Fiefdom of Speech

The Twitter police have been sharpening their pitchforks and have disabled a number of high-profile accounts, most notably those of Katie Hopkins and the writer Graham Linehan. Others who stand firmly outside the liberal thought-orthodoxy circle of trust are next up for a jolly good forking.

Inevitably, this has raised a furore about attacks on the freedom of speech. Of course, that freedom has – contrary to popular belief – never been absolute. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act (1998) sums up the restrictions as being those ‘in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. Now there may be disputable grey areas here, which will always arise in law. It’s why every society is knee-deep in m’learned friends.

But what of opinions? The articulation of what you believe? Surely as long as these are not weaponised directly at another (because then they might fall under one of the existing offences against the person or likewise) a straightforward view ought to be free to be aired, unfettered? After all, an opinion does not materially create or alter anything in itself, because it is not necessarily based on facts or any objective evidence. An opinion is largely held to be valueless for that reason. Clarifying a statement as an opinion is for example a defence to an accusation of slander or libel.

Now none of this is to say that opinions are not frequently offensive. But personal offence is precisely that: personal. The world comprises many people and many perspectives. That makes for limitless variability, and as a consequence, being offended is fact of life. It would be impossible to legislate against ‘offence’, and why would we want to? Democracy can survive only if taboo remains, well, taboo.

Accordingly, a right not to be offended is a pipe dream of those who have taken self-righteousness beyond the self and into the realms of moralistic tyranny.

I was stunned at Twitter’s response to all this malarkey because they had already put in place their mute and block functionality that appeared to achieve a neat balance of an on/off switch and an open platform. Perhaps they hold that the freedom of speech does not necessarily bestow an automatic right to be heard on every platform. Touché.

So, while Ms Hopkins fires out some pretty harsh right-wing polemic, and Mr Linehan contends that biological sex is real (what a rascal!), we all have the options to press the off button. The most effective form of censorship we have is personal choice.

I might be offended – even sickened by some of the stuff that burns into my retinas – but so what? That’s my problem, is it not? Or the speaker’s problem if I become a hardened opponent of theirs. People write their own references.

Yet if offence is now a trigger for blanket curbs, there is a missed opportunity to front up tosh with cogent counter-arguments. Of course, it may not be tosh at all. That would be an opinion, unless of course it became dismantled with a factual rebuttal. And that brings us to the salient point.

In adopting its course, Twitter is redefining its service through its application of policy. It is no longer an open microblogging platform. Ultimately, its user base will make up their own minds, and that will likely lead to rival platforms hosting different sides of the argument in their own echo chambers. That doesn’t bode well for progress, and it won’t stop the purportedly harmful ‘hate’. But it will almost certainly just displace it, if that ‘hate’ actually exists. Whether it is of course ‘hate’ is simply an opinion.

It would be infinitely more constructive to engage opinion with arguments, but the professionally offended simply want their own blissful bubble, with any counterpoints banished to the wilderness but never tested. That serves only to push alternative narratives underground to thrive unchallenged. Sadly, just because you are offended does not mean that you are right. But if you are right, that is all the more reason to meet the challenges head-on and out in the open.

In truth, ‘right‘ and ‘wrong‘ have been redefined as ‘the narrow, liberal woke perspective‘ and ‘every other opinion’ respectively, which is so harsh a demarcation that even nuanced opinion away from the absolutist, prescribed positions will lead to broad-brush labelling and draconian sanctions. Regrettably, with personal freedom of thought and expression, the line has been decisively overstepped. Illiberal ‘liberal’ organisations and movements have created their own communication spheres that operate under their increasingly austere and authoritarian control.

The fiefdoms of speech have opened a very different trap.

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