BY EFFIE DEANS
It ought to be possible for a Celtic fan to go to an Old Firm Game and stand amongst the Rangers fans in his Celtic shirt while cheering every time Celtic score a goal and booing each time Rangers score. Amongst all those blue shirts it ought to be possible for a single green and white shirt to be enjoying the match without any nasty comments and without any risk of physical harm.
During the women’s world cup Australian fans bought tickets for the section allocated for England fans, but there would have been no trouble in that situation. Spanish fans ending up by mistake with the England fans – nothing bad occurred.
But this illustrates something important about free speech. Even if I ought to be able to exercise my right to free speech it doesn’t mean there are not practical limits on free speech.
I ought in a free society to be allowed to offend. Take the example of Sweden, which now has a heightened terror alert because some people chose to burn the Quran. It ought to be possible to do this, but the consequences of doing so are that large numbers of Muslims are offended not only in Sweden but in other countries. People may be injured or killed because someone chose to exercise their right to free speech in Sweden. Is exercising your right to free speech consistent with other people being injured or dying? There may be circumstances where this is the case. But it would in most circumstances be better to refrain from such gestures.
The Quran is one of the most important books in history. Burning a copy will not make it cease to exist. It will remain an important book worthy of study even if someone dislikes its content or dislikes Islam as a faith. Muslims ought not to be so offended by someone burning a copy in faraway Sweden that they are willing to injure or kill because of it, but burning a copy won’t change the fact that they are offended. In fact, it may make the situation worse.
In Britain we used to live in a society where people were imprisoned for their views on religion, lost their jobs or were forced to preach outside.
John Bunyan believed in the wrong sort of Christianity and was imprisoned for it. Both Catholics and Protestants were at various times persecuted for their beliefs during the Reformation. Presbyterian Covenanters had to preach outside when their side of the argument was losing, but when they won the argument the lesson they learned from their persecution was to persecute Catholics and Episcopalians.
Even when we gained a measure of freedom of belief there was still in the nineteenth century and later enormous pressure to conform to the beliefs of Christianity by going to church and not living in sin. Divorce was nearly impossible to achieve because of Christianity and this applied whether you believed in it or not. I had assumed we had moved on from this. But we haven’t.
While there are and indeed must be limits on free speech, these limits have become ever narrower.
Europe and the United States were different from everywhere else in the world because freedom of thought and the right to write what we pleased enabled people to think critically about orthodox opinions and to challenge them.
This finally reached a point after the 1960s where sex outside of marriage for the first time became normal and commonplace and where our behaviour was rarely controlled either by religious belief or the conformity of our parents. You could more or less write what you pleased, think what you pleased and live how you pleased. This freedom continued right up until the 1990s when as so often happens in history there was a counter reformation.
The West has returned to theocracy, not in the sense that religious belief is enforced, but in the sense that what results from the absence of religious belief is enforced.
The collapse of Christianity left a vacuum of virtue. As Chesterton wrote, when people cease to believe in God it’s not that they believe in nothing, it’s that they believe in anything.
There was no longer the possibility for much of society to feel virtuous by living a Christian life, living monogamously and going to church so instead new virtues had to be created. Initially this was called political correctness, later it evolved into woke and virtue signalling.
Peak woke has been reached when a remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has a lead character who is not white and there are no longer seven dwarves. There is nothing offensive about dwarves in the original story. They are not people with dwarfism. They are mythical creatures from German folklore.
But the reason to remake and renounce everything is because the new gods are equality and diversity. In the name of this we have to pretend that David Copperfield might have come from India and that in Jane Austin’s time there were large numbers of black people in the upper classes.
But the falsity of the new religion gets worse when not merely must we change history to make it equal and diverse we are also made to believe in critical race theory that tells us that only white people can be racist and that all white people have white privilege. What if I live in a country like Poland where there are almost no black people and no one for me to be racist toward? Who do I exercise my white privilege against? Who is the victim of my racism?
But if critical race theory is a strange sort of mysticism, transgenderism resembles transubstantiation in the body of a man changing into the bread of a woman and the wine of her menstrual blood.
I can still write reasonably freely. But if a comedian can be forced to preach outside his church, then the same might happen to you. Perhaps not now, but what about tomorrow?
People in their twenties who have gone to university believe in the new religion almost universally and almost without question. In twenty to thirty years, they will be in charge.
I can if I am careful still just about question everything, but it’s getting harder. If I met a young person who believed in transgenderism, I would keep silent rather than discuss it. If I met someone who thinks everything needs to be decolonised and that it is racist to try to limit immigration at all, I would keep silent. If I met someone who believed in critical race theory, I would not argue against it. This is the new conformity.
Like Wilkie Collins I might be able to get away with living in sin and writing novels that subvert Victorian convention, but there are limits on free speech today just like there were when he was writing. He could not live as he wanted openly. Nor can we. In certain jobs and in certain company we are as restrained and constrained as if we lived when Collins did. Try speaking openly if you doubt me.
The best writing needs to not have to worry about someone looking over your shoulder waiting to cancel you. Self-censorship is worse than overt censorship because it cuts deeper.
We ought not to gratuitously offend, nor should our actions lead to harm for others, but the new theocracy is offended by what used to be called common sense. Must I write nonsense not to offend? Must writers hide their lives like George Eliot did?
The danger of making a comedian perform on the street because he offends is that it takes us back to the Covenanters. It brings us closer to a society like Iran where offending against religious beliefs will get you killed or maimed. It puts us back to witch hunts and it took us three hundred years from there to get to freedom only to lose it again in three decades.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.