By William J. Furney
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” So said George Orwell, as does the Free Speech Union, a British organisation dedicated to helping those who have been silenced — or, increasingly, “cancelled” and no-platformed, by those who live in free-speech countries but would rather not hear others’ opinions.
It’s a growing and, for many, a disturbing phenomenon that’s linked to the so-called woke movement and has served to heighten the culture wars and divide beliefs between what some see as right and others, inherently wrong.
Free Speech Union founder and director Toby Young believes social media has been a primary enabler of wokeism, allowing people who might otherwise remain silent themselves to easily hit out online at opinions they don’t like and attempt to rally fellow keyboard warriors into shutting them down. He shared his views with Furney Times.
The UK is an open democracy — so why is free speech increasingly under threat?
I’ve been puzzling away at that for some time and I think there are many reasons. Both de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill identified the “tyranny of the majority” as a potential shortcoming of democratic societies; and in the last 15 years, social media companies have created a mechanism that enables holders of orthodox views to tyrannise dissenters, particularly Twitter.
Although, to complicate matters, it’s actually a minority tyrannising the majority, by creating the impression that support for their positions is far more widespread than it really is – or, if it isn’t a majority view now, it soon will be: the “wrong side of history” argument.
The rise of social media has coincided with the growth of the quasi-religious woke cult, which has filled the God-shaped hole left by the decline of Christianity, particularly in the Anglosphere. And the members of that cult have inherited the intolerance for dissent that has characterised far-left political movements for at least 100 years.
The woke cult has replaced secular liberalism as the official doctrine of the establishment, which means that a lot of institutions and professional communities that used to regard freedom of expression as sacrosanct – the Civil Service; the judiciary; the higher education sector; the mainstream media; the arts, particularly the performing arts; the third sector, etc. – no longer do.
All these factors have combined to create a kind of public morality in a way there wasn’t 15 years ago: a core of sacred values – equity, diversity and inclusion – that every educated person is expected to promote, whether employed in the public sector or the private sector. When you have a capital “p” public morality like this – when morality isn’t regarded as a private matter between an individual and his conscience or his god – it makes life much tougher for dissenters. In this respect, contemporary Britain has something in common with medieval Britain when the Catholic church was all-powerful.
It is not an irony that universities — places of learning where free thought, ideas and speech are encouraged and usually thrive — are becoming places where people are silenced?
I’m not sure it’s as ironic as some people think. After all, universities began life as religious seminaries. It could be that they’re reverting to type, within the last 150 years or so, in which intellectual dissent was tolerated – a historical aberration.
Are some parents and their over-encouragement — “yes-only, you’re-great” attitudes to generally mediocre efforts — of their children in some way to blame for wokeism? This is something that Julie Birchill pointed to in a recent Spike piece.
That’s one of the explanations offered for why emotional safety is prioritised over intellectual freedom, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind. I used to be quite sceptical about it, but the last 22 months have made me reconsider. Safetyism does seem to be much more deeply entrenched than I’d imagined — all across the West — and no doubt parents bear some responsibility for that. But I think overprotective parenting is a symptom of safetyism, not its cause.
What’s the worst case of silencing you’ve seen in the UK?
The mobbing of gender-critical feminists by trans-rights activists has been one of the worst manifestations of cancel culture, particularly when their employers have colluded in the persecution. It cannot be an accident that the people the woke thought police have singled out for the most vituperative abuse are women.
And around the world?
The murder of 17 people in the Charlie Hebdo shootings by Islamist terrorists.
One of the most high-profile cases last year was the firing of Eton teacher Will Knowland, for refusing to take down a YouTube video on masculinity, The Patriarchy Paradox, after a female staff member complained about it. What’s your view of what happened?
I thought it was wrong of Eton to fire him for gross misconduct, and I don’t think asking female teachers at Eton to discuss the contents of the video with pupils would have constituted unlawful harassment, as defined by the Equality Act 2010, which was one of the headmaster’s objections to the video.
The whole episode was terribly damaging to Eton’s reputation, because it’s supposed to be a school that encourages discussion and debate. The fact that it happened shows how vulnerable educational institutions are to woke capture. If it can happen at Eton, it can happen anywhere.
And an even bigger case is that of JK Rowling and her being cancelled for her views on gender issues. Why do you think people got so upset?
I think a lot of the people who got upset were fans of the Harry Potter books and thought of JK Rowling as a champion of progressive causes. So in their eyes, she wasn’t just a heretic but an apostate. Religious communities generally reserve their most cruel punishments for apostates.
Where do you think a lot of this anger comes from — for instance, if someone says a transwoman shouldn’t be allowed to compete in women’s sports, because they have an unfair, physical advantage?
The woke cult is a religious community without a church, so you cannot demonstrate your piety by going to a particular place every Sunday at 11am. Instead, its members demonstrate their fealty to the community by fervently promoting its beliefs – and the more absurd those beliefs, the better they serve that purpose.
Anyone can argue against racial discrimination. But to argue for the inclusion of transwomen in women’s-only sports, and to claim that trans athletes have no natural advantages over biological women, is quite difficult and therefore serves to signal to other members of the cult that you’re a true believer.
What do you say to people in places like China, for instance, who have no freedom of information (internet mostly cut off and everything highly censored) let alone free speech?
Is your organisation available to help people only in the UK, or anywhere in the world? And how do you go about assisting those who have been silenced, cancelled or no-platformed?
We can only really help people in the UK, although you can become a discount member if you live overseas. There are sister organisations in New Zealand and the US, and my ambition is for there to be Free Speech Unions in every country in the Anglosphere.
Is there anything more, or in particular, that the Boris Johnson government could be doing to protect free speech in Britain?
Well, it’s doing almost nothing, save for the Higher Education Bill, so yes, there is.