Lorna Finlayson, ‘{Free Speech} Noise and the Silence of David Willetts’

‘Free Speech’ Noise and the Silence of David Willetts


One of the points made against the action taken to shut down the talk by David Willetts last term proposed to have hit upon a certain irony: the protesters claimed to be acting in defence of education, but their actions in fact served to damage educational ends, by suppressing free and vigorous discussion! (Shit, said the protesters, if only we’d thought of that …)

There are various things wrong with this line. Apart from the obvious falsehood of any assumption that it is not possible to protect something by inflicting local and strategic damage on it (surgery?), and apart from the total implausibility of the idea that Willetts was going to say anything we hadn’t already heard from him, there is the further point that an act of destroying certain possibilities is always at the same time an act of creating further ones. One valuable thing that came out of the whole episode, to my mind, was that the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ got hauled out of its hiding place and subjected to a bit of scrutiny. Not that people don’t in general talk enough about freedom of speech – it would be better if they talked about it a bit less.  But if people are going to talk about it, they may as well do it properly. And in the immediate aftermath of the Willetts action, there was plenty of predictable, well-rehearsed, lazy, ‘free speech’-themed noise-making. But then, there were several powerful counters to this, which forced some reflection on what those words might actually mean. So, if we want to talk about ‘education’, about ‘free and vigorous discussion’, it’s worth pointing out that all this was incomparably more educational than the original event could credibly have been expected to be.

‘Freedom’ is a notion acknowledged to be highly contestable, controversial – perhaps irreducibly plural and context-dependent. The first thing the undergraduate philosophy student is taught about freedom is that a distinction can be made, owing to Isaiah Berlin, between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom: freedom as absence of external constraints, as distinct from freedom as being ‘the author of one’s own life’ (whatever that means). As it happens, I think this is a fragile and misleading distinction, but the point here is just that the distinction is routinely made and argued over. Assuming that freedom of speech is a form or aspect of freedom, it makes sense to expect it to be just as variable and fraught as is the notion of freedom tout court. Odd, then, that talk of freedom of speech often proceeds as though this were a simple, default condition, which can be preserved, or (unwisely, wrongly, dangerously) departed from to a greater or lesser extent. Call this the ‘Driving Test Model’ of freedom of speech: in a driving test, the candidate starts off with full marks, and retains this perfect score unless and until she makes an error. Similarly, according to this model, freedom of speech obtains until ‘violated’ by, for example, the legal prohibition of the publication of some idea, the clamping of a hand over a mouth, or the raising of voices to drown out someone who wishes to speak. There are strong rhetorical advantages to talking about freedom of speech in this way: it gives the ‘pro free speech’ position an air of elegance, simplicity, and philosophical purity, so that the person who says “Oh, but Willetts gets plenty of chances to speak” can be castigated for missing the point (because it’s a matter of principle, you see…).

But what principle is supposed to be at stake here, exactly? And what is this state which we are suppose to preserve at all costs, in which freedom of speech is untouched?

The standard liberal view, as I take it, is that the principle is not absolutely inviolable, and the condition to be preserved not one in which speech is entirely left alone: rather, that condition is one in which nobody is prevented from speaking, except where (a) the speech poses an immediate danger (as in Mill’s famous ‘corn dealer’ example: telling an angry mob, assembled outside a corn dealer’s house, that corn dealers are thieves and scoundrels), or (b) the speech constitutes a constraint on another’s freedom of speech, e.g. by drowning someone out – in that case, what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Chairman Principle’ holds that it is legitimate to intervene to silence the interruption. In other words, the ideal is one of near-perfect ‘negative’ freedom of speech: no-one is to be actively prevented from speaking by external forces (except in the special circumstances just mentioned).

This position cannot be upheld by a clear philosophical principle, for all sorts of reasons. The least of these is the difficulty in delineating ‘immediate danger’ – that could be seen as a necessarily-messy-but-unavoidable practical judgement we have to make as to when to depart from the pure, principled state of freedom. The more serious problem is that there is no pure and principled ‘full marks’ condition here. It cannot even be coherently described, let alone instantiated, defended, or extravagantly mourned.

This becomes clear upon the slightest prodding at the Chairman Principle. This principle initially seems like a small exception clause, to come into force only in particularly raucous moments in the debating chamber – but this raises a question as to why it doesn’t apply in busy streets, pubs, or gigs.  The answer, I guess, must be something to do with the setting being one in which people have a legitimate expectation that they be heard. And that adds such a massive (c) to my (a) and (b) above as to blow the whole impression of a simple principle out of the water:

Speech may also be restricted when, (c) people do not have a legitimate expectation that they should speak and be heard.

This may account for the intuition that my freedom is not illegitimately restricted when I can’t make myself heard at a demonstration, or in the pub.  But it also means that everything now hangs on what we count as a situation in which we have a ‘legitimate expectation’ – making (a) and (b) look rather unnecessary, in fact, as separate clauses. You may say that David Willetts had such a legitimate expectation; I may say that, for various reasons, he didn’t: but neither of us starts from a privileged position of being able to refer to a pristine philosophical principle, from which the other is proposing that we depart.

