This was an introduction given for WorldWrite's Freedom Babbleon that took place on 19th December, 2020.
A frequent caricature of absolute free speech is that rubbish and unintelligent ideas are given the same credence as insightful and intelligent ideas. Absolute free speech, therefore, invites moral relativism in the market place of ideas. In its place, it is argued that there should be absolutism over what is deemed correct ideas and the suppression of what is often termed problematic ideas. This has recently been put into practise by Ofcom, who argue that speakers who are critical of trans ideology should not be given a platform alongside advocates of trans gender ideas on TV discussions. This is seen as striking a blow against the decadence of relativism in favour of clearly outlined absolutes of high minded opinion. In truth, though, the cancelling out of an opposing view here is the suspension of judgement. It first denies the judgements made by either side of the trans debate or any other debate. And secondly, it denies audiences the capacity to decide which judgement is more convincing.
We should remember that toleration and free speech absolutism is not a gateway towards an anything-goes-acceptance of nonsense or banal ideas. People should have unrestricted free expression of ideas and lifestyles, but equally audiences should be free to make moral judgements on whether ideas or lifestyles are good or bad, progressive or reactionary. We should tolerate those expressions we hate, but also be robust enough to challenge and condemn ideas that we oppose. It is only through this ongoing dialogue that society develops a collective conscience and furthermore social solidarity. As this debate involves all citizens, a judgemental approach to ideas and lifestyles plays an important role in the intellectual and moral development of individuals. It also forces proponents of particular ideas and lifestyles to hold themselves to account, to see their worldview prosper or fall in the market place of ideas. Toleration of ideas and lifestyles is not the same as acceptance or support for different ideas and lifestyles.
Supporters of no platform argue that competing ideas won’t win over people who have a fixed attachment to a particular set of ideas. They argue that hardcore racists will not be so easily won over to humanism and equality, so therefore closing off their expression is the right course of action. Indeed, we have seen this with the failure of the de-radicalisation programme of Islamic terrorists in recent years. It is true that a belief system becomes a key part of a person’s self-concept and outlook and competing arguments won’t necessarily change their minds. Nor will the sense that they are ostracised from mainstream or respectable society will necessarily change their minds either. The problem with this argument to justify intolerance and censorship is that it is both anti-democratic and hostile to individualism. It is anti-democratic because it ignores how a battle of ideas is based on a majoritarian opinion and consensus, not the fact that a tiny minority still hold onto to opinions that have been discredited and defeated. It is anti-individual because it demands that all people should become a means to an end, that they have to be part of a particular consensus goal whether they want to or not.
Indeed, hostility towards being judgemental is essentially an attack on individualism and the free willing subject. Firstly, it requests that individuals do not make a moral judgement on the behaviour or ideas of another. It thus attacks our capacity for self-reflection and moral agency. Secondly, a refusal to be judgemental also absolves an individual of their capacity to act morally. Increasingly, a medical reason for badly behaved teenagers or a murderer is often sought as an explanation for their behaviour, not the judgement that they’ve behaved in a morally wrong way.
Hostility towards being judgemental might appear benign and an expression of good manners, but in fact it is an attack on our individualism because it demands we suspend our capacity for moral judgement on ideas and behaviour.