Liberals and the cancel culture

The sujet du jour; at least on Twitter, seems to be “cancel culture”.

I’m a newbie on Twitter and as I have scrolled through my feed and seen various threads; I’ve noticed a schism between Lib Dems, on this particular issue. On one side there are Lib Dems, advocating the necessity to protect the individual, human and civil rights of the oppressed and that freedom of speech doesn’t come with freedom from consequence. On the other side are those Lib Dems who see freedom of speech as a key tenet to liberalism. An article by Tim Farron (advocating the latter), exemplified this schism with Tim being supported and rounded on, in equal measure. However, this isn’t a divide about free speech – it is a divide in the discourse of what is morally absolute and what isn’t.

Within social justice, liberals will always seek a moral universalism when advocating human rights for the oppressed minorities. The danger is, this advocation can fall into absolutism and that those opposing the perceive moral truths by absolutists are not only wrong, they are immoral; leading to those opposing their worldview to be swiftly labelled “racists,” “bigots,” “Nazis,” etc. In a democratic society our cultural norms, ethics and morals, evolve over time through societal discourse. Absolutists, in shutting down what they perceive as immoral; shut down the debate. In effect, they break the social contract that allows for moral consensus to be agreed upon.

The current 48 hour boycott of Twitter at first glance shows that Liberals are unified in certain cancellations. One could argue this was because there was almost total societal consensus about the nature of Wiley’s remarks. The other consideration to make, is that he crossed an important line for many proponents of free-speech- he incited violence. The promotion of violence is seemingly Twitter’s red line, also. The boycott is less about cancel culture but a protest about the pace (or lack of) of Twitter implementing their own red line.

That’s not to say liberals shouldn’t fight for civil rights. It is about understanding that fighting for them is to allow the debate to continue, until a consensus is formed. For example, whilst we should advocate for trans rights; we must understand that the public is split on certain rights and it is not necessarily transphobic to be so because consensus on this, has yet to be achieved. Whilst there is concern about the tyranny of the majority, this can only be overcome through discourse and debate. All that absolutists achieve, is the impression that their morality is fundamentally right, and everyone else’s is fundamentally wrong. It strengthens the bond between those who agree with you morally, but it pushes away those that don’t. When this is the majority of the public, this can only lead to electoral isolationism and division.

In dealing with civil rights, debate is far more nuanced than categorising everything into simple right and wrong. Absolutism misses the nuance of public debate.

To save us from… ultimately ourselves, we need to step outside Twitter and listen to the electorate. The good news is, polling shows, we are an ever increasingly liberal and tolerant society. But going “All In” on siding with a particular topic, without considering how the public feel is electorally suicidal. Nothing is more evident of this than the morally absolute policy of Revoke. This policy negated the fact that even most remainers are not that absolute on Brexit. The policy may have galvanised our FBPE base but led to accusations of Liberal Democrats being neither liberal or democratic and as a policy was a complete failure.

We need to pay attention to all the electorate, if we are to win. This means that whilst advocating for the most liberal position, being liberal in understanding that society needs to come to a consensus on its position.

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39 Comments

  • James Belchamber 28th Jul '20 - 10:15am

    The two firm examples that have been given in this article are Trans Rights and the Revoke policy, to show that “moral absolutism” is “electorally suicidal”. Let’s go through each of these in turn:

    – Revoke, as a policy, probably did not hurt our popularity – according to all available evidence we have, anyway. I appreciate that it’s a popular narrative, but that’s not the same thing. As such, it’s clear that “moral absolutism” was not an issue here.
    – “Trans women are women”, as a policy, while being the source of a popular attack from the right, is not really unpopular with the population – as YOUR OWN LINK shows. It’s certainly not unpopular with the kind of voters we are seeking to attract.

    With that in mind, this seems to be an argument on shaky ground. Let’s take some examples of “moral absolutism” throughout our history:
    – ID Cards
    – The Iraq War
    – Tuition Fees (Woops!)

