I’ve been thinking for a while about the biggest disconnect that seems to come up in what one might loosely term “progressive” circles at the moment — the issue of “free speech”.
On the one side you have the people who argue against “no platforming”, and “silencing”, the people who said “Je Suis Charlie”, the people who are mocked by the other side as overprivileged white men shouting about “muh freeze peach!”
On the other, you have the people who argue in favour of trigger warnings, complain about things being “problematic”, and who are mocked by the other side for being stupid children who want to be wrapped in cotton wool.
Now the interesting thing to my mind is that, with obvious exceptions, these two groups tend to be roughly those forty-five and older, and those twenty-five and younger, with those around my age often being a bit confused and saying “well, I can see points on both sides…”
Obviously, some of this comes down to older people patronising younger people while trying to keep their privilege, and to younger people being angry at the compromises made by the old and with a lack of experience of how the world works. But I don’t think *all* of it does.
I think, rather, that people have come of political age in two very different political worlds, and that that makes a profound difference in the way people think about issues surrounding speech. Giving everyone the benefit of doubt, it looks to me like the two groups are talking past each other because they’re honestly not aware of each other’s experiences.
The first group, you see, came of age politically in the 70s and 80s. This was a time when government repression of speech was one of THE big threats to progressive activism. The Oz trial, when the kind of stupid collage jokes that now happen constantly on geek message boards got several people sent to prison. The Spycatcher affair, one of my earliest political memories, when the British government spent three years trying to stop people *in another country*, not just their own, reading a book. The Gay News “blasphemous libel” trial, which saw a poem being declared illegal. Manchester police constantly raiding Savoy bookshop. The government changing the whole landscape of broadcast TV with the ITV shakeup of 1990, largely because they were angry at a single documentary. Section 28
There are always attempts to infringe freedom of speech, but in the twenty or so years from roughly 1970 to roughly 1990, there was a constant, all-out, assault against the most basic liberties, in which authoritarians who wanted to protect the government from scrutiny used theocrats who wanted to eradicate the very idea of homosexuality as useful idiots. Those people needed to be fought, and one of the most important ways of doing that was to carve out universities, in particular, as areas of absolutist free speech, with an *obligation* to give a platform to, and listen to, the most extreme viewpoints. Only the ultra-authoritarian SWP, on the left, called for “no-platforming” then, and they were largely despised for it. Platforms *needed* to exist, or no-one would ever *hear* alternative views.
Of course the system didn’t work perfectly — far from it. It often entrenched various kinds of privilege, and so on. But when you are fighting for the very right to even mention the existence of homosexuality, for example, you want a system like that. And so many people became, understandably, free speech absolutists, especially around universities. This is also why, for example, Private Eye — a magazine that normally has little or no interest in people’s private sexualities — suddenly starts dropping completely unsubtle hints as soon as superinjunctions come into play. It’s an immune reaction against repression.
Fast forward twenty-five years or so.
Anyone under thirty, now, has never experienced this (I’m thirty-seven, and I only have dim memories of the tail end of it, and that only because I was about the most politically-aware seven-year-old you’d ever meet). The government, in general, doesn’t try to censor much “normal” speech (there are plenty of things that still get censored, of course — the extreme porn laws are a particularly egregious example — but there’s not the ongoing systematic repression that there was). You can say literally anything you think on the Internet. You can get access to any opinion, any images, you want.
And often, anything you *don’t* want. YouTube comments, Twitter harassers, spam email, banner ads… the big information problem in the Internet age isn’t censorship, it’s how to create an effective filter that lets you just see the stuff that you actually care about in the midst of all the other stuff. When you’re dumped into what is, to a first approximation, every single thought that any human being has ever had, without an effective guide, you know, on an instinctual level, that censorship isn’t threatening. On the contrary, you *need* to censor stuff — not for other people, but you need to create filters and barriers, just to get anything done at all.
And a lot of people who didn’t grow up with the Internet (and anyone under thirty or so now has no real memory of a time when the web wasn’t a near-ubiquitous thing — and there are adults now who are nostalgic for getting their first social media accounts when they were still in primary school) don’t really understand how this works. The late Simon Titley, for example, got a lot of flack on the Liberator blog for instituting a “real-name” policy in the comments, because he thought this would keep discussion civil. Anyone who’s spent most of their life online knows that that’s the *last* thing it does.
But anyone who’s spent that much time online also knows that discussions need moderating, or any forum turns into a festering cesspool. Newspaper comments threads are actually surprisingly *mild* in this regard. Try being a woman talking about video games online and see what happens.
So for the younger generation, the problem isn’t that they don’t get to hear alternative views. It’s that they hear them all the time, whether they want to or not, and that they would like some way of getting them to just SHUT THE FUCK UP for a little while, in some situations and at some times. When they ask for safe spaces, and no platform for bigots, and for trigger warnings, what they’re saying is “I spend my life having men who want me dead send me unsolicited videos of themselves ejaculating onto photos of me, because I said a thing about a video game. Can I please have a little bit of not-that? Just for a change?”
The free-speech absolutism is an absolutely right and proper response to repression — and we need those people around as an immune system, to warn us if that ever starts happening again. But likewise the trigger-warning, no-platform side is an entirely right and proper response to constant, unending, exposure to toxic ideas.
No doubt in twenty years there will be a whole new set of problems to deal with, and the trigger warning people will be screaming about the kids of today with their insisting (for what are good and adequate reasons at the time) that all conversations have to be in Mandarin and speaking English is racist. I promise I’ll try to understand them, too, like I try to understand both sides of the current row. I suspect I’ll fail, though…
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