The King of Free Speech

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 1:29 pm, 7 September 2013]

[Edit May 2016: I’m much less impressed with Caroline Criado-Perez now I know she’s in with the TERFs and SWERFs. In fact even when I wrote this I wasn’t as impressed with her as I might have appeared. I was really taking issue with some sneering comments she made about ‘liberals’ and I wanted to set things straight without looking like a mansplaining sealion. Jennie Rigg said she approved of this post, so I think I succeeded.]

I’ve been thinking about writing something on liberalism, but I was going to wait until Andrew Hickey had finished his series on it. Now I’ve read Caroline Criado-Perez’s speech, and I know I’d deserve to be cursed if I came not to help the feminists against the mighty. I’m very suspicious of sentimentality (which I might explain in a future post if I have time), so I’m trying very hard not to be angry or heartbroken about what so many men have done to Caroline and other women. Instead, I’ll rigorously apply logical principles to prove why what these men have done is immoral and illiberal (and why these two words mean pretty much the same thing to me).

Liberalism begins with two questions:

  1. Do you want to be free?
  2. Do you want to harm other people?

If you answer Yes to 2, you’re probably a psychopath. Whether you end up in Broadmoor or 10 Downing Street, don’t expect me to come and visit you.

If you answer No to 1, you might still find that liberalism is the only way to get the freedom to be unfree in the way that suits you. If you want to submit to your god, you need freedom of religion so that you don’t have to submit to someone else’s. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that people who are openly into BDSM seem more likely to be in the Lib Dems than any other party.

If you answer Yes to 1 and No to 2, don’t get complacent. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ is only a truism because it’s true.

Each of these two questions is actually reciprocal, and could be asked either or both ways. If you take away someone else’s freedom, why shouldn’t someone take away yours? If you harm someone else, why shouldn’t someone harm you? It turns out that if you want freedom for yourself, you have to allow the same freedom to everyone else. This leads to the most basic principle of liberalism:

Everyone should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others.

This principle is known for short as the harm principle. It can easily be applied to lots of things to see who is right. Threatening violence against women obviously breaks the principle and is NOT liberal or moral. Nobody can ever claim freedom of speech as a justification for harming people or threatening harm. Anyone who thinks they can is either a woolly thinker who hasn’t realised the contradiction in their own views, or a psychopath who really does want to hurt people.

That bit was nice and simple, but I can already imagine the whataboutists lining up. ‘Does the harm principle justify telling racist or sexist jokes that don’t threaten a specific individual with harm?’ No it doesn’t. ‘But isn’t it illiberal to take away a comedian’s freedom of speech? Aren’t liberals being woolly-minded and hypocritical when they complain about right-wing jokes?’ Again, no.

I insist that any apparent contradictions or failures of liberal principles are really caused by illiberal social structures that are not as natural or inevitable as they might seem. Racial and gender inequality are not natural. They are arbitrary social structures that privilege some people over others. Women and racial minorities are denied opportunities and access to resources, threatened with violence, and actually subjected to violence. People are really harmed by inequality. This is not liberal, and it has to stop before we can call Britain a liberal country. Racist and sexist language feeds into existing inequality, making it seem normal or inconsequential to privileged people, and threatening disadvantaged people with further harm. It’s really the inequality that is already built into society that makes racist and sexist words harmful, not the words themselves or the intentions or emotions of the people using them. If you want the freedom to tell racist or sexist jokes, you must realise that it’s racial and gender inequality that are taking away your freedom of speech, not liberals or feminists. Anyone who wants complete freedom of speech must first work to get rid of all inequality.

‘But if we do that, won’t you still be saying that we can’t say this or that in case it offends someone?’ No I won’t. Now that I’ve qualified it carefully by showing how speech can, and often does, break the harm principle, I can say something that is often misapplied to justify harmful speech: no-one can have the right to not be offended. Simply feeling offended by something that someone has said or done cannot logically count as harm. If it could, no-one would ever have any freedom because someone else could always say ‘please stop’. Allie Brosh has a real example of this: her school’s anti-harassment policy failed because it was founded on a contradiction, not on coherent principles (trying to solve problems by compromise is actually just as futile, but that’s for another time). Right-wingers appear to feel offended by immigration, same-sex marriage, and feminism. Clearly their dislike of something is not a good reason to stop other people from doing it, and this principle must be consistently applied to everyone or it’s no principle at all.

In a truly liberal society, which is only hypothetical because such a thing has never existed, it would be true that ‘words will never hurt me’. I believe we can achieve this if we all try hard enough. People who use ‘freedom of speech’ to justify harming others are not trying at all. Acting as if we already live in a liberal society when we don’t is actually very illiberal. Freedom has to be for everyone or no-one.

(And I really mean everyone, even though I’ve simplified this argument to the extent that it arbitrarily excludes bi, trans and disabled people, and probably lots of other people I haven’t even thought of. But the great thing about principles is that you can apply them to anything as long as you think carefully enough.)