    The counter-argument, of course, is that without taking an absolute stand on an issue, the public don’t notice us at all. Before our “absolutism” on Brexit, we were just known as the wishy-washy party that joined a coalition with the Tories (excepting those things we took a strong stance on).

    I honestly don’t feel that, as a party, we should take an absolute stand on every issue. But I think you picked the two worst examples there, and that makes it easy to reject the thrust of your argument.

  • The “left” have abandoned universalism.
    If we liberals abandon universalism, who will be left to defend it?
    For example, we must never be afraid to say that homophobia is wrong, no matter who is promoting the homophobia.

  • Alexandrine Kantor 28th Jul '20 - 11:47am

    If we let intolerance aired unchallenged, our society won’t remain tolerant for very long.

    Being Liberal is not looking away when intolerance is aired for the sake that everything needs to be heard.

    We value equality, freedom to be and safeguard of minorities. Therefore it’s our duty to fight to maintain that and challenge everyone who doesn’t want that.

    https://www.facebook.com/26806660922/posts/10158196394225923/?sfnsn=scwspwa&extid=8Deh9EzUBgkFdcRo

  • British people agree, 50% to 27% with the rights of transgender people.

    https://twitter.com/YouGov/status/1283703342598893568?s=20

    They have the majority. There is absolutely no reason not to support them.

  • The problem is that some people take their views, whatever the cause, to an extreme. They don’t just want their position to be heard, they want to make it compulsory, enshrined in law, with punishment for those who disagree.

  • richard underhill 28th Jul '20 - 1:16pm

    ISBN 0 00 433451-5
    Subject
    There is paper in the post, about the leadership election AT LAST.
    Shame on the administrators who have delayed the process !!!
    Ed Davey has not listed the issues I most favour, which are STV (which Northern Ireland except for the Commons, does matter, some of the time) the Alderdice report, which spells out THE ONE THING we mostly need, which the APNI already have. ‘The school that tries to end racism’ is on catch-up tv, but is clear that the key age is 11 as school-children switch schools in England and have attitudes which deny that racism exists and follow the “I have a dream” type of thinking.
    In Northern Ireland the issue is not primarily about skin colour, but is nevertheless present and tribal. Some children in NI are ingrained in racist tribalism by the age of 5 years old, which gives the issue more depth.
    The world monopoly champion was born in Nigeria, but it was said that because he is black he cannot Irish, which refuses to accept his change of nationality.
    On nationality please consider guest-workers in Germany, born in Germany and since having having children born in Germany, while Romanian citizens who have not been German for 12 hundred years, are given immediate German nationality as Romania escaped a hard-line version of communism.

  • richard underhill 28th Jul '20 - 1:19pm

    Peter 28th Jul ’20 – 1:07pm
    Are you thinking about Hong Kong? or Maoism?

  • David Allen 28th Jul '20 - 1:32pm

    It’s easy to stand up for freedom of speech. Until someone comes along and says that they want the freedom to express racist beliefs, or blame foreigners for CoVID, or deliberately propagate harmful myths. Then the liberal generally says “Ah, but that’s not what I meant by freedom of speech”.

    Well in that case, “freedom of speech” is a pretty inadequate principle, is it not?

    What we should oppose is what Orwell famously opposed – The oppressive denial of the right to speak by tyrannical regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR, who were the targets of Orwell’s wrath. What we should accept is that when it comes down to individual viewpoints, there are no absolute certainties to be relied upon, in the manner of the drunk relying on the lamppost on which he is leaning.

    We cannot rely on any abstract principles to tell us whether we should tolerate hate speech, or Rowling’s views, or anti-religious speech. We just have to make up our minds, case by case. If in some cases we advocate free speech and in others we oppose it, we are not being inconsistent. We are simply doing our best to grapple with the real world.

