Owen Jones blames ‘the right’ for abusing free speech. I’m not convinced it’s a left/right problem

Owen Jones, yesterday, wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian arguing that the right are abusing free speech. His article was prompted by the inclusion on Good Morning Britain of a so-called ‘gay cure’ therapist. Jones’ argued that the inclusion on the programme at all lent a legitimisation to the view. From this, he goes on to argue that the right – in general – seek to abuse free speech. You can read the whole piece here.

First, let me address the issue that prompted the piece. I share the view of Living Out on the issue of ‘gay cure’ or ‘gay conversion’ therapy. They have written a helpful article that is worth reading in full (see here). The key statement is this:

We believe that attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation sends a number of potentially damaging messages. It sets people up for guilt and failure, and can be a distraction from more worthwhile goals. Of course, people of all sexual orientations may benefit from counselling and psychotherapy for all sorts of other reasons. Lots of us carry emotional baggage. Gay or same-sex attracted people are no different in this respect. But our sexual orientation is not a sign that we need counselling more than anyone else. We therefore believe that counselling or psychotherapy will be helpful when it aims at helping people towards self-acceptance and good psychological and emotional health in general, and not on changing someone’s sexual orientation. We hope that this makes it clear that Living Out does not support the idea of counselling or psychotherapy which has that goal.

On a similar note, it was interesting to read Rosaria Butterfield’s explanation of why she signed the Nashville Statement on human sexuality (which you can read in full here). She made the following comment:

Twenty years ago, I lived as a lesbian. I delighted in my lover, our home on one of the Finger Lakes, our Golden Retrievers, and our careers. When Christ claimed me for His own, I did not stop feeling like a lesbian. I did not fall out of love with women. I was not converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief.

It is notable, as a woman now in a heterosexual marriage, she continues to discourage ‘usage of the term “gay Christian”, and she disputes “conversion therapy”’. As such, and to be categorically clear, I do not agree with ‘gay cures’ or ‘gay conversion’ therapy.

This, however, was not really the reason for this post. I wanted to address more directly Jones’ comments about free speech. It bears saying that I am not of the right and therefore Jones’ comments about the right abusing free speech really don’t apply to me. But his article does seem to err in several places.

Before we address those areas, I want to point out where I agree with Jones. He states:

I share the Church of England’s view that “gay cure” abusive procedures should be banned in Britain. I am not proposing, however, that Davidson [the ‘gay cure’ therapist on GMB] should be arrested or incarcerated for his reprehensible views. He should remain free to express them wherever he chooses: in his home, in a pub, standing on a soapbox in the street, distributing his own vile leaflets. That does not mean he should be granted a platform by broadcasters to disseminate his harmful bile. Being provided with a platform is not the same thing as free speech, however much it is falsely and disingenuously portrayed as such. If someone refuses to lend you a megaphone, they are not infringing your right to say what you believe: they are simply not offering you their own resources to amplify your views to a broader audience. The millions of people who never appear on TV or radio and are never provided with newspaper space to promote their views are not having their right to free speech undermined or attacked.

I do agree with his point here. To not be given a platform is not an infringement of free speech per se. What it may be, however, is an infringement of open enquiry. It leaves one open to the charge of limiting the terms of debate by only including those positions that lead to conclusions you are prepared to tolerate. By definition, this stifles debate, discussion and research. To ‘no platform’ certain views is to say they are beyond discussion. It may also be a infringement of commitments by media outlets, academic institutions and others to balance and/or academic rigour. Again, if certain views are deemed unexpressable or unthinkable, this necessarily limits the scope of any debate, discussion or academic research.

Let me give one potentially incendiary example. I don’t bring it up to be inflammatory. I point it out to show how refusing to allow certain positions because the conclusions are politically problematic causes problems for both sides of a discussion.

Like it or not, there are significant health risks associated with the practice of much homosexual sexual behaviour that are unique to homosexual people. However, this has been deemed politically unsayable and is often suppressed in any discussion about homosexuality. Anybody who dares to raise such points are quickly shut down and pilloried. Whilst some may want to use such facts and figures to outlaw the practice of homosexuality, others merely want to address the resulting problems. Of course, it is impossible to help homosexual people with the medical consequences of their behaviour if we are not even allowed to discuss that there are disproportionately high numbers of homosexuals facing specific medical issues. It makes it impossible to research measures that would prevent, or resolve, these problems when the conclusion is deemed unsayable and therefore a point to be entirely shut out of debate. If certain conclusions are deemed unpalatable, thus some facts deemed inconvenient and inadmissible because they tend to lead to those conclusions, we can surely see it will lead us to faulty conclusions that are based on our predetermined assumptions.

But to come back to Jones’ article, he gives two examples of where the right do not subscribe to free speech. In one, he argues:

When the journalist Afua Hirsch denounced Britain’s racist past and suggested Admiral Nelson’s support for slavery raised questions about whether his statue should remain, the rightwing self-professed “free speech” brigade did not rush to her defence. Quite the contrary: they frothed with outrage.

