Every time a conservative speaker is either disinvited or, if appearing, shouted down by a braying mob, the subject of free speech comes up.
The latest such incident occurred at Bristol University, and the speaker subjected to a riotous assault was Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP.
It has to be said that Mr Rees-Mogg asks for it, as far as our masses are concerned. The blighter doesn’t even bother to conceal that he was born with a silver spoon in every orifice of his body.
Mr Rees-Mogg speaks with the kind of patrician accent that even those born to it try to push downmarket not to provoke class war, and he wears Savile Row suits as if he came out of his mother’s womb sporting one.
That sort of thing is by itself enough to provoke a riot. And when he starts to speak, only those stuck in the same mud can possibly resist the desire to commit, as a minimum, ABH against his person.
Mr Rees-Mogg is one of the few politicians who can actually string together several sentences containing no obvious non sequiturs. He limits his rhetorical fallacies to a maximum of one per speech, rather than the more customary one per sentence (sorry, Mrs May). And he makes cogent arguments for Brexit without sputtering spittle all over the rostrum.
This explains the enthusiasm with which masked youngsters disrupted his speech and attacked Mr Rees-Mogg for being a ‘fascist’, ‘Nazi’, ‘racist’ and some such. I don’t know if homophobia and misogyny came up as well. If not, one can only put this glaring omission down to the heat of the moment.
Having dived headlong into the melee, Mr Rees-Mogg later admitted this was the first fist fight of his life (remember those silver spoons?), and it showed in his rather chaotic pugilism. But there was no shortage of courage and backbone – again rare traits among his colleagues.
Anyway, he emerged unscathed, and yet another debate about free speech kicked off. Many a commentator reasonably suggested that free speech only means something if we disagree with the speaker. If we agree, granting such freedom is no hardship.
Even more commentators quoted Voltaire’s maxim: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Stoutly spoken, as befits the master of the epigrammatic genre. But quotations do not a serious argument make.
If we wish to argue seriously, we must start by accepting that freedom of speech isn’t a natural or, if you will, absolute right. There exists an infallible test that proves this.
A real (natural, absolute) right is one that doesn’t presuppose a concomitant obligation on anybody else’s part. The right to life is one such. So is the right to secure property, provided it’s acquired legally. So is… well, I can’t think of any others offhand.
All other rights, including the one to free speech, are a matter of consensus, which can be granted or withdrawn. That means they aren’t really rights (to use the term rigorously) but contracts. One party claims freedom of speech; the other agrees to grant it – but never without qualifications.
Remove all qualifications, and we’ll be begging for freedom from speech, not of it. In other words, some speech is allowed and some isn’t – always.
The incident at Bristol University was an attack on the kind of speech that so far hasn’t been proscribed by consensus reflected in the law. So by all means do let’s defend it – but only if we recognise that some other kinds of speech may be so proscribed.
For example, I wouldn’t defend to the death the right of a jihadist mullah to make a speech entitled “Let’s build a caliphate on the bones of British infidels”. A neo-Nazi should also be stopped if delivering an address along the lines of “Holocaust never happened – but it will if we try”. The same goes for a fire-eating patriot screaming: “Let’s deport, or ideally kill, all Muslims including (especially?) Baroness Warsi.”
The question will inevitably arise as to where do we draw the line, and who draws it. The only realistic answer available to us today is the government. This, however, implies faith in the government’s unbiased sagacity and its unerring sense of the demarcation line that can never be overstepped.
However, I doubt that many of us share this faith. (Sorry, Mrs May.) And even those who used to have it must feel betrayed by the conveniently broad definition of ‘hate speech’ enforced by HMG.
Good people will appreciate that incitement to kill, say, all Muslims definitely qualifies as such, but they’ll still demur when simply saying that we should prevent the Islamisation of Britain constitutes culpable ‘hate speech’. And, to remove any semblance of objective criteria, a racial insult is defined as anything perceived as such by the person on the receiving end – another example of the government’s incompetence in this matter.
So how do we decide where free speech should begin and end? And who, if not the government, can do so?
Two or even one century ago, it was understood that there was only one institution whose moral judgement was capable of rising above the short-term expediency by which the state lives: the Church.
Yet giving this answer today would brand one as an even greater reactionary than Mr Rees-Mogg. Hankering after the past is like reaching for a pie in the sky long after salmonella has set in.
However, it’s impossible to answer those questions satisfactorily in the absence of an absolute moral authority, empowered to adjudicate secular diktats. Without it, any answer will be arbitrary, and vital issues, such as free speech, will be left at the mercy of those manifestly unqualified to solve them.
(Sorry, Mrs May.)