  • Paul Barker 28th Jul '20 - 1:49pm

    It seems to me that most of the anger about “Cancel Culture” comes from Rich or Famous people who want the Right to shoot their mouths off without any comeback.
    J K Rowling & Tim Farron are both Nice People but both have shown notoriously poor judgement, again & again.

  • Great article by Tim Farron. He has made some important interventions recently also saying the party should not move further to the left.

  • @Richard
    No, much closer to home.

  • Neil Hickman 28th Jul '20 - 2:48pm

    “It is indeed one test of belief in principles if you apply them to cases with which you have no sympathy at all. You really believe in freedom of speech, if you are willing to allow it to men whose opinions seem to you wrong and even dangerous…”
    – Lord Justice Thomas Scrutton (Liberal candidate for Limehouse in 1888) in a 1923 case where the Court of Appeal granted habeas corpus to a man said to be a leader of the IRA. Scrutton went on to say:
    “…the subject is entitled only to be deprived of his liberty by due process of law, although that due process if taken will probably send him to prison. A man undoubtedly guilty of murder must yet be released if due forms of law have not been followed in his conviction. It is quite possible, even probable, that the subject in this case is guilty of high treason; he is still entitled only to be deprived of his liberty by due process of law”.

  • @Alexandrine Kantor. “Being liberal is not looking away when intolerance is aired”. Of course not. Don’t look away, confront it with logic and truth. But if you deny the other person their voice, consider that someday someone may deny you your voice. Free speech is a fundamental liberal value and we can not apply it only when it suits us.
    @Andrew Ducker. Not sure what point you are making. It is good that the public are broadly liberal on trans rights. Are you saying that makes it ok to “cancel” those who are not trans supportive, because, presumably the public won’t mind ? Not sure that’s how it works. Or were you making a different point ?
    @Richard Underhill. Christopher talks of us going “all in” on certain topics which have little resonance with the public. I fear you make his point for him. Whatever the merits of the Allerdice Report, the idea that we should make it’s implementation our absolute priority seems to show a certain disconnect with the Great British Public, who I suspect have more prosaic matters to occupy themselves with at present. As Tim Farron put it in a recent article, it’s not enough to be right, you need to be effective.
    @David Allen. “We can not rely on abstract principles……..we need to make up our minds, case by case”. Can’t agree. Free Speech is not abstract. The First Amendment of the US Constitution states “Congress shall make no law……abridging the freedom of speech”. That’s a clear injunction and although it’s not our law, there are a lot of [people who think that it’s a good, and liberal principle to go by. You suggest that sometimes we allow it, sometimes not ? And who decides ? You ? Me ? The Twitter mob ?

  • There is something of a spectrum from expressing an opinion to having a debate to making an utterance that compromises the well-being of others to actual hate crime. At its best Liberalism provides the resources for spotting the differences – in the guts as well as in the head. Twitter is the worst place for the expression of opinion. A few years ago I was instructed to send out a daily tweet from the Lord Mayor of Bradford (which was me). I did it by reflecting on the day’s events at the end of the day and tweeting accordingly, which some people seemed to appreciate even if I didn’t really enjoy it. Apart from 2016-17 I have maintained my permanent boycott of Twitter. As for Facebook I was subjected to scurrilous attacks on that platform in the year running up to my re-election in my ward which were silenced in the end by the electorate But my sleep patterns were never the same again. That is a tiny pinprick in the face of the damage which may well be perpetrated by Facebook in the run-up to the US election in November (See Carole Cadwallader in the Observer). All the above is of course simply the expression of opinions!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Jul '20 - 4:18pm

    I think that denying Liberalism must allow debate, is where members go wring. Tolerance of the view is not validation of it. There are views we cannot allow in our party. But that trans people need to be allowed to go to a toilet, is obvious. But that some women seem to be in fear of that is also obvious. I favour the former as protection of minority rights, but, as Alexandrine here, who I like and respect, has heard me argue, I favour the rights of twenty week foetuses to be protected, and down syndrome, and females, from abortion, based, not on social conservative positions, no, from social liberal position of harm, and sticking up for the very, most, in fact, vulnerable. Justine Trudeau, who is not, for me, a Liberal, but a centrist socialist, denies any mp such a view, thinks they ought not be selected . Jacinda Ardern, more honest, claims to be not a Liberal, a social democrat, thinks I should be allowed my view, though disagrees on weeks and decriminalisation.

