The funny thing all those demanding “free speech” have in common

Having been active on Lib Dem social media for about eight years now, and being an admin or moderator of major Lib Dem groups for much of that time, I’ve witnessed many of the party’s internal debates lately.  I’ve noticed, with increasing despair, a trend in certain quarters to bemoan the fact that there are topics which people don’t like being debated within our party.

I would have far more patience with these internal ‘free speech’ arguments if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s only ever one thing that the people advancing them seem to want to talk about at the end of the day – and they’re desperate to talk about it; they’re just bursting to say it – except, there are all these mean people out there wanting them to stop, and hurting their feelings if they say it anyway.

Bluntly, it always seems to come down to how revolting they find LGBT+ people (particularly trans+ people) – how they wish they’d be less disgustingly LGBT+ in public where other people might actually have to do things like look at them and – horror! – share space with them.  And, of course, there are all these mean people wanting them to not say it, or at least to jolly well say it elsewhere, and there are all these intolerant LGBT+ folks and their allies with the temerity to call them things like “illiberal,” and “TERF,” which are terrible things to call them, because only Bad People™ are called those things.

We should not be surprised that people who are the subjects of a debate want to be a part of it.  It’s also not surprising that they won’t want to debate, particularly not endlessly and at length:

1) their worth as human beings,

2) their retaining rights that they currently do, and

3) any reduction of those rights (such as, say, their ability to use toilets, except in private homes)

It would be neither “Liberal” nor moral to insist that anyone sit by smiling sweetly while others debate, in public, whether they should have, or keep having, rights that those actually having the debate already enjoy.  That wouldn’t be “allowing debate” – that would be bullying.  Wanting people to stop doing it isn’t “stifling free speech”, or “stopping people from feeling offended” – it’s protecting an embattled minority from psychological abuse by people who either want to inflict that abuse in the first place, or are too pig-ignorant to see that that’s what they’re doing (and too righteously-offended at the very idea that they’re being insensitive to begin to think that perhaps the people asking them to stop might have a point).

Where are the people “wanting to have the debate” about the merits of female genital mutilation?  Where are the people “just asking reasonable questions” about returning the electoral franchise solely to property-owning men?  Where are the people “exercising their right to free speech” so they can dispassionately discuss the advantages of reintroducing racial segregation?  There aren’t any – and post-Brexit, where are the people “being intolerant of dissent” and wanting to “stifle free speech in the Party, not like in the old Liberals, oh no,” over anything at all – other than over the right of LGBT+ people (and particularly trans+ people) to just live their lives quietly outside the centre of controversy for a change?

If you’re so horrified at the idea of fellow Lib Dems suggesting that the debate you desperately want to have, or the thing you’re just bursting at the seams to say, is one you really shouldn’t, do stop and really think about why you actually want to do it – and why people might actually be asking you to stop.

If the debate that you’re so angry you can’t have is about the rights of a group you aren’t yourself part of, the reason your fellow party members are asking you to stop is because that debate is so fundamental to people’s actual lives that it’s really not worth having – because its only real effect will be to make their existence in public life more precarious.  …and don’t be surprised, if you continue to argue the toss, if those same people conclude that making their existence more precarious is actually what you wanted to achieve all along – and cease to feel safe in your company.

* John Grout is a Lib Dem activist and lives in Reading.

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  • Stephen Harte 23rd Jan '22 - 12:49pm

    Well said!

  • Jennie (she/her) 23rd Jan '22 - 3:03pm

    * applause and whistling *

    Thank you, John.

  • Thank you John! I was seriously thinking about contributing something similar, but you expressed my thoughts far better than I could have. Much appreciated.

  • James Brough 23rd Jan '22 - 5:35pm

    Excellent article – thank you, John.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 23rd Jan '22 - 5:51pm

    Never has a post made me feel so proud and also so dismayed at the same time.

    I’m really glad you have said all this. I’m really sorry that you have to.

  • Thank you for putting this so brilliantly and succinctly.

  • Jenny Hazell 23rd Jan '22 - 6:44pm

    I wonder if the author could give some examples of the sort of speech he thinks needs to be shut down. People who say ” how revolting they find LGBT+ people (particularly trans+ people) – how they wish they’d be less disgustingly LGBT+ in public where other people might actually have to do things like look at them and – horror! – share space with them”

  • Christopher Stafford 23rd Jan '22 - 6:52pm

    I think it is wrong to assume that defenders of free-speech are secretly concerned with the promotion of one agenda. This is the party of Mill- that man who made probably the most famous defence of free-speech. It shouldn’t be surprising or a conspiracy to anyone, that this party would attract people of whom freedom of speech is of great importance and wish to protect it. And within this, see that party should lead by example; protect free-speech within the party and allow for the freedom to debate issues of the day.

  • James Brough 23rd Jan '22 - 7:19pm

    Excellent article. As Mary says, it’s just a shame that it needed to be written. Somehow, it seems to have become a worse crime to accuse someone of intolerance than it is to be intolerant.

    Free speech, as with other rights, cannot be absolute. My right to stand where I wish ends where your personal space begins. Your right to ask what you may see as reasonable questions ends where my right to exist as a queer, mentally ill person becomes threatened. In fact, not just my right to exist. My right to live without fear, to enjoy a private life, to claim help and support where I need it.

