I like to think that most people would want to live in a world in which individuals are free from the persecution of others, and live in peace. I like to think that freedom of expression is a tool for creativity out of which beautiful art, music, literature, and personal development are encouraged. I like to think that individuals wish to use freedom of expression for the advancement of science, technology, and the seeking of the greater truths. Sadly, it appears that instead of these things, freedom of expression is a tool used as an excuse for quite the opposite behaviours.
In recent days, weeks, and months, one can perceive an enormous surge in groups for whom freedom of expression has been wielded as a weapon in order to advance the march towards a puritanical, anti-diversity, dogmatic pursuit of racial, sexual, and personal (small ‘c’) conservatism. In the complete abandonment of the scientific rationality that our ancestors wrestled from the grips of the Churches, we have stumbled drunkenly towards an era in which the phrase, ‘I don’t want to believe that and therefore I am right,’ appears to be an unstoppable force. We can observe it when our doctors and scientists recommend the simple act of wearing a face mask to stop the spread of a global pandemic are belittled, and crowds of angry people wilfully ignore them whilst picking up their latest capitalist necessities. We see it in the scorn meted out whenever global warming is brought up in conversation, and vast corporations do all in their power to denounce what is almost universally accepted as fact by the scientific community. And we see it in a million everyday acts that ignore the injustices imposed upon downtrodden communities across our planet that we are relentlessly assured our capitalism machinery will one day lift out of poverty and oppression, in spite of never actually doing so.
But there is an irony in the latest wave of conservative (again, small ‘c’) rhetoric about freedom of expression that makess the current crop of foaming-at-the-mouth truth-avoiders look so deliciously silly. To explore this, I will refer to the open letter signed by a number of high-profile individuals, including JK Rowling, Salmond Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood. There is no need here to discuss the strange beliefs of some of these individuals that have led them to endorsing the message of this letter. That is for another article. But the nature of the letter itself is what will be called into question.
The letter suggests that, ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.’ It goes on to suggest that ‘cancel culture’ is obliterating creativity and making content-creators more risk-averse. It is a scathing indictment of those who do not agree with the viewpoints and opinions of those who have undersigned it. But therein lies a colossal irony that they appear to have missed.
Whilst freedom of expression is a concept that we should strive for, in no way does this suggest that individuals are required to agree. Opinions are not protected, and nowhere does it say that they must be listened to. There is no provision to force individuals to listen to something with which they don’t agree, and there is no prerequisite that content must be consumed or transmitted. Freedom of expression works both ways; you are free to air your opinion, but that does not mean that anybody has to listen to it, agree with it, package it up and ship it for resale. If you wish to deify your own belief system, you simply cannot expect that others will promote it. You are on your own.
If you find yourself at the receiving end of the so-called ‘cancel-culture’, that is simply freedom of expression working both ways. If you find your controversial opinions ignored, that is sad for you, but it is simply the system that you are desperately trying to skew in your own favour working on its own. Your words and beliefs are not guaranteed protection, or a platform for distribution, and you at the whim of the prevailing zeitgeist just like everybody else. If you find your beliefs making you an outsider, then that is the very process of the freedom of expression that you claim to hold dear.
In a world where we are closer than ever to our fellow human beings thanks to the wonders of technology that the scientists who are currently under threat have created, every opinion and belief now has a platform on which to be shared. But this does not mean that people must automatically listen. Fortunately, diversity, equality, and difference, are all things that the vast majority now celebrate. If you wish to fight against that, you have your mountain from which to shout. But should people move out of the range of your voice, you must realise that this is simply their method of asserting their own freedom of expression.