    It is a fact, unless a view is really extremist, we ought to discuss.

    Popper did not mean tolerance of where someone ought to use toilet facilities or at what point we allow weeks to be the factor or such, in abortion. He meant surely, we cannot tolerate nazi views or communist extremes .

    To sight him is fine. But it, like much, is also not to be utilised as a blanket thing, but to allow for nuance.

    Tim Farron, Jk Rowling are wrong in my view in views, but we are wrong if we cannot hear their views as they are not repugnant views they are wrong , based on principles or practices. Not on evil ideology.

  • Matt (Bristol) 28th Jul '20 - 4:37pm

    I profoundly agree with much of this article, particularly the line about ‘allowing the debate to continue until [or whilst] a consensus is formed’ (although I would say that consenses are themselves naturally malleable and need reexamining).

    The issues is we have a First Past The Post political culture, a version of that we have always have had, but is now being remodelled on the similar but more stridently partisan one of the United States, which has been moving to a ‘culture war’ model since the 70s.

    In such a culture, you don’t ‘win’ if you seek consensus, unless you do so from a position of pre-existing strength. So, in order to have a greater stake in the consensus-forming, you must win big and hard first.

    Of course that is antithetical to our democratic values, but its become seen as the only way forward. (Probably as much at a subconscious level as anything else). My voice counts in proportion to my ability to denigrate others’ voice, rationality and moral authority.

    So the party of proportional representation, of letting every voice count, feels it will lose unless it adopts a binary rhetoric of moral absolutism for the campaigns it currently holds dear. This is intellectually self-delusional, but hey, nice guys finish last.

    Both Ed Davey and Layla Moran (although Ed more overtly) exhibit this culture in their different ways.

    This is a significant reason why I have let my membership lapse.

  • Is there any actual evidence that the policy of supporting a people’s vote with a clause that we would revoke article 50 if we won a majority actually cost us in any tangible way?

    The Thornhill report was more of a narrative than an evidence based analysis of what actually went wrong.

  • I thought the problem with revoke was not that it led to a net loss of support it was that it led to an increase in support scattered around areas of the country that we had no chance of winning whilst losing support in target seats. Therefore in terms of vote share it was probably neutral but very unhelpful in trying to win specific seats. How that could be quantified I don’t know.

  • David Allen 28th Jul '20 - 6:44pm

    Chris Cory: “You suggest that sometimes we allow (free speech), sometimes not ? And who decides ? You ? Me ? The Twitter mob ?”

    Society comes to a consensus and decides. It decides, for example, that racial abuse must now be outlawed. It decided, in the past, that homophobic abuse should be allowed and indeed encouraged. So society doesn’t always get it “right”. But if you reject the decisions of society, and instead support an absolute right to free speech, then you support the tolerance of hate speech, deliberately deceitful and mendacious propaganda, and the creation of evil myth.

    The Right is strongly into all these unsavoury means of self-promotion. That’s why the Right now come out so strongly in favour of “free speech”. They mean “buy up all the news media and drown out any other voices.” That is a very far cry from what Orwell meant by freedom of speech.

    That is why we must stop uncritically worshipping at the altar of “free speech”. We should return to Orwell’s more limited and more appropriate focus – on freedom from thought control by oppressor regimes.

  • David Evans 28th Jul '20 - 6:58pm

    Andrew Ducker, you say ‘British people agree, 50% to 27% with the rights of transgender people’. But the truth is 50% of those agree with one right, that trans people can call themselves what they like, nothing more and nothing less.

