The following is a compilation of notes drafted during a lecture by Professor Roger Scruton on ‘Freedom of Speech’ at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, on 21 March 2017. Note: this is not a verbatim transcript of the actual lecture but a paraphrased version containing additional notes of my own and some others.
The core idea I took from the lecture:
The legal right to free speech is important for it is meant to facilitate public discourse and invite all opinions into the public square so that they may be exposed; it assists us in developing a better grasp of the truth.
First, a few introductory questions to guide us…
What is ‘freedom of speech’?
It is basically the right to say what you wish to say, regardless.
But regardless of what?
We do need some account of what we are trying to avoid. Words have effects. People can be stirred up to violence or psychological collapse could be caused, for instance.
What kind of right is freedom of speech – legal or moral?
There is, for instance, a legal right (on occasion) to commit adultery but is there a moral right? In this instance we are referring to a legal right, for we are arguing for state protection against being silenced; to prevent those trying to shut us up from doing so.
We are calling on the state to protect us. Those who try and stop you are thus infringing on your rights.
When is such a right infringed upon? What does stopping someone from saying something mean? Noise? Intimidation?
Some might argue that shouting people down is not technically stopping them. What about threats of violence or, what seems to be a primary location of conflict today, a mass attack on Twitter? Many instruments of intimidation are not necessarily a violation of the right to speak.
Regardless of what?
The law generally draws the line at words which are a prelude to assault. They are condemned as criminal. British common law would refer to incitement (affray, sedition). Certain uses of words are not free to be allowed and so it is also illegal, for instance, to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, for it can lead to bodily harm as mass panic and trampling occurs, which is a further example of words having an effect.
What about the area of blasphemy?
Blasphemy is unacceptable in Muslims contexts. In pluralistic contexts we ask who defines blasphemy and how? The reality is that in praising one god we often blaspheme another.
Should we enshrine the honour of God in law?
Protected and unprotected beliefs
In relation to our question, human beliefs are divided into two types.
Protected beliefs are ring-fenced against criticism, being made fun of, etc. Unprotected beliefs are those we expect to see or even invite criticism against. Scientific theories or judgements would typically be thought of as unprotected beliefs. But even here the instinct to protect beliefs arises. Examples are the Creation vs Evolution or Climate Change debates. Critical engagement does not occur but rather silencing of the other or in the case of the latter, in particular, people are polarised into groups of either ‘denialists’ (of climate change) or ‘part of the conspiracy’ (of fabricating climate change), for instance. A great scientific question all of a sudden turns ideological and moves beyond the sphere of scientific investigation and criticism.
John Stuart Mill argued that scientific beliefs must be unprotected – non-protection and exposure to refutation help us gain better understanding, otherwise you are unable to say what you are defending. True science is the science which survives criticism over time.
Protected beliefs and the issue of identity
Most protected beliefs, however, are not scientific but issues related to identity. What matters when it comes to identity-forming beliefs is not whether something is true or not but whether it enhances my life. These beliefs are not arrived at by pure reasoning or observation but by inheritance or conversion – through revelation of some sort. It is through such beliefs that a community is retained in a corporate entity – if you lose such a belief a radical existential change occurs. You become community-less with no sense of metaphysical rescue. Protected beliefs are incorporated into the deepest sense of who a person is; when that is afflicted everything goes out of joint.
Protected beliefs are badges of membership; an insult to the group is an insult to me personally. When such beliefs are criticised I can call on other community members to band with me in resistance. These beliefs are hungry for authority to validate it – such as a priest in a religious setting or a crowd of supporters in other instances. Appealing to such authorities frees me from having to justify these beliefs myself. It is therefore that we have dogma, with dogmatics being ‘the enquiry into that which cannot be enquired into’ – a fascinating field of study.
Religions traditionally satisfied these beliefs with dogmas being accepted from the magisterium. Take a religion away and a host of other beliefs flow in to take their place as protected beliefs with their own sets of dogma.
A posture of identity is required to form communities which is why orthodoxy is important and a ‘necessity’ for a community to exist. It is hardly possible to live in ubiquitous doubt. Living as an individual with an ever open mind is an ideal of the enlightenment and hard to live with. Religious dogma assists us in closing our minds, on the right things.