But even putting aside the question of what constitutes a ‘legitimate expectation’, the model I’ve described can only begin to make sense on two manifestly false suppositions: (i) that we have unlimited time in which to speak, and (ii) that the timing and sequence of our speech is unimportant. In a hypothetical, fantastically good-natured and leisurely conference in which there is time for everyone to say everything they want to say, we might judge that the Chairman Principle secures freedom of speech for all, insofar as this is compatible with the freedom of speech of others – the liberal’s dream scenario. But quite apart from the fact that this is by no means a realistic model of how meetings generally are, let alone a good metaphor for the entire sphere of public discourse (in which the vast majority of people die before they get their turn at the mic, so to speak), it fails to support the idea that unauthorised shouting down is a violation of a some relatively clear principle. Even in the imaginary case, people are not only prevented from speaking if they get up out of turn and make a scene – that is merely the scenario in which the Chairman Principle would have to be actually and visibly enforced. They are prevented from speaking all of the time, except for their designated turn. So the sense in which everyone is free to speak is, of course, this: everyone is free to speak at some point (not of their choosing) during the specified period. But if that is the principle, can’t the protesters say that David Willetts had already had his turn, not in that particular event in Cambridge but in a larger-scale spectacle in which he has been proselytising, both through talks like the one planned and through his privileged access to the mass media, for many years? They can and they do. It matters, after all, who is shouted down.

What the Chairman Principle actually amounts to, as it figures in the simplified model being considered here, is an attachment to established procedure: you get to speak now because of when the chairman noticed your hand was up, because that is how we decide who gets to speak, and when, and in what order. And when we add into the equation that there is in general not enough time for everyone to say everything they would like to say, what we are left with is a more like a commitment to letting everyone have an equal chance to speak, that is, letting everyone participate in what we take to be a ‘fair’ system for selecting speakers. There’s nothing obviously outrageous about that. Meetings often need a system of some kind, and order of hand-raising seems a more acceptable criterion than many others, such as hair colour, or level of prestige or education, for example. But there are various possible systems that are not obviously bad ones, and which of these is most appropriate will depend on the context. For example, at some academic events there is a tradition or rule whereby the first question is given to a student, or to an undergraduate, and there can be good reasons for having such a procedure.

So now it appears that freedom of speech is a matter of upholding the – or a – proper procedure for selecting speakers in a debate. But that takes us a long way from the view of freedom of speech as a simple, coherent principle plus a couple of caveats. A ‘proper procedure’, however proper, is not the same as a sacred political-philosophical principle. As just indicated, the question of which procedure is ‘proper’ (and there will probably be more than one) will be sensitive to the context, to our purposes and priorities within that context. Once again, however, it seems far from fully realistic to suggest that proper or ‘fair’ procedures are generally employed, either in relatively small-scale academic or political meetings, or in the way in which people’s access to platforms from which to speak is regulated in society more broadly.

And what is more, the view we have as to what the ‘proper procedure’ is, according to which to arrange such things, supplies us with no automatic conclusions as to the proper procedure for us to follow when we judge that the original proper procedure has not been adhered to. Is interruption so obviously impermissible in the context of, for example, a conference in which older, more senior and high-ranking, male academics are being chosen to speak whilst others who have been waiting longer are conspicuously overlooked? Is the shouting down of a Government minister obviously a bad response to the prolonged failure of that minister and his Government to listen to the voices of students, academics and the rest of the population, whilst forging ahead with the destruction of the country’s system of public education?

All this makes it very difficult to see how we could make sense of any idea of a principle of freedom of speech, or even of ‘maximal’ freedom of speech – speech only restricted either in emergencies or so as to protect further speech – where this principle is satisfied in a kind of default condition which reliably obtains in the near-absence of classically recognised forms of intervention: such uncouth measures as gagging, threatening, censorship, and shouting. Of course, we still have to make practical commitments on these things, and it would be very much in a Millian spirit to respond to the unavailability of a principled justification for a characteristically liberal practical stance by pulling some lightly-supported empirical claims out of the arse of On Liberty – for instance, it may be said that refraining from the suppression of speech is the best way to further the emergence and ‘lively entertainment’ of the truth in the minds of men. But the whole point of the arguments above has been to say that no good sense can be made of the idea of a state in which we ‘refrain from the suppression of speech’ in the first place. What we can still hold onto, on the other hand, is the idea of not having state censorship, or of not shouting in meetings – these things are comprehensible enough. And what may then be said is that holding to such policies is the best way to reach the truth, or that it is the best way to avoid a slippery slope to totalitarianism, or that it has various other benefits. It may even be said that no other claim was ever intended by the defenders of freedom of speech.

