By Ed Holtom
The number of national newspaper columns and think-pieces bemoaning increased ‘restrictions’ on freedom of speech seems to be increasing exponentially. It’s strange because these articles usually contain the offensive things that an individual has said, state that they got in trouble for doing so, and then complain that this is riotously unfair and the death of our democracy. They declare themselves victims of ‘wrong-think’ who have been derided by the ‘woke-brigade’ - who in reality are merely self-interested elitists - that fail to understand the ‘real issues’ faced by our country. This is puzzling as these acts of defiance against the ‘woke warriors’ are usually greeted not with, as the language used in these articles might suggest, eternal damnation and complete career destruction, but with thousands of comments of agreement, likes, retweets, and shares. These of course are in addition to the fact that they have been published in the newspapers with the widest circulations in the country.
These commentators – including our very own Equalities Minister, Liz Truss – ‘defy’ critics and suggest that Britain has progressed quite enough, and that we ought to be proud of how we’ve come. It is certainly true that the lives of minorities in the United Kingdom are ostensibly better than in many other parts of the world. However, recently much publicised ‘progress’ on the rights of minority groups that the government has touted is guilty of the same virtue-signalling that these free-speech activists loathe. Take, for example, the recent announcement that gay men who have been in a monogamous relationship for three months are now allowed to give blood. This was announced with much fanfare and the narrative put forward was that this was an example of the Tory government making life easier for gay men. Surely the increased specificity over the blood donation rules serves as an example of the very process of putting people in boxes and reducing them to labels that these free speech and liberty advocates decry.
It is right to be wary of those who cry wolf on others for attacking their free speech. Many countries on our doorstep have fallen prey to the kind of rhetoric that portrays itself as advocating for freedom, when in reality it serves to justify the increased marginalisation of oppressed groups. We need look no further than the rise of Poland’s ‘LGBT-Free Zones’ and Hungary’s ‘Anti-Gender Ideology’ campaigns to see the logical conclusion of this line of argument. It is important to consider the position that these people are speaking from. Instead of listening to the arguments made by those who oppose them, they claim that they are being silenced, and paint themselves as victims. The power to do this actually underscores the fact that they are at a higher position in the social hierarchy than those who object to their views.
Cancel culture can have ugly results. No one is suggesting that Twitter trolling and threats on people’s lives is appropriate. However, the enemy – previously labelled the ‘looney left’ under Thatcher’s reign – are not the unified force of social destruction that these commentators would make them out to be. The hypocrisy shown by the generalisation such writers make when referring to ‘the Left’ or the ‘Woke Brigade’ – labelling huge swathes of the population as wrong for not agreeing with their outdated views – is staggering. Under these rules, no one is allowed to defend, disagree, or challenge the opinions put forward by these writers. Creating an invisible enemy or scape-goat to blame for the lack of improvement in the lives of the general population is an obvious – and historically successful – tactic for justifying the continuation of such mediocre governance.
However, accusing ‘woke’ culture of ‘shutting down debate’ is a far more insidious tactic. It refuses to engage with any points being made, and simply dismisses progressive views as part of a conspiracy to undermine our basic freedoms. Next time you read an article about someone being silenced, or see someone in the public eye complaining about it on Twitter, take time to consider just where that article is being published, what level of following they enjoy, and the number of people that will hear their voice and their arguments loud and clear – despite what they may say. Claiming to be defending freedom of speech by refusing to engage with those who disagree is fallacious, insidious, and dangerous, and has real consequences for the lives of marginalised groups. We must become more aware of this deceitful strategy before we slide down the slippery slope that Poland and Hungary are currently on.