The ‘Free Speech Union’ opposes the right of athletes to take the knee. You’d almost think they didn’t really care about free speech.

comments 4
Uncategorized

As a philosopher, I like to use thought experiments. Suppose a BBC newsreader tweeted that there were more and more black families moving into their area and it was really bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood. I don’t know about you, but I’d be outraged. I’d probably want to express my outrage through social media, and I’d enthusiastically sign a petition to get that newsreader sacked from their job. This seems like a totally normal reaction to someone in a position of public responsibility making such an abhorrent statement.

Would that make me part of the ‘woke mob’ intent on destroying free speech that many on the right of politics have been railing against of late? The intro video on the ‘Free Speech Union’ (FSU) website presents the firing of Danny Baker for tweeting an image of a couple with a chimp to accompany the birth of the first mixed race royal baby as an example of suppressing free speech. But was Baker’s tweet any less abhorrent than the tweet of my imagined newsreader? I suspect Toby Young – Secretary General of the FSU – would argue that it is. He’d be free to do so. But those who do find that tweet deeply morally abhorrent are also free to express their view and to lobby for consequences. That’s how free speech works. What is singularly lacking from the FSU is a consistent and principled policy on when moral outrage is and is not warranted.

The right-wing free speech warriors are also pretty inconsistent about real world cases of free speech infringement. There wasn’t much to be heard from these valiant heroes when the General Secretary of the Labour party barred MPs and Labour party members from discussing Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension – a literal ban on free speech. Nor when an outraged mob of 26 MPs and 2 peers took their pitchforks to the National Trust for daring to produce a report on the links between the Trust’s properties and the slave trade. And when the government took the scarily authoritarian step of ordering schools not to use resources from organisations opposed to capitalism? Not a peep. It seems that their concern with free speech is conditional on what is being said.

This blatant lack of consistency was also apparent recently when Deputy Research Director of the Free Speech Union Emma Webb went on Talk Radio to express her support for the decision of the International Olympic Committee to ban athletes from taking the knee. Webb seemed not even to register the tension in a campaigner for free speech advocating the quashing of free expression. I tweeted about this, and actually received a polite response from Webb. For some reason, however, Webb deleted her response to me a short while later. In the absence of someone to talk to on twitter, I decided to write this article instead.

Webb defended her position by saying that her point was that rule 50 – that ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’ – was being consistently applied, and that what she had said was consistent with thinking that rule 50 should be scrapped. However, what Webb actually said in the interview was that the committee’s action was the ‘right decision’, not merely that it was a consistent application of rule which may or not be a good one. If I said that the Taliban’s decision to stone a particular individual for adultery was ‘the right decision’, it would be reasonable to interpret me as asserting not merely that they were consistently applying a law, but that that law was appropriate. Why would anyone bother to praise the consistent application of a rule they didn’t agree with?

Indeed, Webb went on to defend rule 50, on the basis that 70% of athletes surveyed wanted to keep the rule. Do the FSU decide all of their policies based on surveys of non-members? Wouldn’t it be better to defend a principled stance of their own? Perhaps the Free Speech Union could develop a consistent policy that there should be safe spaces where sensitive souls can be protected from certain kinds of speech. But it would take some work to make that consistent with Toby Young’s attack on a workplace in which football talk was banned from the work environment. It’s all a bit of mess.

If at any point the FSU is interested in formulating a coherent statement on what they stand for, I’d recommend taking some time to reflect on the important distinction between ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘having a platform.’ Most of the so-called infringements of free speech they focus on are actually just instances of people being declined a platform. The fact that I don’t have as many twitter followers as Toby Young doesn’t mean my speech is being curtailed. That’s not to say there aren’t important ethical issues regarding who gets a platform. We surely want a range of views to be aired, and minority voices to be heard. But if that’s really your concern, then you’d make better use of your time focusing on issues of media plurality. You might, for example, be concerned with the fact that there are hardly any trans columnists at our national newspapers. And you would certainly be worried that exploitation of the UK’s antiquated libel laws might be about to destroy the only radical left print magazine left in this country.

It’s not for me to look into the hearts of Young and Webb, to judge whether their motives are pure. But my job is to spot incoherence and inconsistency, and I can see a mile off that the policy platform of the FSU needs a lot of work. I wish them well and would be happy to offer philosophical consultancy at a modest fee. But if they are serious about developing a consistent stand on free speech, then they should be prepared to find themselves in a very different Free Speech Union from the one that exists today.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.

4 Comments

  1. paulaustinmurphy says

    Like Professor Philip Goff himself (who classes himself as a “socialist”), many on the Left (especially academics) claim that those on the Right (usually Conservatives or Republicans) are “inconsistent” or even “self-contradictory” when it comes to the issue of political free speech. That is, they cite many cases of selected people on the Right who actually do believe in limits to free speech and even believe in “cancelling” people. Thus Philip Goff spends almost an entire article displaying the “hypocrisy” of people on the Right.

