Isn’t it annoying when someone you don’t like steals all your best ideas? Due to a combination of cowardice and indifference, that's what's happening to free expression. That mighty cornerstone of democratic life is becoming the preserve of the populists. It’s time for liberals to wrestle it back.
The contours of this seem, prima facie, pretty straight forward. Free speech, with a few tightly defined exceptions, is vital in a liberal democracy. Upsetting or offending religious sentiment is not, and should not, be one of those exceptions. We should cherish and defend the right to free expression, and realise that democracies are noisy, chaotic places to live, where good and bad ideas clash. Its health depends on all citizens feeling they can present their views and argue them out fairly, otherwise disillusion and disengagement result.
Yet this is where liberals are losing. Free expression, in any meaningful sense, is more than the laws that uphold it. It frames attitudes and behaviours. Rights can be enshrined, but without exercise they atrophy. For free expression to produce its full personal and societal yield, differing opinions – especially those that are uncomfortable or difficult – should be constantly encouraged, warmly welcomed, sought out, and treated with respectful seriousness. In modern Britain it increasingly feels like we have the law (which is relatively good, a few bits of the Communication Act notwithstanding) but not the spirit of the thing. The liberals point to the law, but the spirit and vigorous practice has been ceded to the populists.
Free expression has both a moral and purposive value. Of course it’s vital to be able to express oneself, to realise the human need and right to speak one’s mind. But it is also a technical means for individuals or society to arrive at a clearer perception of the truth. The patron saint of this idea, and its best exponent, is John Stuart Mill. If we don’t allow our opinions to be “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed” he wrote in On Liberty, then that opinion will be “held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”.
For Mill it wasn’t enough to express an opinion: the true liberal had an obligation to test it, to actively seek out the alternative view, to grill it, interrogate it, to argue it out. And that is where today’s liberal falls short, preferring to close alternatives off rather than open them up. Freedom of expression is chaotic and dynamic – not easy and timid.
There are two conditions beyond the statute book that are necessary for this full free expression to flourish.
First, there can be no possibility of self-censorship. Whether it is fear of retaliation by gun-wielding radicals or fear of offending established opinion on a matter, self-censorship is the anathema of free speech. Citizens must be encouraged to say what they truly think. More: citizens should be encouraged to dissent. If opinion on a subject is set, disagreement should be sought out. Second – and related – citizens need to feel their opinion, once stated, will be listened to seriously and fairly. Not patronised or sneered at: but a welcome part of a debate or discussion even if others strongly disagree.