We all have our own understanding of freedom, and it usually begins to evolve, as a starting point, from our own immediate experience. To an artist, perhaps freedom means being able to express yourself through creative means without being told what you are and aren’t allowed to paint. To a political activist, freedom might mean the right to march, chant and strike without being beaten or arrested by police. For a large corporation, freedom may mean the lack of restrictions on your manner of making profits.
And for people whose job is to speak, such as professional opinion writers or academics, freedom, quite understandably, looks at first as if it can be measured purely in the right to speech. Or, more accurately, the right to an audience, because if you’re used to having one, you conflate your right to speak with your right to have people listen.
And if you’re still looking at things from this starting point, then ‘freedom’ is as simple as ‘free speech,’ and so free speech should be more or less absolute. If you’re coming from this starting point, removal from a panel at the request of the event’s attendees becomes censorship; having an article pulled because it is deemed harmful by the people it is written about becomes an attack on your personal freedom.
This is an almost endearingly childlike understanding of what freedom is. You hate paying taxes but you have to pay taxes so your freedom has been curtailed. You wanted to go to the party but they didn’t invite you because you’re a homophobe so your freedom has been curtailed. You want an ice-cream before dinner even though you’re unwell but mummy says you can’t have an ice-cream so your freedom has been curtailed.
And that may all be true as far as it goes but as an adult you usually develop the ability to recognise that the world does not begin and end with getting what you want, and that ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ are a little more complex than the things that directly impact you. As she gets older, the thoughtful libertarian looks in the mirror and realises, for instance, that perhaps she’s been giving a disproportionate amount of attention to the things that directly impact upon her own life. The rich, white, perfectly progressive libertarian perhaps realises that, quite unintentionally, she’s spent, say, half her energy on calling for tax cuts and and half her energy asking why, say, black people (especially women) are so much more likely to be detained when they have a mental health problem than white people (especially men) – as if these examples of curtailing freedoms are all of equal magnitude. It’s not that taxes don’t relate to personal liberty, it’s just that there are all sorts of examples of people’s liberties being trampled upon – and it turns out that some of them depend, unfortunately, upon collecting a bit of tax to rectify. It’s not about saying tax isn’t an issue of personal freedom. It’s about keeping things in proportion when it comes to focus and priority.
The fact is there are invisible freedoms being curtailed all the time. We don’t hear from the people who really are, in practice, being ‘censored’ and ‘silenced’ because, funnily enough, that’s a big part of what real censorship and silencing means. People may disagree about whether it amounts to ‘censorship’ or ‘silencing’ to petition a university to no-platform Germaine Greer on account of her transphobia, but I think we can all agree that those words do not apply to appearing on Question Time and NewsNight and in the papers to talk about how you feel about it. Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, it also does not apply to having your article removed from the Observer website and having it republished by the Daily Telegraph instead, as happened to Julie Burchill not so long ago, and nor does it apply to being sacked for punching someone in the face, or to being criticised for saying the N-word, as happened to Jeremy Clarkson.
Huge sections of our media, however, appear to view these cases as enormous and significant restrictions upon personal freedom. Perhaps so. Here is another example of restrictions upon personal freedom. A choice between dying from getting overworked in brutal conditions and dying from homelessness, starvation, or lack of healthcare.
That is, course, the reality of the ‘freedom’ most people enjoyed before there was government regulations about working conditions and wages, and before a basic welfare state was introduced in the form of unemployment benefit, sick pay, pensions and health care. These things were denounced as anti-freedom when they were new, because the focus was disproportionately on the powerful people having to make compromises instead of the individuals who became freer as a result. Nowadays even critics of welfare tend to accept that these things make most people freer, and give people more control over their own lives. To those defenders of freedom who never quite got past that initial starting point, with the disproportionate focus on that which impacts themselves directly, the minimum wage was the government interfering in business. Anti-discrimination workplace laws were denying employers free choice. Paying for universal healthcare out of taxpayers’ money was a blow against financial liberties. It is only if you are no longer forced to choose between starving or freezing, between unemployment or back-breaking labour that doesn’t pay enough to live on, between bankruptcy or leaving a sick loved one untreated, that you would, irregardless of the theoretical ideological principles that you may hold in abstract, in practice, find yourself to be freer.