    But here’s the problem.

    Goff and others may be absolutely correct when they claim that that there are some – or even many – Conservatives and right-wingers who are hypocrites when it comes to free speech and “cancel culture”. But that wouldn’t stop it from being the case that there have been numerous victims of cancel culture and people who’ve had their political free speech either denied or limited. Of course there are hypocrites on the Right! There are hypocrites on the Left too. That is, there are those on the Left who also believe in political free speech only for those they agree with. So listing examples of inconsistency or hypocrisy from the Right largely evades the issue.

    Goff’s main target is the Free Speech Union (FSU). And it’s his main target because, as his piece makes crystal clear, he sees it as being right-wing outfit.

    Goff, in this case, claims he is just pointing out inconsistencies rather than being, I presume, politically tribal. So it would have helped his case, then, if he’d a least just a single example of hypocrisy or inconsistency from the Left. He didn’t. Therefore he’s primarily being a leftwing a political activist in this piece, not a philosopher. And, with rhetorical phrases like “right-wing free speech warriors”, it’s clear that this is the case. And yet, despite all that, Goff begins his piece with the words “speaking as a philosopher” and then says that his “job is to spot incoherence and inconsistency”.

    In terms of detail.

    Philip Goff states the following:

    “It seems that their [right-wingers] concern with free speech is conditional on what is being said.”

    Yes indeed! Philip Goff’s exact statement can be aimed at Goff himself and his entire article.

    Why is that? It’s primarily because Goff selects choice examples of political free speech which should have been defended. And then he criticises examples of political free speech which, I suspect, he believes should never have been allowed in the first place. Of course he may deny this latter claim. The problem is that his entire article displays that this does indeed seem to be Goff’s political position.

    In addition, all Goff’s accounts of right-wing “cancel culture” are suspect – or at least can be debated. Philip Goff’s problem is that he doesn’t even mention – let alone discuss – the arguments of his political opponents. This makes his article very unphilosophical – despite his opening sentence.

    First case:

    “The right-wing free speech warriors are also pretty inconsistent about real world cases of free speech infringement. There wasn’t much to be heard from these valiant heroes when the General Secretary of the Labour party barred MPs and Labour party members from discussing Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension – a literal ban on free speech.”

    That is largely an internal matter for Labour Party. It is very unlike certain political views being curtailed in many or even in all domains. And why should right-wingers have much to say about this internal matter of the Labour Party? I doubt that the Green Party or Scots Nats had much to say on this issue either.

    “This blatant lack of consistency was also apparent recently when Deputy Research Director of the Free Speech Union Emma Webb went on Talk Radio to express her support for the decision of the International Olympic Committee to ban athletes from taking the knee. Webb seemed not even to register the tension in a campaigner for free speech advocating the quashing of free expression. I tweeted about this…”

    There is a world of difference between using football matches or sports games to express political opinions or indulge in political gestures and not being allowed to express one’s political opinions on, say, university campuses. Sport is sport, after all. People don’t attend sports games to receive political lectures.

    But here we see Goff’s political selectivity again.

    Say, for instance, that when some England footballers scored a goal, they then raised their shirts to show a t-shirt underneath which said: “Support Boris Johnson!” Or what if they used – to cite an extreme example – Nazi armbands or even UKIP armbands?

    So Goff isn’t even in favour of sportspeople uses their position to engage in political expressions and gestures. He’s only in favour of sportspeople engaging in political expressions and gestures which he politically agrees with.

    Goff writes:

    “Most of the so-called infringements of free speech they focus on are actually just instances of people being declined a platform.”

    This is Goff using the classic Owen Jones position on “cancel culture”.

    That is, because a fictional Mr P has been cancelled in domain X, and then moved on to domain Y and wasn’t cancelled there, then that must mean that Mr P wasn’t cancelled at all! Yes he was. Say that Mr P is literally banned from expressing his political views in any British university – and indeed many other places – but who then expresses his views on GB News. Does that mean that he hasn’t be cancelled by British universities? Of course he has.

    So my hypothetical Mr P has been “declined a platform” at literally all British universities – yet, according to Goff’s logic, his political free speech hasn’t been “infringed” because he’s free to express his opinions elsewhere. Strangely, does Goff like the fact that Mr P can express his opinions elsewhere? Or would he like, as Owen Jones certainly does, (left-wing or “woke”) cancel culture to become even stronger and wider?

    “It’s not for me to look into the hearts of Young and Webb, to judge whether their motives are pure.”

    And it’s not for me to look into the heart of Philip Goff and judge whether his motives are pure. So why this philosophical grandstanding from Goff in the first place?

    So Philip Goff must stop being so politically tribal about this issue of political free speech. After all, at some point in the future people he politically agrees with may be banned or “cancelled”. Indeed he argues that they already have been. Thus Goff’s own particular brand of political tribalism on this issue isn’t really helping anyone who values open debate and, yes, political free speech.

Leave a Reply to Greg Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s