ANDREW DOYLE: Your right to think and act freely is CANCELLED

Writer and comedian Andrew Doyle

Writer and comedian Andrew Doyle

We need to check your thinking. These chilling words are taken not from a dystopian novel or some totalitarian regime, but were rather those of a British police officer speaking to businessman Harry Miller.

Miller was contacted following a complaint by an offended party about a poem he shared on social media which was deemed transphobic. The officer explained that, although not illegal, this nevertheless qualified as a ‘non-crime hate incident’.

Why, Miller asked, was the unnamed complainant described as a ‘victim’ if no crime had been committed? More to the point, why was he being investigated at all?

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To which came that ominous response: ‘We need to check your thinking.’

Over the past decade, many people have detected a pattern of minor changes in our culture — at odds with our hard-won rights to personal autonomy. Miller’s case is not an isolated affair. Between 2014 and 2019, almost 120,000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’ were recorded by police forces in England and Wales, leaving a substantial number of us with a gnawing sense that something is amiss. We are no longer on secure ground; the tremors are too persistent.

A sea change has taken place in the public’s attitude to free expression and its key function in a liberal society. The principle of free speech is being casually disregarded for the sake of a supposed higher priority, namely a new identity-based concept of ‘social justice’.

This has brought with it a mistrust of unfettered speech, and appeals for greater intervention from the State. We are left stranded on unfamiliar terrain, facing that confusing and rare phenomenon: the well-intentioned authoritarian.

How are we to respond when the people who wish to deprive us of our rights sincerely believe they are doing so for our own good?

Defenders of free speech like me are often accused of indulging in the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy. The occasional instance of state over-reach, we are told, is hardly cause for alarm. Yet the idea that citizens of the UK might be investigated for ‘non-crime’ was unimaginable 20 years ago.

Andrew Doyle said: 'Over the past decade, many people have detected a pattern of minor changes in our culture — at odds with our hard-won rights to personal autonomy'

Andrew Doyle said: 'Over the past decade, many people have detected a pattern of minor changes in our culture — at odds with our hard-won rights to personal autonomy'

I am not suggesting we are freewheeling towards a future of gulags and show trials, but there exists a degree of general apathy that bodes ill for the preservation of our fundamental liberties.

Free speech is a privilege denied to the overwhelming majority of societies in human history. Our civilisation is abnormal, almost miraculous, in its dedication to this estimable principle.

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But free speech dies when the populace grows complacent. Opposition to it never goes away. It must be defended anew in each successive generation.

Without free speech, no other liberties exist. It is the marrow of democracy — detested by tyrants because it empowers their captive subjects, and mistrusted by puritans because it is the wellspring of subversion.

Unless we are able to speak our minds, we cannot even begin to make sense of the world.

As the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes noted, the Greeks had one word, ‘logos’, for both speech and reason. ‘Not that they thought there was no speech without reason, but no reasoning without speech.’ Contrast this wise thought with a crazy, irrational world in which:

'Writer J. K. Rowling has been subjected to an unrelenting campaign for her concerns that self-identification of gender might compromise women-only spaces such as domestic violence refuge centres,' said Andrew Doyle

'Writer J. K. Rowling has been subjected to an unrelenting campaign for her concerns that self-identification of gender might compromise women-only spaces such as domestic violence refuge centres,' said Andrew Doyle

Asda supermarket worker Brian Leach was fired after sharing a video online by the comedian Billy Connolly that mocked Islamist suicide bombers. Even though the source of the offending excerpt was a DVD sold by the company that employed him. He was reinstated following an outcry. Veteran television presenter Alastair Stewart was forced to resign after tweeting a quotation from Shakespeare which included the phrase ‘angry ape’. This was misinterpreted as racist because he was replying to a black Twitter user, even though it was a phrase he had previously used in conversation with white people. Kate Scottow was arrested in front of her children, confined to a cell for seven hours and convicted under the Communications Act. Her crime? Insulting and mis-gendering a trans person on Twitter, and she was cleared on appeal.

When I was a child, it was the Right-leaning tabloids that would commonly call for censorship of TV, film and the arts. Today this is predominately a feature of those who identify as being on the Left. Similarly, the most vocal opposition to censorship today now comes from Right-wing commentators — which has led to any discussion about free speech becoming freighted with unfounded suspicions of political extremism.

Concerns over censorship are dismissed as a ruse of the far-Right to spread hatred.

It is even said that those who argue in favour of free speech simply do not care about minorities, or even wish to return to a time when casual racism, homophobia and sexism were ubiquitous.

Andrew Doyle said: 'We need to check your thinking. These chilling words are taken not from a dystopian novel or some totalitarian regime, but were rather those of a British police officer speaking to businessman Harry Miller'

Andrew Doyle said: 'We need to check your thinking. These chilling words are taken not from a dystopian novel or some totalitarian regime, but were rather those of a British police officer speaking to businessman Harry Miller'

But free speech transcends notions of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ because all forms of political discourse depend upon it. Yes, unpleasant people may use it to advance reactionary ideas, but the human right that enables them to do so is precisely the same right that allows those of us who disagree to counter them.

It is a grave error to assume that defending another person’s right to speech amounts to approval of what that person is saying.

There is no contradiction in holding individuals in contempt for their repugnant views and simultaneously defending their right to express them. Unfortunately, the fallacy of ‘guilt by association’ pervades much of today’s discourse, with the result most people would rather stay out of such discussions altogether than risk being yoked to disreputable characters.

This is why those of us who believe in free speech have a duty to be clear that we do not protect controversial speech for its content, but rather the principle it represents.

The dangers of empowering the State to determine the limitations of expression far outweigh the risk of small groups of extremists attempting to proselytise.

Last year, British journalist Helen Lewis was hired by a company named Ubisoft to record dialogue for one of its video games. But her voice was erased and an apology issued after the company was alerted to Lewis’s writings on gender identity — nuanced and compassionate, but not wholly in line with current trends.

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