When it comes to freedom of speech, the spectrum of opinion is demarcated by libertarians on the violet end and the post-modern brigade on the red one, with many gradations in between.
Libertarians are opposed to any restrictions on speech, no matter how much offence it gives to how many people.
Post-modernists support multiple restrictions on speech, no matter how little offence it gives to how few people.
The second group is easy to dismiss because their arguments just don’t make sense. Nor do they really try to argue; they simply want to put their jackbooted foot down.
Post-modernists see the world in binary terms, as an everlasting clash between the oppressors and the oppressed, with the second group to be protected from any insult to their delicate sensibilities.
The intellectual dilemma that gores these people with its horns has to do with definitions. They shoehorn mankind into prefabricated tribal groups, a few of which are supposed to oppress and most of which are deemed to be oppressed.
Their raison d’être demands an on-going expansion of the second group and the never-ending vilification of the first. Yet they can’t really define either with anything resembling intellectual rigour.
One example off the top: post-modernists regard women as an oppressed group, which logically makes men the oppressors. At the same time they see sex-change as a natural right. So, if an oppressed woman becomes a man, is she now an oppressor?
And what if a woman is a self-made or, worse still, hereditary billionaire? Does she then belong to the oppressed and oppressors at the same time? Does the same go for a black and/or homosexual company director? And what about a black, Muslim, lesbian fund manager?
The problem is that everybody, with the possible exception of maniacs, belongs not to one tribe but many. Should we all be protected from ‘hate speech’ in one capacity, but not the other?
This cat’s cradle is impossible to disentangle without losing every vestige of intellectual credibility.
Then how do you define ‘offensive’ or ‘hate’ speech? Does a joke making fun of some group qualify? For example, Jews come across as crafty in many jokes. Does this mean that anyone who tells them hates Jews?
Also, does anyone who refers to any tribe by a term other than the one this tribe favours at the moment hate every member of the tribe? No, I have it on good authority that some people who call the French froggie-woggies actually like them.
‘Offence’ is just as problematic. Let’s say I address a group of 300 and say something about it that one sourpuss finds offensive, while no one else does. Am I guilty of offending the whole group?
Our government, acting in the capacity of Solomon, solved that problem with the elegance characteristic of modern governments. An offence, it ruled, is anything the person on the receiving end perceives as such.
This legal definition strikes me as a tad too broad. That’s tantamount to saying that a crime is anything the government says it is, which concept of jurisprudence doesn’t sit well with the English Common Law.
And this is indeed a legal definition, with the weight of the state punitive power thrown behind it. A loyal subject of Her Majesty can be punished for saying something someone else deems offensive.
Actually, attacking this whole post-modern perversion complete with its political correctness is hardly sporting because it’s too easy. It’s a bit like angling with a stick of dynamite.
But the libertarian argument at the other end is harder to dismiss. There’s a strong internal logic to it.
Freedom of speech, say libertarians, only means something when it covers speech we dislike. After all, speech we like hardly needs protecting.
Some libertarians go so far as to insist that, say, libel and incitement to murder shouldn’t be illegal either, and even this specious argument is more buoyant than any PC nonsense mouthed by the post-modernists. But forgetting this extreme end, the bulk of the argument sounds reasonable.
There has to be an authority, say libertarians, that’s empowered to decide what constitutes ‘offensive’ or ‘hate’ speech. That authority can only be the state because it alone can enforce compliance.
Yet even cursory knowledge of history and human nature shows that a government empowered to ban speech we dislike will sooner or later start banning speech we like, including our own. Such a government has a green light on the road to tyranny – and one doesn’t have to be a card-carrying libertarian to deplore that.
So who decides? And if no one can, then isn’t any injunction against any kind of speech absurd?
Here I deviate from the libertarians, with whom I agree up to this point. For they proceed from a purely secular, which is to say anti-historic, premise and I don’t.
Both the post-modern brigade and their opponents preach, and try to impose, a certain system of moral coordinates. But no such system can succeed in earth unless it ultimately comes from heaven.
Hence injunctions against murder and theft are immutable in every civilised society precisely because they have divine antecedents. They fall into the category of malum in se – evil in itself.
Some other transgressions are malum prohibitum: they only transgress because they are arbitrarily banned. Thus a man driving without a seat belt commits a lesser offence than a man who steals the careless driver’s car.
I agree with the libertarians that no human authority should be trusted to decide what constitutes offensive speech. But ‘human’ is the operative word.
There has to be an authority that sits above human beings and is empowered to pass judgement on moral matters – including free speech. We used to have such an authority. It was called the Church, and for almost two millennia it applied divine law to sift human laws.
When it came to free speech, it proceeded from the legal principle laid down by the founder of our civilisation: “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.”
That authority presupposed censorship, but it also allowed almost infinite latitude. After all, most of the great literature was produced when the Church kept a watchful eye on speech.
By contrast, since the West freed itself from the shackles imposed by that institution it has clearly put in place other, tighter tethers. If you don’t believe me, just look at the rubbish adorning the windows of today’s bookshops.
Freedom of anything will turn into chaos if not subjected to a rigid discipline. That’s why some discipline is always imposed – the questions are by whom, by what kind of authority and what kind of discipline.
What speech should be restricted? Well, certainly not the kind that upsets the PC crowd – but some. Hence my reply to my libertarian friends who put forth their sound arguments in defence of free speech is always the same: “Yes, but…”