Free Speech: Democracy's Most Important Weapon | Cameron McIntosh

Nazism has reared its ugly head in the twenty first century, but freedom of speech should not be sacrificed as a solution. The tragic death of Heather Heyer during a white supremacist rally in Virginia provoked understandable fury in the United States, but diluting such a fundamental right as free speech should be unconditionally rejected.

Although those who participated in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally are deserving of contempt, their right to freely express their opinions should remain sacred. Too often, the first instinct is to censor views deemed unpalatable to liberal sensibilities. However, liberalism is fundamentally incompatible with censorship. The right to freedom of thought and expression are, somewhat ironically, the very antithesis to fascism. In a democracy, everyone should have the right to an opinion, and to deprive someone of theirs simply because you disagree, reeks of liberal hypocrisy.

Fascism should have been consigned to the twentieth century and the people who subscribe to such a hateful doctrine should have their views openly challenged and ridiculed. The warped, bigoted and evil worldview they espouse should be exposed for what it is through debate and education. Banning their firmly-held opinions would merely drive them underground, where radicalism is free to foster unchallenged. Such a ‘fingers-in-ears’ approach would only serve the interests of the Nazis themselves.

An example of this in practice was the demise of the British National Party. In the 2010 general election, the far-right party achieved the fifth largest national vote share and a year previously it won over a million votes in the European elections, successfully electing Andrew Brons and Nick Griffin to the European Parliament. The latter was the BNP’s leader and it was his personal brand, courtesy of the British media, that cost the party dearly.

Ignoring the calls to ban the BNP and non-platform their outspoken leader, the BBC invited Mr Griffin onto Question time for the first time in October 2009. Despite criticism of his appearance, his performance was widely deemed to have been poor and Ofcom reported more complaints about bias against Griffin than from people outraged by him being there. This gave the British public an opportunity to assess the credibility of Griffin’s BNP. Thankfully their conclusion was to comprehensively reject his malevolent cocktail of racism and bigotry, with the party failing to elect a single member of Parliament and descending into the political wilderness, where it remains.

The assault on free speech has found an unlikely home on university campuses across the globe. From the Berkeley riots that erupted in response to a Milo Yiannopoulos speech, to the banning of selected newspapers at City University, London. These are not isolated incidents. They represent a growth in close-mindedness and the creation of so-called “safe spaces” further highlights this problem.

Universities are the very place where all ideas should be explored, scrutinized and debated. The non-platforming agenda only serves to recreate the much-maligned echo-chambers of social media on campuses worldwide. Katie Hopkins may have views that you deem unpalatable, but walking out on her while addressing a university does not make those views go away, rather they go unchallenged and are granted a certain legitimacy by virtue of the offence they have caused. This should be apparent in the fact that I am mentioning her name now.  

The very fact that someone disagrees with you does not entitle you to airbrush them out of the picture. Like it or not, they will continue to espouse the same views you so vehemently disagree with. The only choice you are faced with is to debate the substance of their arguments, or to cover your ears and cower in the company of only those that you agree with.

Another manifestation of the regressive left’s obsession with censorship has been the attack on monuments and statues that depict historical figures. From the controversy over the statue of Robert E. Lee in the United States, to that of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, modern values are used to justify the airbrushing of the past. A historian once said that “Nothing is more unfair than to judge the men of the past by the ideas of the present” and this could hardly be more pertinent today.

An article in the Guardian recently celebrated statue toppling and called for Nelson to be next because of his unpalatable views on slavery. We should be grateful that, by today’s standards, slavery is considered a moral evil. However, Nelson did not have the luxury of living in the same era. The Slave Trade was not outlawed in Britain until two years after his death in 1807, and Slavery was only formally abolished in 1833. Therefore, his views, although morally reprehensible by modern standards, were historically conditioned. Furthermore, Nelson’s column does not seek to celebrate his political views, rather it is a tribute to a heroic Admiral who died during the famous Battle of Trafalgar.

Freedom of speech should be valued by all those who believe in democracy and the growth of a close-minded obsession with censorship and the airbrushing of unpalatable aspects of our history, is discouraging. Perhaps it is necessary to better understand that freedom of speech is democracy’s most important weapon against fascism and that, without it, the western world would be an infinitely poorer place.

Cameron McIntosh is a writer for Student Voices.
Free Speech: Democracy's Most Important Weapon | Cameron McIntosh Free Speech: Democracy's Most Important Weapon | Cameron McIntosh Reviewed by Student Voices on 11:27 Rating: 5

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