The rights and responsibilities of fighting ‘evil speeches’

We violate our liberties if we give way to censorship, but freedom should not entail letting hate speech go unchallenged

Fifty years ago, Enoch Powell gave the speech for which he is remembered. The words Powell used one day in Birmingham sent forth a ripple of hate that my grandparents saw translate into racist violence on the streets of London and inspire an aggressive reassertion of white supremacy across British society.

Considered an abuse of his platform by the Conservative leadership, Powell was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet.

The editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, denounced it as ‘an evil speech’. Freedom of speech is a basic building block of free society. But, just as we violate it if we give way to censorship, we betray free speech when we neglect to meet its responsibilities.

For free speech is no empty platitude, and neither is it the freedom of speech to go unchallenged, nor the freedom to preach hate.

When speech attacks certain groups, silences others, or incites violence, we have a responsibility to speak out against this.

We also have a responsibility to be selective as to whom we give a platform.
We do not inhabit a vacuum. Speech that delegitimises the citizenship of black Britons takes place amid institutional racism and the abuses rendered unto the Windrush generation.

Speech that implicates Jews in conspiracy theories takes place in a Europe that is becoming increasingly unsafe for those identified as ‘cosmopolitans’ or ‘globalists’.

Speech that denounces rape victims takes place in a society where women often feel they cannot report sexual harassment or even assault. I could go on to homophobia, transphobia, and other hate speech.

Meanwhile, what promises does free speech hold for Muslim students silenced by Prevent? For those fortunate enough to not be affected by these things, free speech might appear as a right without responsibilities; to the rest of us, it is clear that some people’s speech is less free than others.

In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, addressed many crowds of Blackshirts as they mobilised for the fascist takeover of Britain.

Fascism at home and abroad had to be defeated by strength of force. In 1967, David Frost had Mosley on his ITV show.

This time, Mosley’s brand of fascism no longer posed an existential threat to those he considered socially undesirable. This time, words said inside a hall found no echo in the striking of fists or the marching of jackboots outside.

Mosley’s speech – once backed with destructive power – had finally become just speech, and the failed Hitlerite appeared to all as he was: pathetic.

Last term, I was suspended from the Oxford Union for disruptively walking out of a talk by the American far-right ideologue Ann Coulter.

Her comments on ‘Mexican rapists’, which might have been absurd a few years ago, now inform White House policy. I stood up, thinking of my cousins in America, who see the ripples of speech like hers spread across their own school playgrounds.

No one should have to justify their own existence – certainly not at their age.
Those of us who inhabit free society must fight for what freedoms we have, lest we lose them.

To misinterpret and misuse free speech by contorting it into a justification for giving a legitimising platform to hate preachers would be to betray that freedom.

Freedom of speech is worth fighting for, but it will only prevail so long as there is belief in it, and for people to believe in free speech, they must see it being put into practice meaningfully, rather than disingenuously. And if we hear ‘an evil speech’, we must speak out.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks Alex
    A considered and measured response to the problems of free speech, especially in the case of a religious thinker whose religious views may fall outside what we consider culturally PC and so are views which are not intended to insite hate and violence, but who’s preponants are nevertheless no platformed. Similarly, debate that is shut down because it happens to threaten the PC agenda itself, exposing its use by people of a particular political persuasion as a form of idealogical control of the people. Google already runs an algorithm on every video uploaded which can penalise the uploader for the use of words it does not like. Is this what is going to happen to our own free speech?
    In this respect I very much hope that Professor Jordan Peterson is allowed to speak at the Oxford Union and a meaningful debate can be had about the issues surrounding free speech and it’s improper curtailment.

LEAVE A REPLY