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Liberals have allowed the Right to own free speech

This is all made worse by the considerable efforts some people will go to be offended and be seen to be offended. Last year, “Twitter commentator” Mo Ansar campaigned to have Lib Dem PPC Maajid Nawaz de-selected for retweeting a picture of the prophet. Not because he (Ansar) was offended personally by the pics, mind you. Of course not! Mo is a liberal kind of guy. But he was offended that Nawaz didn’t think other people would be offended.

A lot of people appear to be desperate to be offended, because it gives them a nice feeling of righteous indignation, and, since victimhood seems to be increasingly a lazy proxy for desert, a shortcut to get your way. And each time we give into it, we’re further incentivizing it victimhood politics, like paying a hostage ransom.

I understand, of course, that free speech should, in a perfect world, be exercised with some respect for other people’s beliefs. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and Mill also explained why offensiveness should not be determined and protected by the law. Any vigorous criticism of one’s most cherished beliefs or convictions will, said Mill, always feel offensive and unfair to its target. Laws against it, therefore, would always be too restrictive. More interestingly, and rarely mentioned now, Mill feared that any effort by government to limiting offensiveness would always harm "marginal" groups – because anyone who vilified established orthodoxies will risk prosecution; while he who vilifies the marginal would be lionised.


Anyway, this all this leads in the same direction. It could be murders with knifes, or liberals with a weak constitution – the result it the same. As argued by Jonathan Chait, "The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome." This is why liberals have lost their position as free expression’s protector, because they quote the famous old maxim, but prefer to live by an inversion of it: If I broadly agree with what you say (considering it to be appropriate and generally inoffensive) I will defend (although only as far as the potentially embarrassing social media campaign against you) your right to say it.

Free speech: Theory versus practice

And so who are today’s defenders of the more vivid idea of free expression, that chaotic, dangerous, and exciting free expression as imaged by Mill? It’s the populist right wing. Across Europe the populist right has been growing over the last 20 years or so: the Front National in France, UKIP, Pegida in Germany, Geert Wilder, you know the roll call of familiar names. Each has their own bugbears and idiosyncrasies but consistent across them all is an aggressive and often articulate defence of free expression.

Jamie Bartlett is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which is a collaboration between Demos and the University of Sussex. The Centre combines computer and social sciences for policy research. Jamie’s work focuses on the ways in which social media and modern communications and technology are changing political and social movements, with a special emphasis on terrorism and radical politics. Jamie is author of The Dark Net, (William Heinemann, 2013), and Radicals (Penguin, 2017)

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