    Hardly a resounding affirmation of trans rights, is it?

  • Sticking “Moral Absolutism” in the sense of taking one stance on a particular issue and labelling anything short of that as “Unacceptable” to the extent of ‘Cancelling’ on myriad items cannot be described as liberal, almost by very definition.
    To be a liberal involves the ability to give space to those of difference in outlook, not remove it on grounds of upholding one group against another.
    To be liberal also involves advocating a consistent and fair rule to all- universality not sectarianism- , and applying proportionality of sanction, in mind of its context, against bad behaviour.
    There can be (and are) a few fundamental ‘Moral Absolutes’ which derive from religious settings, but broadly come down to treat others as you’d want to be treated/ walk in another’s shoes etc.
    Giving a direct answer on a particular policy or subject matter may lack nuance but doesn’t equate with providing a ‘Moral Absolute’, but relates more to marketing: Providing a clear brand, and that the voter gets cynical with nuance and often sees it as evasion when it isn’t (usually down to poor communication of that nuance).
    LibDems get caught out precisely when clear branding on a policy is tied with ‘Moral absolutism’ and caught out when it’s found that such MA is changed.
    Christopher S-S and James Belchamber are both right to recognise that it’s not good to talk of ‘Moral absolutes’ everywhere. James Belchamber points out how the party was called out on Tuitition fees, but also
    – On the Iraq war 2003 (the right stance), a different leadership and a vocal part of the party took a very different ‘Blairite’ stance (wrong imho) on the Syrian Govt 2013- the public noticed this inconsistency too.
    – On ID cards, the party also looked flakey when it came to data collection and ‘the snooper’s charter’, especially when found that the party had been keen to consider using the data and political advertising which Cambridge Analytica applied for Brexiteers in the EU referendum.
    On the revoke issue, Layla rightly identifies its communication as being problematic- top down, ‘MA’. And on ‘Trans rights’, argue the case for those rights against paper arguments like it allows predatory men to fake it and public toilets, not a ‘MA’ stance that ‘Cancels’ Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and JK Rowling for airing reasoned concerns on reproductive matters and physical strength spectrum in sports.

  • It is very sad to see so many who now regard themselves as liberals so opposed to free speech and see the default position as one of restriction rather than freedom of speech being the default and the restrictions being need to be specified and justified. We live in a country where in London alone in 2015 857 people were arrested for social media spats. We have a system where someone else being offended is justification for a conviction. Interesting that people seem to believe this is insufficient and many are very happy to defend cancel culture.

    I note the desire for so many to have American profit making businesses setting the parameters of discourse, appalling though Wiley’s comments are if he was inciting violence then that is a crime that everyone in the UK seems to agree is a legitimate place for criminal action, why the excitement for unaccountable action by a profit making business rather than via an accountable legal process.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Jul '20 - 1:23pm

    I’m not sure that society arriving at a consensus is necessarily a good thing. That consensus may involve depriving others of their rights. Freedom of speech usually involves a right to cause offence but not to cause harm and we will always need to discuss the point at which offence turns into harm.
    We are still learning about how to use the new technology with its immense power for good and evil because it offers the opportunity for mass condemnation in a way that we haven’t seen before except in small communities that ostracise those who don’t obey its rules.

  • Jenny Barnes 29th Jul '20 - 1:53pm

    Complaining about cancel culture seems to be about bigots with enormous platforms disingenuously complaining that they have been silenced, when a relatively small group of people put the alternative view. JK Rowling is the classic example.

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Jul '20 - 3:12pm

    Sue, I would argue there is an issue about _how_ a society arrives at a ‘consensus’ and whether a short-term consensus is enforced as if it is a permanent settlement. In a democratic society, these things should be capable of periodic renegotiation in ways that are both peaceful and overt.

    In the UK, with our unclear constitutional processes, love of improvisation and fear of conflict (and of rocking the boat inside the coalitions the ‘Big Two’ parties build up to get in to power, we tend to do covert or ‘pendulum swing’ change which can be traumatic for those who had relined on a permanence that might have been illusory.

    I think the Lib Dems for some time have been trying to be simultaneously a consensual party and a radical party.

    It would be interesting to know what an ideologically consensualist or constitutionalist democratic party would look like. That is something other countries have but we don’t (although both Labour and the Conservatives could have claimed that heritage).

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Jul '20 - 3:19pm

    Jenny, are you denying that JKR (whatever her other sins may or may not be) has been the victim of violent and sexualised abuse?

  • “It is very sad to see so many who now regard themselves as liberals so opposed to free speech and see the default position as one of restriction rather than freedom of speech being the default”

    Absolutely right and in many cases the sole motivation to shut down debate is that these censorious types simply disagree with what is being said so they claim it is more extreme than it is or a “threat”

    They don’t explain what entitles them to be the arbiters of what can and cannot be said and they cannot recognise when their own comments fall foul of their own standards.

  • Jenny Barnes

    I’ve seen this claim quite a lot. Can you point me to where JK Rowling has complained about being “silenced?”

    The letter to which she was a signatory was not a claim that the signatories were silenced but that there was a trend that was shutting down debate and pushing for ideological conformity. Perhaps you have some other evidence I have been unable to find.

    The other claim you make is that this is just the rich and powerful, again I see this claim a lot. However, in my experience the rich and famous are better able to get their message out than the poor and powerless. This would be particularly true of when they have been mistreated. It even applies to gradations of money and fame, for example I suspect more people are aware of the mistreatment of Cliff Richard than are aware of Simon Warr’s (only a minor TV personality) experience and fewer still of Ricky Dearman.

    Do you think it is possible that if the rich and famous are being pressured and restricted that may be the tip of the iceberg? The suffering of Boris Johnson or Derek Draper with COVID does not mean that many more non-famous people did not also suffer bad effects of the virus.

  • Matt (Bristol)

    I think you are misinterpreting Jenny’s point. I think she has incorrectly interpreted others but I can’t see how she is making that claim.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Jul '20 - 9:49pm

    I think you’re right about the enforcement of consensus and we could also discuss whether this is the same as populism, as its likely to be the view of the majority rather than an idea with which all can agree to a greater or lesser extent. Trying to find the consensus in a group rather than the majority view means finding a way that everyone can sign up to rather than taking a vote. Do you think it’s possible to be both consensual and radical?

  • Matthew Campbell 29th Jul '20 - 11:36pm

    Sue, I think there is an underlying problem in that trying to do consensualism without proportionality of representation (or addressing lobbying in our political institutions) is playing with a rigged pack of cards.

    I personally am of the opinion that JK Rowling on gender recognition reform is possibly closer to the national consensus than many people in our party want to recognise, and I am also of the opinion that including those who agree with her in the process of discussing that, is democratically essential. But our political system does not allow for an equal balancing of opinions, so we have this continual jockeying for position that makes social and moral debates so antagonistic as people try to gain advantages by setting what the author calls the ‘moral absolutes’.

    If we look at Ireland, we actually find that democratic constitutionalism enabled a national culture that was more conservative than ours, for many years. But the difference, was that when the national mood moved, as it has done in recent years, they were able to move the legislators with them, at speed. We cannot say that in our country, where a liberal plurality could manipulate the system to hold back a conservative majority, and vice versa. Both are wrong.

    I’m not sure if we can be radical and consensualist at the same time, without being democratic. IF we are democratic, it may be possible. But radical is about getting to the ‘root’ of a problem (ie the radix) not about just proposing the most drastic change to what one sees in front of you, and hoping that works as a stance or posture.

  • Matthew Campbell 29th Jul '20 - 11:52pm

    FSPeople — I think you’re right, or at least I badly expressed myself.

