temporary setbacks, but if one could somehow graph something like “freedom of expression,” the line has generally been sloping upwards.

In recent years, the trend seems to have reversed, and this phenomenon seems to be occuring in multiple countries.

For discussion: Do you agree with this observation? If so, what are the root causes? And, most importantly, what can be done to remedy the situation?

UPDATE: Check out what’s going on in Sweden. It’s pretty scary when a national “Security Service” starts shutting down political websites.

12 thoughts on “The End of Free Speech?”

  1. I agree with your observations. An incomplete list of root causes would include (in no particular order, and without regard to their many feedback effects): (1) the steady expansion of the size and scope of government, (2) the collapse of the liberal ideal, and the corresponding rise in the respectability of socialism, in the post-Depression West (a trend that continued until the early 1980s), (3) the mass expansion of higher education in the post-WW II era, which identified, concentrated and trained a historically large cohort of the verbally adept at a time when the prevailing intellectual climate favored government controls over ever-larger areas of social activity (though not, at that time, free expression, which was then seen as promoting progressive policies), (4) the radicalization of a portion of this group as a result of the antiwar and civil rights struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, and the subsequent rise of the grievance culture, (5) the rise of the legal profession, to which a large number of the newly trained verbally adept were attracted, and the resulting expansion of the law, especially into areas involving the protection of “victim” groups and the redress of psychic damage, and (6) the collapse of socialism (and the manifest failures of its more dilute forms in the West), which cut the intellectual underpinnings out from under the “progressive” project at the same time that the liberal ideal was beginning to make a comeback.

    The expansion of government increased in both absolute and percentage terms the portion of the social product available to those engaged in political activity, greatly increasing the potential rewards of such activity and therefore increasing both the amount and intensity of political rivalry. In time-honored fashion, some of the increased political competition takes the form of trying to silence the opposition. The erosion of the idea of limits on the scope and power of government, and the expansion of the law into every nook and cranny of social life, has provided ready tools for those who would silence their critics.

    And the intensity of political rivalry has increased over the past 25 years as the socialist ideal has lost some (but by no means all) of its luster and the liberal ideal has made a bit of a comeback. The essentially socialist establishment in government, the non-profit sector and academia has not been significantly shrunk, let alone dislodged, by the resurgence of the liberal ideal. Those who profit by the status quo, and who still control many of the levers of political and legal power no matter which party is in office, won’t give up their power or position without a fight. And so they try to silence those who would seriously challenge the institutions they have built.

    And with the collapse of socialism as an economic system, the focus of the Left has shifted to politically compelled social change. Focusing on “fairness” to various victim groups, it has tried to compel the majority to respect its constituents’ sensitivities. Since unflattering speech can be as salt in a victim’s social wounds, speech must be limited. After all, who can be against fairness? Against protecting the sensitivities of the weak and harried? Who would side with bullies for the sake of free expression? With an abstraction when an actual victim stands in our midst?

    Perhaps the Cartoon Wars will reawaken a desire to protect free expression, but I’m not optimistic. So long as “moderates” (who believe in nothing save compromise) continue to hold the balance of political power, it will remain easier to compromise free expression than to confront the claims of the aggrieved on their merits.

  2. I’m also not optimistic about the future; too much is in flux. But Bill (above) has an impressive list of supporting effects from the past few decades.

    Thomas Szasz’ amazing observations about people’s relentless desire to regulate, censure, and otherwise “improve” others with force seems appropos. I know that several of his lengthier works have been republished in recent years – but what about his pity brief and highly readable dictionaries like “The Untamed Tongue”? Menchian reminders like his would be a step in the libertarian direction – a Tom Szasz revival, anyone?

  3. The problem is the same as the one that killed Socrates. Old people want to control young people out of fear for their future. Anything that threatens that control must be destroyed.

  4. Unfortunate long hang overs from the socialist movement and the progressive movements are the drives to ‘improve’ people, if not from within, than from without. Thus, we see the growing form of regulating how we live.
    Hand in hand with this as been a decline in the idea of personal resposibility: McDonalds made me eat their food and get fat, someone should stop them and save me from myself/them. The same goes for smoking regulation, speach codes, etc. Ultimately is stems from the same desire to create a utopia, even if it is no longer stated as such.

    However, I don’t think this is the root cause. The root cause is mere spinelessness.

  5. The way to destroy such laws is to immediately seek to turn them against targets which the proponents do not expect. For example, much contemporary Leftist diatribe and art is highly “critical” of traditional christianity. How hard would it be to frame such criticism as hate speech?

    I see these attempts to control speech as indicators of desperation on the part of people with nothing constructive to offer. They are forced to try to solve the problems of the world not with concrete action but with marketing.

  6. I think the problem is partly due to the growing numbers of people whose occupations are centered around working with *words* and *images*. If an individual works with *things*…a farmer, a’s pretty clear to him that there’s a difference between expression and action. For a person whose life is all about words, it may be less clear…to him, speech is the primary form of action.