Once the pro-free speech position is re-cast in this way, however – as a set of practical commitments against the cruder, more visible and more avoidable kinds of interference with speech, defended by assertions of likely consequences – it makes it harder for it to retain its gravity or non-negotiable status. It comes to look more like a rule of thumb (“don’t shout, don’t censor”), a rule which, it is claimed, usually gives us good guidance, but may be deviated from as the circumstances require or permit.  Not that absolute commitments cannot ever be made without a clear and articulable, non-consequentialist philosophical principle behind them. There may be courses of action which always have undesirable consequences, and so should be renounced entirely. My opposition to privatisation, for instance, is broadly consequentialist in its justification, but is more absolute than a ‘rule of thumb’. Or there is the example of torture: many take the attitude that their flat refusal to sanction torture under any circumstances cannot (and perhaps should not) be given any argumentative justification, and that it is not the less absolute for that.

But shouting someone down is hardly the same sort of thing as water-boarding.  It can only acquire a comparable gravity through the illusion that some sacred principle has been broken – or, failing that, by the suggestion that such actions open the door to all sorts of terrifying totalitarian monsters; in other words, by resort to an empirical ‘slippery slope’ argument.  Philosophers tend to be rather scathing about this form of argument, but there need be nothing wrong with it. When ‘top-up fees’ were introduced in 2005, many (though not enough, and I wasn’t as firmly among them as I should have been) understood that this was the beginning of the slippery slope that has led us to the present mess. And the same must be said now of the introduction of £9000 fees: by the time my three-year-old nephew finishes school, it will probably be three times that.

There is a kind of stupidity particularly prevalent among philosophers, which dismisses a slippery slope argument simply for being an ‘empirical’ rather than a ‘logical’ one. When I made the point to one philosopher acquaintance that the proposed raising of fees to £9000 would pave the way for more raises, and also that the Government might well not adhere to the promises it has made to mitigate the worst effects (it might worsen the repayment conditions of the loans provided, for instance – a worry which has unfortunately since been vindicated) – he told me that this ‘proved too much’ because any promise or proposal might be reneged on, so unless we are going to object to all policy suggestions we must assess them ‘as they stand’.  This is a bit like approaching a game of chess with the attitude, “Oh well, I don’t see any harm in your putting your queen there. I don’t have a piece in that position at the moment, so you won’t be taking anything. And sure, your next move might be to checkmate me from there, but that’s a completely separate issue.” The question, as far as I’m concerned, is not whether empirical slippery slope arguments are a good form of argument, but whether a given instance of such an argument is compelling or not.

When it comes to the ‘freedom of speech’ issue, however, bad empirical slippery slope arguments abound. Only argue that BNP leader Nick Griffin should not be given a platform by, for example, being invited to speak at the Cambridge Union or on the BBC’s Question Time, and this will often be met by invocations of ‘free speech’ and warnings of a dangerous step towards a police state. It may be that certain possible measures, such as a proposal by the Government to ban publications which it deems to be a corrupting influence, would represent the beginning of an empirical slippery slope of this kind, and many of the same people who back the silencing of David Willetts would no doubt come out to protest against such a plan. The success of an empirical slippery slope argument depends in part on the delineation of what it is that is held to represent the beginning of that slope. And the problem, as we have seen, is that there is no clear, unified thing called ‘violating freedom of speech’, because there is no clear, unified thing called ‘freedom of speech’.

Instead, there is a collection of practices – practices which turn out to be rather disparate. A common liberal position tries to draw a circle around all of these practices – whether the shouting down of a Government minister by students or the imprisonment of student protesters by the Government  – and claim that the whole bundle lies at the top of a slippery slope with Hitler and Stalin at the bottom. This overlooks the fact that just as it matters whose speech is suppressed, it also matters who does the suppressing. Whether an action in undertaken by a powerful group or by the state, or on the other hand by a mass movement, or by a group of students, makes a crucial difference to whether it is plausible to regard it as leading towards a more authoritarian form of society or towards a more emancipated one.

If we are to make appeals to ‘freedom of speech’, then, these must be practical judgements which are sensitive to context, where this includes facts about the identities and status levels of the agents involved. It’s ok sometimes to drag a friend away from an argument, for example. It all depends on the circumstances.

As for the Willetts action, it actually had very little to do with freedom of speech at all. The man was denied one of his plentiful opportunities to pontificate and to be seen to ‘engage’. Some Cambridge students and academics were denied the opportunity to see if he would crumble in the face of their devastating questions – this time, anyway: they did have that opportunity on previous occasions when Willetts visited Cambridge – and their access to Government ministers in general is rather better than for most of the population.

In sum, we spoilt a party. We transgressed a code of social conduct. We certainly failed to respect the procedure governing the selection of speakers at that event, because we regarded the event itself as an improper procedure.

If nobody had been at all annoyed or affronted by the action taken against Willetts, that would be conclusive evidence of its failure. It is not nice, all other things being equal, to spoil someone’s party. You do not sit down and have a picnic in the middle of someone’s game of football, or go up to someone who is having a chat with friends at the bar and play the trumpet in their faces, without a very good reason. We had very good reasons. The likes of David Willetts have given us plenty.

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