“Alright, Comrade, let’s give someone else a chance to speak”

Not that many years ago I thought ‘liberal’ was a dirty word. It was a word that you spat at people who didn’t care enough about ‘the cause’, whatever that might be, to tie their flag to the mast. It was politics of an elite, usually male, balding and writing for the Telegraph who, to my mind then, had nothing to fear from extremism. They were an odious lot who only endorsed free speech when they wanted to say something offensive or hurtful.[1]

Conversely, and simultaneously, running alongside this narrative was one where our freedoms, including that of speech, were continuously under threat. Protests were made increasingly difficult through incremental changes to the law, individuals could be arrested and held without charge for increasing periods of time, and there was a ‘war on terror’ that allowed the criminalisation of whole political, religious and ethnic groups, as well as state whistleblowers.

Never did these two narratives meet, except to say that their free speech was already guaranteed and ‘ours’ wasn’t.

I was ‘political’ at a political university: I had become a dogmatic adherent to an anti-establishment, anti-free speech philosophy. However, whilst the narcissism of a political identity tells you that you know best for other people, I knew that I didn’t. There are opinions I loathe, but it is not my right to silence them. To imply that would be to imply that my understanding of the world is complete, perfect and clear, rather than – quite naturally – riddled with holes, and personal or cultural biases.

My anxiety about the reduction of liberty for the citizen ensured a seed of doubt about freedom of speech being a bad thing was planted,[2] but the acceptance I didn’t have all the answers (nor does anyone else for that matter) made free speech all the more important. Freedom of speech gives us the opportunity to test our beliefs, to constantly critique them, to ensure we are not trapped in an echo chamber where our ideals are constantly reinforced, pushing them forward towards the draconian and totalitarian society that we originally set out to counter. Free speech also brings ideologies out in to the light, where they can be fought. Many protested Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time as they felt it gave a platform to far-right views, but it hugely contributed to the destruction of his party and his own political career.

To me, and to many others, the only clear answer is democracy, although perhaps not the democracy we have now (there are others to choose from). This is the only way we can ensure that everyone has the right to speak, to be heard, and to ensure that no single dogmatic ideology enforces itself upon the lives of others. But democracy relies on free speech, it relies on dialogue, it relies on debate. An informed electorate has the key to changing society for the better, and thanks to advances in technology and the dissemination of information, this is easier than ever before, but we must ensure that all voices are heard and all arguments are given an airing. No-platforming does nothing to advance debate and conversation, it kills it stone dead, creating disparate groups of angry individuals who become increasingly inflexible in their thinking and increasingly extremist.

Social media, Twitter in particular, has become the perfect example of cultish political tendencies. Bots are set up to automatically block any person of a specific sociocultural or political outlook, rendering debate (or even conversation) completely impossible. A platform that originally appeared to be the perfect leveller, giving every person the same access to conversations and relationships that had previously been reserved for elite groups, and that could have produced informed, diverse, rich dialogue, has become the same vicious field of battle between people unable to listen to opposing views.

University campuses are places of learning, they are supposed to challenge you and present you with views and ideas that you would otherwise have failed to come in to contact with. This was not my university experience and it appears that it is only getting worse. Students are protected from views that challenge them or make them feel ‘unsafe’ when that is exactly what is needed to learn – even if what you learn is that you still feel and think the same way.

I have an intense fear that whilst we are trying to build new structures for dialogue to create a truly deliberative democracy; we are locked into a cycle of behaviour that ensures it can never happen.

 

 

 

[1] I remember being shocked and amazed the very same individuals who argued for free speech and social liberalism had often originated in far-left student politics. How had they lost their way? The assumption, of course, was that they were careerists who had sold their true beliefs for thirty pieces of silver and a column in a major newspaper.

[2] At the same time the far-left student populations suffered a major blow, this has been documented widely and you can find the details online if you wish, one that showed evidence of neo-Stalinist tactics, even secret courts, that protected senior party officials and actively ensured that men in positions of power were able to abuse young women with impunity. There is little more disillusioning.

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