    This is consistent with another observation: in prior times, it seems that the more educated people were the defenders of freedom of speech, while today, they seem to be the attackers.

  7. One minor point: The virtue of the “plain style,” where the words are so clear that they present a clear window to the truth within them reflected a love of the truth, a belief that all could see the same truth.

    At its worst, political/social/sexual/violent correctness uses euphemisms because then we can obscure what is meant, we don’t have to come face to face with what we (or someone else) is doing. Or we can bring down the emotional force of something bigger when powerful words are applied to little actions.

    The imprecision of our minds arises in part from our more & more limited vocabularies. The richness (& therefore precision) of English is one of the greatest gifts to a developing mind. Impoverishing young minds with a limited vocabulary underlies 1984 as does the euphemisms that permeate its society.

  8. The problem is fear. Islamist have been successful in advancing their goal – to privilege Islam, not de jure, but de facto.

    It’s fear to become a target, and that’s why the other Europeans quickly forgot their “values” and didn’t show solidarity with Denmark.

    And it’s fear of muslim voters, especially for British Labour party.

    The more success islamists do have in advancing their agenda, the more they will mount the pressure. This was a test, and I guess that for the Muslim brotherhood – who organized the campaign – this has been a success. So they will start to look for the next steps.

    Most Europeans still don’t understand that this is not about spontaneus feelings, but about a political strategy.

  9. I have to agree with almost everything written above. It’s not only sad, it’s quite frightening to see the UK, the birthplace of liberal idea, losing it’s free speech rights. This looks more and more like the 1930’s, with fascism creeping all around us.

    I’m glad others see this, I was beginning to feel paranoid. I ask people all the time about little things and get very odd responses:

    Coworker: Did you hear the’re passing a law to make it illegal to drive without a seatbelt?
    Me: Does that bother you?
    CW: Well, I guess it’s for our own good.
    Me: Does that bother you? That you fellow citizens feel it’s necessary to control your life that way. Are you a child?
    CW: Well, I guess driving without seatbelt *IS* dangerous.
    Me: So is skiing. Should that be illegal?
    CW: Well…..(silence)
    Me: How about eating bacon cheeseburgers? Riding a bike. Riding a motorcycle. Skateboarding….Should it be illegal to not brush your teeth? Should the police stop you and check your teeth, then give you a ticket if they’re not brushed?
    CW: See, now you’re being ridiculus.
    Me: Twenty years ago, if someone had said driving without a seatbelt would be cause to pull you over and give you a ticket, you’d have laughed. They’re giving you a ticket not because you’re endangering someone, because you’re endangering yourself. The state is beginning to control your life for your own good. Isn’t that scary to you? It is to me.

    Most people haven’t a clue what’s happening around them. They’re oblivious to the wider trend, what this means for the future of our society. In many states, it’s now illegal to smoke in any building open to the public. ILLEGAL. TO SMOKE. ON PRIVATE PROPERTY. Think about that. You cannot engage in a LEGAL activity on private property. How can that be constitutional? How can the state tell citizens they cannot allow people to engage in a legal activity while on their own property? What right has the state to reach into peoples lives that way? Is drinking next? Eating habits? Excercise habits?

    Then, to see the British Parliament voting away their own free speech rights! Unbelieveable. What’s next, bringing Neville Chamberlain back from the dead? Or is he already alive and living in Sweden?

  10. Here’s another hypothesis on root causes. Marshall McLuhan, in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” argued that a culture based on printed texts will necessarily be very different from an oral culture or a manuscript culture…in particular, he argued that things like individualism, respect for privacy, the importance of the individual conscience, etc, were derivative of print technology. The supplanting of print media by electronic technology, he argued, would lead to a return to tribal values. (He was talking about radio and TV; no Internet at the time.)

    It’s always seemed like a bit of a stretch, but now I’m beginning to wonder if he might have been on to something.

    And yes, I do know that this hypothesis seems contradictory to the other one I posted in comments above.

  11. Aren’t the tribes less biologically or geographically or even culturally determined than interest or skill driven? The good thing about that is that these tribes will be inevitably pulled upon by the old ones of biology & geography (we aren’t likely to transcend either soon). And vice versa.

    Sitting alone at our computers seems solipsistic, but it doesn’t reinforce those old loyalties. And I suspect conversations such as this supplement rather than cancel the old networks. I wouldn’t underestimate our desire to bond & the power of the “old fierce pull of blood” but (at least for now)it is tempered by the net.

  12. I *think* what McLuhan was trying to get at was the idea that reading a printed document is private, in the sense that you do it by yourself, and also public, in the sense that precisely the same document is available to everyone. Listening to a storyteller (or a radio program) is pubic in a different way: multiple people experience the same thing at the same time. Manuscripts are doubly private, in that distribution is limited, as well as the act of reading being private.

    McLuhan also made claims about the psychological impact of the nature of alphabetic print itself (as opposed to ideographic writing)

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