What does all this have to do with Germaine Greer getting no-platformed, you might ask. Well, a lot. If you have never feared for your life when walking down the street because you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, if you have never been physically threatened and called an abuser for wanting to use the toilet, if you have never been told that you should not exist, told that you do not exist, by respected academics who are celebrated as experts in their field of study – their ‘field of study’ being your life – it may be natural, as a starting point, that you would feel as if being disinvited from a panel or having an article pulled is the most significant impingement on ‘freedom’ that you can imagine. But it is not.
If there are certain places you cannot go, because you know you’ll be at risk of severe violence, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not able to use the toilet safely, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to transition to your correct gender without the permission of your spouse, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are banned from accessing a women’s refuge or rape support service, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to exist, without your right to exist being put up for academic debate, you better believe that is a violation of personal freedom. Think about that. Not allowed to exist. Paying taxes is annoying and all, but what greater violation of personal freedom can there be than being told that your right to exist is wholly conditional upon the approval of those who seek only to hurt and destroy you?
We mostly accept as a society that ‘freedom’ is not simple and not absolute. I’m not arguing that there is no freedom of speech issue to be discussed when it comes to no-platforming, but rather, that every time we discuss it, by virtue of being the kind of people who enjoy discussing these things, we inevitably have our focus completely out of proportion. The exclamations of outrage we hear from people who take platforms for granted at the suggestion that a democratic, peaceful process like a petition be used to take someone off a panel, on the grounds that their inexpert views are actively harmful, is not unlike the exclamations of outrage you hear from very wealthy people over higher taxes, or corporations over the minimum wage. After all, if freedom means the absolute right to appear on panels even when you have no expertise in the subject at hand then God help us, nearly every single person in the country is oppressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a panel. I’m being censored as we speak, I presume.
Besides, most grown adults understand that words have consequences. If you say a lot of nasty things about people and deliberately drum up controversy, well, of course in a free country you can carry on talking, but guess what – some people might not want you at their events anymore. Only somebody with a job like an opinion-journalist or an academic could possibly imagine that most people have an unfettered, unadulterated right to free speech without consequences. Every other adult in the country surely knows that free speech means the police don’t throw you in prison for your opinions, not that you have a God-given right to be invited to universities to speak. In most jobs, your boss is entitled to dislike your offensive opinions, and they are entitled to sack you or remove you from projects if you show yourself to be inexpert, unqualified, or if enough people complain about you. That’s not censorship, it’s facing the perfectly legal and reasonable consequences of your own actions. Your friends are entitled to stop inviting you to parties if you become offensive (or for any other reason, for that matter). And that is not censorship either. It doesn’t stop there. Your partner is entitled to leave you if they discover you are a terrible person. Customers are entitled to complain about you if you’re rude to them. You are free to use any words you like but words have consequences. It is laughable to see the journalists and academics so used to the idea they are entitled to a platform (and a microphone and a captive audience) no matter what they use it for and no matter whether they are even qualified in the subject of which they speak that they are taking such profound offense at someone being taken off a panel – yet all the while, lecturing others about navel-gazing, living in a bubble, and being too sensitive.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for or against Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Nick Griffin or anyone else who comes out with hate speech to be given platforms. I believe that debate should be had between the people affected by their words – and the likelihood is, there will be different situations where a different approach is best. Sometimes no-platforming works, sometimes debate works. It depends upon the parties involved, the consequences, and, perhaps most of all, on what you are trying to achieve.
But freedom as a fundamental principle means looking at all of its manifestations. It means asking more than: “how does this impact my property and my free speech?” It means asking: “how does this impact people’s lives, all people’s lives, not in theory, but in practice?” The idea that freedom can be entirely measured in terms of what we are allowed to say without consequence is perhaps a positive evolution from measuring it entirely in terms of how much tax we pay, but it is still embarrassingly simplistic. Simple moral absolutes are like a comfort blanket. They make us feel safe. Opening them up for debate is challenging, scary, messy and complicated – especially when those absolutes happen to form the basis of how you make your living. But freedom matters, and the world is complicated, and we are all learning. And I think we can do better than this.