Every generation develops its own taboos, subjects that simply do not get discussed, as they are deemed too controversial or offensive to public order. Those people who do attempt to talk about them can find themselves both criticised and ostracised.
At present we can see this in the rise of political correctness at universities, with “no platform” policies towards anyone raising a range of topics. “Safe space” has become, not a place for rational and moderate debate on sensitive subjects, but for closing it down altogether. Just under two thirds of university student unions in the United Kingdom have censored the free expression of ideas on campus, including wholly lawful issues, such as not being in favour of abortion. Even more worryingly about a quarter of university administrations have joined in this process of banning lawful comment on subjects which they consider might offend the principles of political correctness that they have embraced.
But this trend is not confined to places of learning. At a national political level it is becoming harder to articulate views which depart from current norms. It is a strange irony that, as we strive to develop what we pride ourselves may be a pluralist and tolerant multicultural society, we end up imposing new orthodoxies in substitution for the old. Thus those who espouse Christian beliefs and ethics whilst being perfectly tolerant of those who disagree with them, find themselves “tolerated”, but sometimes unable to publicly promote their point of view. A few years ago I had a street preacher constituent threatened with prosecution under the Public Order Act for saying that if people did not repent and turn to God they were at risk of going to hell. The Police told him that the mention of the “risk of going to hell” was abusive and threatening! Fortunately wiser counsel prevailed and the case was dropped. But it illustrated for me the risk of how laws thoughtlessly applied can have a chilling effect on expressions of deeply held personal opinion that the individual concerned clearly thought was of importance in being communicated to others.
Twenty years in Parliament has also taught me that attempts at avoiding difficult subjects, for the sake of mitigating controversy or giving offence, are often counterproductive. One of the problems with modern politics is that it has become increasingly presentational, so that the messaging becomes an end in itself, a form of advertising that seeks to ingratiate itself with its audience and avoid confrontation. As a result the proper discussion of difficult subjects never takes place, because such debates are not seen as the generator of short term electoral support. This has happened consistently, for example, over immigration where mainstream politicians have refused to engage with the public over their concerns, even only to challenge or refute them. As a result the issue has been allowed to develop without a reasoned examination of the underlying drivers. The consequence could be clearly seen in the way immigration became of great importance during the EU referendum campaign and by the manner in which the Remain campaign was then incapable of responding to its emergence.
Yet one of the best features of our human condition should be our ability to communicate and exchange ideas. It is what has taken us in ten thousand years from living in caves to our present state of advancement. This has been underpinned by our ability to moderate each other's views by open debate and it is those societies where this has happened the most which have been at the forefront of this process. The extraordinary explosion of information exchange now possible through the internet is accelerating this exponentially. It highlights the counter productiveness of trying to restrict or censor the free exchange information and opinion. Yet even today in Britain there are attempts at doing this, often by those who claim to support freedom of expression.
This is not to say that there should be a free for all. There are sound reasons for many of our existing laws in this area. We must, of necessity, maintain laws on contempt of court to allow jury trials to proceed without hindrance and ensure fairness in court proceedings. I have no difficulty with libel laws which allow a person to get redress through the courts for serious damage to their reputation. And incitement to violence or irrational hatred on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation is plainly needed. But we should always be very wary of any extensions of restrictions on freedom of speech. Recent suggestions that expressions of non-violent extremism should be criminalised are likely to encourage the development of extreme views and not reduce their occurrence. A robust willingness to challenge views with which one profoundly disagrees is much more likely to succeed in the long term.
So there is a great need today for those who see freedom of expression a key to successful human societies to speak out for what we believe in. It was one of my greatest pleasures as an MP that when we successfully challenged the original draft of the legislation on incitement to religious hatred so as to remove “insulting words” from the text, it brought together humanists, persons of different faiths and writers and comics in alliance. We will doubtless need more of this co-operation as well as common sense as we continue to face challenges in this area in future.
This article first appeared in the Index on Censorship Magazine, Spring 2017 Edition.