It’s pretty simple, really. But for all the recent JeSuisCharlie-ing and well-crafted legislation, we are some distance from anything approaching this, and drifting further away, becoming trapped in the suffocating grip of self-imposed censorship. As the on-point Kenan Malik recently argued, many liberals believe in self-censorship as moral commitment: "a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence’. Self-censorship as a moral imperative is a very dangerous thing indeed."
Worse, this moral commitment appears to have infected much of our cultural, political and educational life, the parts of society where free expression is most valuable. The idea has taken hold that slippery concepts like "appropriateness", "understanding", or even just "feelings", are legitimate limits on another’s liberty. Brendan O’Neil, in a recent article for the Spectator, wrote of the "Stepford Students" who "robotically utter the same stuff about being offended", their "eyes glazed with moral certainty" shutting down debates ranging from abortion to nationalism, because they think it offensive: "They insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and, crime of crimes, make them feel ‘uncomfortable." (This all being then forced on nervous administrators with some manufactured outrage on social media).
Of course, most of us like to say we defend free expression even in its most aggressive form. After the Paris attacks, everyone was exclaiming how much they loved Charlie Hebdo. But est-ce que tu es Charlie, really? Because a lot of the people tweeting #JeSuisCharlie would never for a moment dare to criticise religion – especially Islam – for fear of offending, for fear of professional opprobrium from polite society, for fear of being thought "uncivil" or "inappropriate". And that’s become a problem. As David Aaronovitch argued in the Times following the murders, hardly any other newspapers were Charlie either: never publishing outrageous cartoons or criticising religion, which turned Charlie Hebdo into a blazing and lonely target. The real Charlies get it, while the rest of us, safely at home and comfortably non-controversial, get to feel like we are doing something by posting the thing on our timelines, demanding others take the risks we wouldn't ourselves. (And I include myself in that).