So, there’s official censorship (which these days, outside questions of national security) scarcely exists in the west. And then there’s unofficial censorship (you publish that and our advertisers/backers would be very displeased).
There’s also whistleblowing (no one in the sector will ever work with you again), and there’s downright intimidation (I’ll put your lights out/windows in).
All of these activities limit not only free speech but the very diversity and pluralism that real democracy (power to and from the people) requires to do it’s job properly.
In general terms censorship, particularly self censorship, strengthens the bubble thinking of those in power (including the Fourth Estate). It also strengthens a sense of alienation amongst minorities whose voices are, for one reason or another, marginalised.
Sunny Hundal has these useful reflections…
When I explain or justify any of these principles in front of sceptical Muslims, I generally get a good response. I’ve done it a few times so I’m confident of this. The other day I posted my speech to a group of Muslim students on why they should want to live in a society where people have the right to insult their prophet, and they got it.
Firstly, it’s not that they dislike the argument, it’s sometimes more that they don’t believe others are interested in free speech in the first place.
Secondly, the problem is that many liberals aren’t interested in convincing others who are sceptical, but merely interested in stating that they are right and Muslims should lump it.[emphasis added]
Nick Cohen back in November also noted:
The same people who scream “censorship” and “persecution” when one of their own is targeted lead the slobbering pack when the chance comes to censor and persecute their enemies. They want them fined, punished and sacked.
Or as one of our readers on the Slugger Facebook page put it:
Dear satirists, while I have always supported your right to rip the piss out of [thing I don’t care about] and am quite happy to change my FB profile pic to je suis charlie for a couple of days in support of free speech,my offence at your satire of [thing I care about] is so great that you must be censored.
But we have the Scottish Police to remind us that in the UK there isn’t actually the degree of free speech we often think we have:
Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media & any offensive comments will be investigated #georgesquare
— Police Scotland (@policescotland) December 23, 2014
It’s also worth noting too Stormont’s refusal to update (ie liberalise) Northern Ireland’s libel laws, and the Equality Commission’s activist stance on the #Cakegate controversy suggest that freedom of speech is a very long way down the domestic agenda.
We see it, for example, when: some feminists claim that all men are rapists; when critics of orthodox economics fail to see how diverse the subject is; when lefties attack “greedy bankers”; when people think they are experts on a country because they have visited it a few times; when right-wingers think that because I’m a Marxist I somehow endorse Stalinism; or when torture is claimed to be “inconsistent with our values” when our side does it but typical of “them”. And so on.
This continuing failure to convince non liberals that a liberal commitment to free speech and dissent is an intellectually and politically consistent proposition is just one of the emerging weaknesses of wider contemporary democracy.
In Northern Ireland’s solid state democracy where, despite some daft murmurings about the conditions required for an opposition being met in in the Stormont House Agreement, outgroups really are out. And, permanently.
Curtailing the right to expression of unpopular minorities through a selective means of the law and a distributed use of disorder undermines serious our long term progress towards the peaceful society promised in the Belfast Agreement.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty