In The Friends of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote the phrase: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs. It is so often quoted as having been said by Voltaire himself that many believe it was. In any case it has, for much of my life, been something of a guiding principle, with the caveat that I will not defend speech that is intended to do actual harm. Not makey-uppy “you hurt my ickle feelings” harm, actual harm: people getting physically hurt and killed or being truly psychologically damaged, through no fault of their own. Incitement and glorification of actual harm, violence or death is speech that should never be tolerated.
But all other speech should be protected, as we are all as entitled to our thoughts and opinions as we are to not agreeing and to not listening. People who consider the expression of opinions and facts they don’t like to be harmful need to grow up and, in some cases, perhaps seek therapy; people who are harassed, abused, exploited, physically hurt or killed because of the expression of opinions need to be protected. There is a line and that line must be both clear and well defended if we are to live in a civilised society. Hurt feelings and offense are things all adults need to learn to live with from time to time, they are very much the problems of the privileged. But all too often these days I see people casually talking about how someone or some group should be “silenced”, “punched”, “burned”, “raped”, “killed” etc. because of an opinion they don’t like or because they wish to exploit or deny the rights of that someone or that group to get their way. We should not accept this in our public discourse, especially not from prominent public figures. I personally find it disgusting.
Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
My opinions about free speech have put me in some awkward positions politically, especially in recent years. Stances I tend to take have often led people to assume I am Left Wing. I happen to think the Left-Right axis is bullshit and I consider myself primarily anti-authoritarian. I am not interested in joining anyone’s cult or having my thoughts and moral purity policed or judged by the kind of tyrannical hive-mind mentality that appears to exist on both the Left and the Right. As you might imagine, identity politics is becoming something of a fucking struggle for me at this point.
Free speech and the freedom to have and express my own perspective are integral to me as a creative. Yet society increasingly seems to constellate around group-think that shuns diversity of perspective and individual authenticity in favour of diversity of mere image and adherence to dogma. Look good and repeat the approved mantra, or else; do as we tell you, or else.
Threats do not impress me. Threats of violence do not scare me. I grew up with violence, it is literal child’s play to me, which is why I take it very seriously, how I know that – unless they lead to actual harm – mere words do not compare and that to say as much shows one has lived a very sheltered life.
Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
I am no fan of the Right in UK politics, but in recent years many on the Left in the UK appear, to my eye, to have started to go full on bat-shit crazy authoritarian in what they are arguing for, in particular for group-think to be enforced and thought crimes to be punished. First through No Platforming and Cancel Culture, and now through a general delighting in threatened and actual acts of violence against anyone targeted as a scapegoat, along with calls for debate to not be tolerated at all and even branded Hate Speech, as if this is not an attack on the very basis of democracy itself.
Lately I have sat back and watched as some of the thinkers and commentators I have been repeatedly told to shame, abuse and cancel by the Left in the past, have stood up and defended democracy and the right to free speech. And I have smiled and felt satisfied. These are people I did not agree with before on almost anything, so I simply chose not to listen; it never occurred to me to take away their freedom to speak. It’s quite easy when you respect other people’s right to exist and have their own perspective on the world. Not so much when you don’t.
I have no interest in listening to those who now want to tell me I have no right to my own thoughts or to open debate about things that directly affect my right to exist and be protected from harm; but I am very interested in watching the people advocating for this being offended and told to fuck right off. It’s honestly a ray of sunshine.
And I have been speaking too, directly to my elected representatives. Truth to power.
When violence, coercion and silencing are used to defend a position, it is because those advocating for it know the truth will destroy it. That makes me think of another quote that has been something of a guiding principle for me, this time from Carl Sagan: ‘If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.’