Why the regression of ‘freedom of speech’ is a step back in the pursuit of societal civility (Opinion Piece)

Free speech and freedom of expression have been fought over for millennia. Breaking free from the shackles of an authoritarian regime and establishing freedoms and civil liberties on human interaction is what much of the western world desire. However, there seems to have been a regression in this aspect. With sociological changes to language, regarding its acceptability, there is an equal long for controlled or licensed speech for the protection of groups from scrutiny. There are compelling arguments to suggest that either side is correct. However, it is important to know the importance and significance of expressing freely.

What is happening in the social fabric?

I am largely for freedom of expression and speech but I firmly believe you cannot have totally unrestricted speech. Total freedom of speech is anarchic lawlessness. The western world largely have checks and balances in place for the big issues with speech. The falsification of claims and information released in the ether can be combated with slander and libel lawsuits. Incitement of hatred of minority/ethnic groups is dealt with as breach of discrimination law in the UK and deemed as ‘call to action’ in the US , which is also deemed illegal. On the contrary, there seem to be calls for the banning of discriminatory speech, racist speech and other subjective speech that is deemed ‘unacceptable’ by the society themselves. 

The problem with this is that it doesn’t work. Barring language, on the basis of defending groups, does not work. Suppressing abusive behaviour does nothing but drive the behaviour underground. It is fundamental to allow the speech to surface in order to debunk it and condemn it using logic and facts. Suppressing topics that most of society deems unacceptable anyway may seem like a good thing on the outset but in reality, the subjective nature of the content lead to it being used as a political tool or a tool for socio-economic manipulation. When you ban racist, discriminatory or homophobic language for example, it is purely subjective as to what they are as they cannot be objectively defined. Speech can be deduced as racist, homophobic or discriminatory by some and dismissed by others. It legitimises digging up dirt and misconstruing context/facts to annihilate political figures or anyone who you disagree with. 

Entering a new realm

The trouble is now is that far more legitimate calls for licensing on speech are now being undermined by the desire to ban reasonable ideas they don’t agree with. I have spoke many times about the attempts to brand President Trump a ‘white supremacist’ fuelled by political intentions. If you are a supporter of Trump, you are now a racist. You can now be associated with these same labels, that are almost universally condemned, on the basis of your ideas. You can be branded similarly in the UK for being a Brexiteer. The idea that silencing speech eradicates the ‘problem ideologies’ is nonsensical. You have to discover societal issues and pinpoint the source of these questionable lines of thought that have manifested themselves in the population. To be able to discuss them, you have to be able to see them. Banning things, in a lot of cases, it is lazy policy and often results in patchwork policy that doesn’t do anything.

The Antifa contradiction

One of the leading terrorists (up for dispute but I would argue they are) organisations in the US and venturing worldwide, Antifa, are a group with too many contradictions to take them seriously. Firstly, Antifa stands for ‘Anti-fascist’. The single most significant marker of any fascist regime is the forcible suppression of political opposition and speech. How can you claim to be Anti-fascist when your tactics are designed to shut down political opposition? (which just so happen to be mostly supporters of Trump and the right in the US). This is often done by violence and this has been well documented. So weighing it up, Antifa are an organisation explicitly against fascism, but like many fascist regimes, forcibly suppress people talking about other points of view with violence. They claim to stop terror by spreading terror and claim to rid the US of fascist members of its state by being fascist themselves. It is hard to take these clowns seriously when their message is flawed and actions are obscene.

Violence ensues after Antifa protesters kick off in Berkeley, California over right-leaning provocateur, Milo Yiannopolous speaking on campus.

In order to challenge socio-political situations, religions, cultures and ideologies, we must have the ability to speak freely. If we want to maintain our civil liberties, we must acknowledge that people can use those liberties to discuss issues in a manner that you may not agree with. 

The oppression of speech has what I have always described as a ‘yo-yo’ effect on our westernised countries with more libertarian principles. Authoritarian and fascist regimes drive groups to push for civil liberties, but when they are deemed ‘out of control’, similar authoritarian policies are brought back in on the social and governmental level. It is important to look beyond this style of ‘patchwork politics’ where we virtue signal to sweep the bigger problems under the carpet. Limitations on speech make it harder to hold those problematic ideological thinkers accountable and make it harder to tackle the problems. Limiting speech is a regression and we need to break the back and forth cycle.

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