MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: Freedom to think is a right worth defending with all our might
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can revolutionise a whole society.
For the past 40 years this country has endured a huge battle about what can be said and how it can be said. This has changed the entire balance of power.
In vital areas of life, especially attitudes towards women, marriage, parenthood and employment, it has become increasingly difficult to dissent from a new set of beliefs quite different from those which prevailed in the 1980s. The campaign to alter the way we speak and write has been successful because a lot of the changes have been justified or at least justifiable.
The Mail on Sunday welcomes Rishi Sunak’s plans to use the power of his office on the side of free speech, and hopes that this decision will be thoroughly followed through by committed Ministers and competent officials
The Britain of half a century ago was less tolerant towards minorities and less polite to them. And it had its own strong conformist views about how it was proper to behave, some of them good but others crabby and prejudiced.
Much of the reformation this country has gone through has been driven by a simple and laudable desire to be kinder. But some time ago it began to go far beyond that. Not content with having created gentler and more tolerant speech codes, the revolutionaries carried on seeking to impose a new conformism much more rigid than the old one.
On issues such as migration, it has become almost impossible for senior figures in the Church (for instance) to dissent from liberal conformity.
This problem emerged openly in recent years in the universities because these places have always been keen to invite outside speakers to deliver lectures and take part in debates.
We may assume that something similar has taken place in schools and perhaps in corporations as well, but in private. And, with growing confidence and success, the new radical Left campaigned to prevent certain people from speaking or debating at all. Once, this would have met with very strong resistance from the whole university community. But in an era when an academic or broadcasting career can be brought to an end by one unwise statement, resistance has been patchy at best.
The policy of ‘no-platforming’ was imposed, cleverly, on the basis that the actual expression of certain views would upset and even damage some members of the audience. By using this approach, the new would-be censors managed to portray themselves to many gullible people as the injured parties, seeking to prevent harm.
The bans also became personal, with some speakers or academics being excluded not because of what they were likely to say but because of what they had once said – and ultimately because of who they were.
The very troubling transgender issue has been particularly explosive – partly because it causes so much private distress in the families involved and partly because it divided the radical Left against itself. Now, a major counterforce is necessary to rebalance our national debate and restore free speech and thought to the universities and our other great institutions, where a deadening conformism is harming the country. And it does do harm.
The great apostle of freedom, John Stuart Mill, said it was especially evil to silence an opinion. He said it would harm those who disagreed with the banned view even more than those who hold it: ‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’
So The Mail on Sunday welcomes Rishi Sunak’s plans to use the power of his office on the side of free speech, and hopes that this decision will be thoroughly followed through by committed Ministers and competent officials. Our freedom to think and speak is one of the things which have made us happy and prosperous. It is worth defending with all our might.