    I think there is an argument going round that JK Rowling (for eg) is somehow unfeeling and cold, is not reacting to real experience, and has not experienced ‘real’ abuse in the way that those who feel deeply offended by her have, at the existence of her opinion, or by the treatment of those who may take JKR as a symbol. This to me is false, in that it is clear she has received some hateful and public abuse. (As have others who take a contrary view).

    (NB I find it interesting that many posting on this site sympathised deeply with her in 2014 when her strongly expressed views on Scottish independence attracted the ire of the ‘cybernats’, but now she is portrayed as an elitist ‘bigot’ here.)

    However, in trying to merge this in my response to Jenny, I moved the point.

    You are right, the letter that was signed was not about those specific individuals being silenced, it was about an attempt to constrain the language and terms of acceptable debate and opinion by creating targetted outcries from a plurality of voices, and the increasingly calculated way this is done, which then is taken as a statement of the norms society will accept.

    The irony (if that’s not too detached a term) being around GRA reform, is whatever we think of the rights and wrong of the issues (and clearly GRA reform is needed in some form, and trans people are vulnerable to harassment and abuse, whatever I might or might not think of the moral imperatives, merits and potential problems of full self-identification as a legal position going forward) is that the legislation is not at this stage on the statute book.

  • Sue Sutherland: “I’m not sure that society arriving at a consensus is necessarily a good thing. That consensus may involve depriving others of their rights.”

    I didn’t say it was necessarily a good thing. I just said that that is what always happens, for good or ill.

    Society has reached the consensus that the right to “free speech” must be limited, and that racial abuse and hate speech must be condemned. So, thus far – Society: 1, absolutist advocates of freedom of speech: nil!

    Society can also reach the opposite type of conclusion, and decide to treat certain groups of people with disfavour. Society as a whole may disfavour hooligans, young hoodies, the disabled, the litterers, the mentally ill, the misogynists, the poor. Individual members of society may agree with some of these judgments while vehemently disagreeing with others. But that’s life. Those who feel strongly that society has got some things wrong can do no better than to make their views clear and try to shift the consensus. Big shifts do happen – just look at the shift, within one generation, from the criminalisation of homosexulaity to the celebration of gay marriage.

    That’s how real politics works, for good or ill. Absolutist advocates of free speech may stand to one side of the real political debate, and protest that their purist approach should prevail. They are lonely voices clamouring in the wilderness, and for good reason.

    Orwell’s advocacy of free speech was much less absolutist, much better focused. He was rightly horrified by the silencing of opposing voices by powerful tyrannies. That was the evil of Orwell’s age. The evil of Trump’s age is almost an opposite evil. Instead of silencing his opponents, Trump drowns them out with ceaseless noisy propaganda, which he cynically calls “free speech”!

  • David Allen

    Well we need to be clear about what we regard as the acceptable limitations.
    The areas that we have previously seen as acceptable legal restrictions have been:
    Avocation of violence (inciting and planning);
    Threats of violence;
    Defamation;
    Time and space limitations (e.g. protests may be asked to take place on a pavement and not block roads, you can’t express your speech loudly in a residential areas at 2am).

    In other restrictions which are less clear cut (just a small number):
    Inciting Racial and religious hatred (rather unclear, had to be clarified due to concerns it would capture atheists criticising religious ideas);
    Harassment (legally clear but then people try and claim things that would not meet the legal test);
    Causing “alarm and distress” (basically if the police want to pick someone up and they swear in front of a 3rd party who has left the scene and can’t express their indifference to the event);
    Offending people with online posts (though not the same standard that would apply in person rather ridiculously).

    Then we now have demands for further restrictions on things that cause “offence” generally. At the same time to lie and misrepresent people has become something that people are not embarrassed at all. I note you say that we agree “racial abuse and hate speech must be condemned” but what is not agreed is what falls in to those categories. You will see people criticising the expression of certain religious ideas as “racial abuse” when they are not and I note the vague term “hate speech” could be often applied to the rhetoric of many of those who regularly use it when talking about those they disagree with (at which point suddenly a strict carefully carved definition is required).