Interestingly, however, I don’t recall anybody arguing she could not say such things. I believe the argument was that we shouldn’t white-wash our history by pulling down statues of former heroes who, as will inevitably happen, did not wholly subscribe to modern 21st century social mores. The issue wasn’t that she said such things or voiced that opinion. Whether they were ‘outraged’ or not, is neither here nor there either (free speech surely extends to the right to express outrage?) They did not say she couldn’t say such things, they said we shouldn’t do such things. They were, as free speech permits, simply disagreeing with her position using their words.

Again, Jones argues that the same issue is prevalent among Brexiteers. He states:

Rightwing Brexiteers are continually offended and enraged by critics – scrutineers, even – of the Tories’ Brexit approach, smearing them as “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”. Any attempt to scrutinise privilege – whether it be that granted by class, race, gender or sexuality – is greeted with paroxysms of fury by rightwing, well-heeled, white, straight male commentators who find the notion that they have been the lifelong beneficiaries of odds stacked in their favour as almost unbearably offensive. Today’s populist right is built on offence, on the twisted idea that the struggles of minorities and women for equality insults and attacks those who are white, male and straight.

Of course, there are significant numbers of Leftwing Brexiteers (like me) who – whilst perhaps not wanting to use those words – have sympathy with the sentiment. The issue is NOT that Remainers want to scrutinise privilege (though they often handily fail to scrutinise the inherent privilege of rich, predominantly white, Western European countries bandying together at the expense of the rest of the world). The issue is not what they say, it is not their scrutiny of Brexit (which is entirely reasonable), it is their active opposition to a decisive vote by the people who elected them to power. The things they say are not the problem, it is their active undermining of the will of the people as expressed in the EU referendum – such as insistence we have another referendum and the endless stalling tactics to stop us actually leaving the EU – that so exercise Brexiteers. This is not a matter of free speech; nobody minds their scrutiny of the plans. That is, indeed, what an opposition is there for – it is their actions that are actively seeking to undermine the democratic will of the people.

The reality is that the issue of free speech is not, in point of fact, one on which ‘the left’ act benignly while ‘the right’ abuse the principle. It is closer to the truth that progressive liberals and centrists scream offence and close down debate whilst those on the traditional left and traditional right are much more relaxed about the right to disagree.

It is Jones, for example, who takes issue with the following:

Only this week Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson spoke of students who were uncomfortable “because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality”. Her job, she said, “isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable.” Apparently if students “don’t like his views”, they should simply “challenge them, engage with them”.

But if we are never challenged in our views, because all of them have been deemed ‘safe zones’ which might trigger offence, how will we ever progress? It seems especially regressive to disallow any scrutiny of your person, character or deeply held beliefs. This labours under the presumption that we are all perfect and none of us should ever change. This is the position of so-called progressives: a position that is inherently regressive (or, at least, unmoving and thus progressing nowhere).

It is interesting, for example, that nobody seems to have any problem saying the most offensive things to Christian people. Nobody – left or right – minds attacking my Christian faith. Nobody concerns themselves that I might find it offensive, or be forced to change my deeply held commitments which have affected just about every part of my life, thanks to their searing clarity in telling me to ‘F*** off’ in the Open Air or telling me that my beliefs are ‘b******s’ or, the mildly less offensive, ‘load of rubbish’.

Truth be told, people should be allowed to say such things if they want. My potential offence should not determine their right to speak. Nor should the depth of my commitment determine whether I might be challenged in my beliefs/assumptions/views or what have you. Just because I’ve dedicated my life to it, and I’ve formed my identity based upon it, doesn’t mean people can’t tell me I’m wrong. It’d be nice if they were more polite about it but we can’t legislate for politeness.

We can all agree that it would be nice if people were more polite and, at the very least, attempted to take account of people’s feelings when they speak. But, the feelings of the hearer cannot determine the right of the speaker. That somebody might get upset by what we say shouldn’t determine our right to say it. That should be as true for somebody choosing to attack my deeply held Christian beliefs as it is for somebody else wishing to critique a gay person’s sense of identity or someone wishing to research a particular area of interest. It is this obsession with closing down debate, limiting discussion and closing off certain conclusions that ultimately stop any progress at all. How can you call yourself ‘progressive’ if you are refusing to allow yourself to make any progress because you’ve hedged yourself off from any criticism of your person?

I don’t think Owen Jones is correct in asserting that this is a problem of the right. I’m not convinced it’s primarily a problem of the left either. I think it is specifically a problem of progressive liberal centrism. It’s also possible there are people on both sides that do it and both sides that hate it. In either case, it would be great if we just stopped insisting that certain things were unsayable and unthinkable. One can hardly progress as a progressive otherwise.