  • Rachel Walters 23rd Jan '22 - 9:21pm

    Thank you John – well said. I’m all for free speech , but not without , the right to be challenged , taking responsibility for what is said, and consequences, if what is said is offensive , ill informed or just plain hateful , not just to individuals but to a group of people, especially to those who are a minority and don’t have the opportunity to make their case.
    Often over simplified outrageous ill informed claims or statements are made, and it takes many times more effort and time to counteract them, than is often allowed/allotted. The side of the minority doesn’t get heard. Often they are not even represented in the discussion.

  • Thank you to everyone for the supportive comments. Re: the two comments requiring a response at the time of my writing this one:

    @Jenny Hazell – I believe I was clear in the main article. And I don’t recall saying that speech should be “shut down”, merely that advocates of “having a debate” should recognise when those minorities whom a debate is about are being harmed by it – and that if, having been told that the debate is causing harm, they continue to insist on having it, it is reasonable to draw inferences about their intentions towards those minorities.

    @Christopher Stafford – Again, I believe I was clear in the main article. Thank you for invoking Mill, incidentally – his defence of free speech included acceptance of the ‘harm principle’, and the situation I describe above (i.e. where the holding of a debate causes harm to the minority whom it is about) clearly meets his criteria to “exercise power” “to prevent harm to others”, so you can rest assured regarding my views’ compatibility with his.

  • So all those who want free speech actually just want to be able to insult people based on their sexual orientation? Really? That really doesn’t seem right to me and even if it was, it’s nowhere near enough to block freedom of speech. That is deeply illiberal.

  • Free speech needs to be a two-way conversation, not a one-sided rant. Just as there is a clear difference between a boxing match between consenting participants and an unprovoked assault, there is a difference between expressing a point of view, where the other side can also freely express their opinion, and verbal abuse, which in its extreme form can constitute a criminal offence. Quite rightly, discriminatory language is neither a legitimate “point of view” that warrants a debate, nor genuinely “free speech” – it’s just bullying.

  • Personally, I became much more interested in the theme of free speech in the party after various of my posts arguing against the Remain Alliance and later Revoke were removed from various party sites in the run up to the 2019 election.

    I’m dismayed and surprised to hear that people on LD sites have said that LGBT+ people are “revolting” and “disgusting”.

  • Peter Watson 24th Jan '22 - 10:43am

    I feel like I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and into a minefield here, but …
    Where I would take issue with the article is the claim that “all those demanding free speech” share the described views of LGBT+ people, which at best sounds like hyperbole and undermines the important points being made.
    From the outside (as neither a woman nor LGBT+), the debate between liberals appears to get particularly heated when the rights of (all) women to certain things (e.g. to “safe” spaces which exclude men) butts up against trans-women’s rights to share them. Discussions seem to get shut down or derailed to argue about freedoms of speech and identity when perhaps constructive debates could lead to solutions that satisfy all concerned.
    Finally, I often feel uncomfortable about terms like LGBT+: it’s a convenient shorthand in some contexts, but sometimes such a binary approach doesn’t seem very liberal, lumping together communities based solely upon something they’re not (i.e. not being cisgender heterosexual).

  • Well said, John.

    Just on this point – “Where are the people “exercising their right to free speech” so they can dispassionately discuss the advantages of reintroducing racial segregation?”

    They may not be doing this within Lib Dem circles yet, but the wider “freedom of speech from consequences” movement is very much also about enforced platforms and applause for racism, sexism, eugenics, and other forms of bigotry too. See all the fuss about “maybe we shouldn’t have a statue celebrating a slave trader”, etc.

  • For all the allies in this thread, thank you.

    Some of the rest of you, you’re demonstrating the reason LGBT+ and other marginalised communities stop talking to lots of you about this stuff. You’re

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Jan '22 - 2:25pm

    Very forceful argument, made on this. John wriotes with vigour and is eloquent, if with a caustic tone, one understood. I think it would be good to allow this or encourage it. Unfortunsately, there are those who are discouraging it when not on issues they care about. Too much of, demand that we must give evidence, or saying, let’s be scientific, wipes out polemic and emotion. John gives less evidence, and gives us more feeling. Not a tendency we see on here much.

    Like Chris Moore here, am astonished if the extent of comment that is negative in the way John says, is from members rather than hijackers of a site.

    Only consolation, the party has a few who are at the extremes because it represents a wider voter base than some think/ say.

    Those of us who favour the broad centre ground, ought not be surprised when attitudes go beyond, to those extremes we dislike.

    My concern with the article, is while the type of awful “free speech” activist, might indeed share a characteristic, just as John expresses, we must not equate that with the decent and libertarian demand or advocating for it, because of some who do genuinely rather like to stop debate on some other issues. There is a tendency for example, as Chris says, not “rock the boat,” on issues, like the EU, in our party.

    We must extend Mill further sometimes than we might feel comfortable with. It often reveals the extremism in the person far better than wanting them to stop instantly.

  • Stewart Elliott 24th Jan '22 - 6:11pm

    Thank you for this, John 🙂

  • Alexandrine Kantor 24th Jan '22 - 11:59pm

    Brilliant article John.

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