    On the last cancel culture thread, I pointed out that people are reluctant to even agree with general principals of acceptable and unacceptable conduct (where at least we are then able to discuss the parameters of what meets those principals). I’m not sure what we are seeing is society arriving at a consensus of any kind, simply institutions arriving at a consensus, that is a very different thing.

  • richard underhill 30th Jul '20 - 7:39pm

    Chris Cory 28th Jul ’20 – 4:02pm
    If John Alderdice were a candidate I would vote for him. It may seem purist but what he has said appeals strongly to me, so, although I live in England I became a member of the APNI and rejoiced as the APNI deputy leader was elected as MP for Belfast East. She is now APNI leader, displaced the former First Minister with a vigorous campaign against double jobbing and was also elected as an MEP for the whole of the constituency which is Northern Ireland.
    “There will be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover.
    Tomorrow !!
    Just you wait and see!!
    Of course in the northwest of the island of Ireland the cliffs are green, because it rains every quarter of an hour for 15 minutes, as the (all)Irish tourist board said.
    Modern Irish history includes the election of Mary Robinson as the first female President, leading to a peaceful visit by Queen Elizabeth 2. The first six Presidents were
    all male. One up for the Single Transferable Vote. I was honoured when she came to a Liberal International event to collect the Liberal International prize for Freedom and shook my hand.

  • richard underhill 31st Jul '20 - 10:32am

    Chris Cory 28th Jul ’20 – 4:02pm
    What is your bottom line?
    Is it the concluding facts of a financial statement?
    Or a teenager girl’s dress length? perhaps at Wimbledon?
    At the moment the Black Lives Matter campaign is everywhere, including football, but inadequate in Formula one.
    Although it is primarily about the death of one man in police custody in the USA it is reaching back into the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, campaigns to end slavery and the outrageous injustice that slaveowners received financial compensation for the loss of what they considered to be their property, some of whom were members of the House of Lords, so that their heirs and their heirs heirs benefited.
    There is a partial solution in the USA, which is the ‘general’ (presidential) election about which former President Obama has been speaking recently.
    The SUS law in the UK was about former soldiers from the Napoleonic wars, mainly white and not receiving a pension, before the creation of police forces as intermediaries between armed forces and civil disobedience. Please consider the history of the Roman Empire, of which our ancestors were a part and which has been widely depicted in colour. Surely this can be explained?

  • Something often lost when people become very convinced that their own view is the correct one is that those with differing views are too easily assumed to be bad people with bad motives. Sometimes people just have a different opinion on how to achieve it, and other times they are wrong with no malicious motive.

    The rush to label people with wrong opinions as bad or hateful people is the real danger for our society.

    I read a really interesting article the other day about someone trying to make a documentary about Martina Navratalova. It was a very long piece, with a lot of detail, but in short, Navratalova is now considered too toxic for some young people, because they think she’s transphobic. The fact that she was a trailblazer, not just for gay rights, but trans rights at a time when it was rare, is not relevant to them. Her questioning the fairness of some male to female trans athletes participating in women’s sport is unforgivable.

    Refusing to debate is a problem. It’s all very well saying that it’s time to stop debating the reality of man-made climate change, but the best ways to reverse it are still up for debate. Do we spend our money on flood defences, wind turbines or better insulation? We can support trans rights while understanding why some victims of domestic violence are less trusting of the proposals to keep them safe.

    We also need to recognise that no-one is seriously worried about the rich and famous being ‘cancelled’. The issue is those with a lesser platform are scared to speak. It’s the ‘hands up who died because they didn’t wear a seat belt’ of arguments.

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd Aug '20 - 9:44pm

    Fiona, I agree entirely with what you have written.

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