In the case of protected beliefs, it is not the falsehood of the opponent that is offensive but the truth. Silencing is the manner through which to protect a falsehood. When someone verbalises a truth that you are afraid of, you feel the need to protect it. If you have built your life on a falsehood, you must fight at all costs against the truth. Silencing is the only way of protecting the false argument from being dismantled.
Religion (such as our Christian tradition) portrays us as being in it together under a benign Sovereign from whom truth flows; remove this and we are to cohere around the negative – that which ‘we’ do not possess, we are united in our contradiction of this or that. The movement away from a single source of truth drives us back into tribes, and this is also the source for the ‘Twitter wars’. Remove religion and you remove the positive going forward nature of human life; religion helps us to confront the absurdity of life.
‘Equality’ is one concept drawn from in such a way to target aspects of the surrounding society for its oppressiveness. Large sections of the modern feminist movement and others engaging in identity politics take on such a posture; they do not necessarily stand for wrong ideas but gather around an identifier and aim to silence those who criticise or joke about them. Self-criticism and jokes at their own expense are also taboo – it touches on the idea of blasphemy. We see various figures in academia reprimanded, not for being wrong but for criticising a protected belief.
Should they get away with such criticisms is the question at issue? Most of us do say what is on our mind. Should the belief be so protected that people are to be hounded out of the professional communities like universities?
The community needs a scapegoat
Some sociologists are of the opinion that communities need scapegoats to cohere. Persecuting a scapegoat is a way for communities to re-unite. Those who transgress the protected doctrine can present themselves as scapegoats. Intimidation may take many forms. Even I (as a figure already on the outside and somewhat irrelevant) am hesitant to draw from the ‘gay marriage’ debate as an example, which testifies to how problematic the situation has become. In the academic world, if you express views critical of the orthodoxy of the day, you will be fired.
We further need to distinguish between givers and takers of offense. Certain academic programmes seem to be training people in offense-taking, rather than teaching them how to reason and participate in public discourse. Identities are now formed through narratives of victimhood. These new identities are so fragile that they cannot accommodate reasonable questions or any risk of being triggered, and so public spaces of discourse are often required to provide safe spaces to cater for this fragility. The aggressor too have become an expert at offense-taking, posing as the victim while responding with hate to the speaker (scapegoat), who is portrayed as the source of aggression by this victim’s own confused state of mind.
Visiting speakers do not get fired but face opposition in attempts to censor them. The loss of religion also changed the face of censorship in that it created a situation in which we are uncertain where censorship might come from next. There is no longer a moral code against which we rebel but multiple new ones popping up all over the place. Consider someone like feminist Germaine Greer for instance, who used to understand the orthodoxy she is challenging; she now gets opposed by various tribes (such as the transgender community) to her own surprise.
It is in light of this phenomenon that the question of free thought and speech is raised anew today.
It has been a temporary achievement of our culture to be free to ask questions about anything. Freedom to enquire sets humans apart from the world and makes it a place we can enquire and wonder about, and be surprised at what we discover. This helps us to live in uncertainty; in a public realm where we do not know who people are but whom we trust. This is the Christian legacy – we are led to believe the other is like us, that we need not think of them as the enemy within but be reconciled to them in truth. We share with them attributes to defuse a quarrel which might arise and might even laugh at each other’s idiosyncrasies and at our own. We recognise the validity of laughter. Laughter is an acceptable way to respond to the absurd parts of religion which has been the standard since 1688 in England, before which we were all killing one another. There is among some Muslims a tradition to laugh at pieties while others struggle to cope with such ironies. It is not a sin to laugh, provided you do laugh in a proper way. Such laughter is not to dismiss but a way in which people live with the absurdity of life. We have the ‘Life of Brian’ etc. but do not want to kill the Monty Python team which produced it. Mormons too laugh at The Book of Mormon currently in the London theatre. There is still the understanding that what we are laughing at are virtues and that we laugh at our own practises thereof. Could you have such a play be written about Islam?
Use of irony
In the Christian tradition there exists matters about which we disagree and at times we treat cultural certainties with irony. I think of Christ’s response to the woman taken in adultery as such a use of irony in defusing a dangerous belief. “Who of you have not thought of sleeping with this woman yourselves or perhaps have slept with her, or others like her? Go ahead, cast the first stone”.
It is important that free speech be protected, especially in a space such as a university. We should be able to criticise certainties and the more certain we are of them the more open they must be to criticism. It is through criticism that we gain better understanding of the truths we hold on to.
Q: Why have universities and theological colleges abandoned free speech with such alacrity?
A: University staff underestimated the importance of free speech and also realise now there is a cost to stand up for it. An academic lecturer focuses on and is primarily passionate about his or her professional work in a specific field. They regard their ability to continue to do that work as more important than the general maintenance of academic freedom.
Q: There is a tension between your argument that freedom of speech is a cultural phenomenon since 1688 and an assertion that it should be a universal right. Is it not cultural oppression to suggest it should be a universal right?
A: Freedom of speech is a tradition and inheritance – an identity forming idea. This is not cultural oppression to commend it to all because it liberates the rest of us and worth defending in multicultural societies.
Q: I recently went to speak at a British university and it was indicated in the disclaimer that academic staff have freedom of speech but not students nor visiting speakers. Is the closing down of free speech on campuses aiming to censor what the students say?
A: It may very well be a preventative counter-terrorism strategy to keep out radical Islamic preachers or students who propagate similar ideas. In my opinion, there is no reason radical Islamists shouldn’t be allowed to speak as long as the meeting is open and all others can attend and disagree. The law of incitement can of course be applied. This is part of the importance of free speech; to invite the absurd into the public square so that it may be debunked or laughed at. Radicalisation happens when ideologies are driven underground.
Q: Along the understanding that attempts to censor are protecting identities – eg. denying a “transwoman is a woman” – the consequentialist argument is mostly used, arguing that talking in a certain way inevitably harms people and must therefore be avoided. Where does this figure in all this?
A: That is a good observation. Yes, the consequentialist argument is certainly used; it is thought that people are being upset in the deepest part of their being – it touches on their identity. It is here that ‘phobia’ words have great force. Phobias burst onto the scene post 9/11 (Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) Every belief can indeed have adverse consequences but apart from harm, the opposition encountered exists primarily to prevent proper discussion from happening. There is a dramatisation of issues which humanity has been dealing with throughout history in one way or another, as if it is something new. Talk of transphobia is one such way of dramatising something so that certain matters relating to men and women cannot be discussed anymore. People do really care about the harm of others and want to see it avoided but as it is said, “sincerity guarantees nothing but itself”; it does not make something true.
Q: What about the censorship of something like pornography? Should that be allowed?
A: Porn entered the world in a profound way when the US Supreme Court said it was protected by free speech provision. The law does, however, still provide for censorship of representations of life which is considered ‘obscene’ and offensive to humanity. I believe a distinction can be drawn between the expression of a view or opinion and the portrayal of people in a certain way (or employing people to be portrayed in a certain way). I do not think we are preventing people from expressing beliefs through the censorship of pornography.
Q: Are we in a situation where we need martyrs for free speech to draw attention to the matter?
A: Maybe we too easily opt for martyrdom. People should use the law where it is on their side and push back when they get pushed out of jobs, etc.
Q: We do still enjoy the right of preaching the Christian gospel – in lots of places this privilege is not enjoyed – how can we avoid becoming such a place?
A: It comes down to courage. Without courage you cannot establish a faith anywhere – the example of your courage displayed is what persuades people that this faith is more than a few minor dogmas. They have to see you prepared to make that sacrifice. In the 18th century people had a shared religion and culture and were very outspoken – it was all done against background that could not be shifted. We have lost that background which makes us more uncertain and hesitant.
Liberalism (perpetual open-mindedness) tends to become a censorship of religious faith which is about closing your mind on the right things. Christian faith could be driven underground. Liberalism is a universalism which says we all have the same aspirations – it neglects local attachments. Attachment to the place and way of life that is yours is indispensable, however. All the freedoms are pointless because there is nothing you can do with them. This was at the foundation which led to the Brexit vote in 2016. Social attachments are extremely important and fundamentally necessary for freedom; it is a form of giving up freedom in order to live freely.
We must not forget that there is also a certain sense of joy which comes with transgressing orthodoxy. Behaviour we all know to be quite typical of late teens and students in particular. The problem though, is that people tend to end up with a more restrictive orthodoxy than the one they are attacking. The Christian orthodoxy (which also silenced speakers at times) has been displaced by another.
Free speech can be as damaging as anything else, yes, but we have no alternative but to invite free speech – to protect us from ourselves in the long run. Freedom of speech prioritises rational discourse and silencing such discourse ought to be prevented. There is no point to a university if subjects for discussion can be removed without explanation.