Free speech, Claire Fox says, means allowing people to hold and express racist, sexist and homophobic views. It means not clamouring for an apology every time an institution falls foul of mollycoddling its “customers”. It means public figures being allowed to stay silent on public issues as well as expressing (a wide range of) views about them. It means people can wear a black face, Native American headdresses, or make culturally stereotypical references. Or, in Fox’s words, “being a Gamergate supporter or being infamous for scathing, sharp-tongued and unapologetic attacks on PC feminists, even calling them bullies, are perfectly legitimate political opinions”. Ouch.
Is it this simple? Of course not. This book, as Fox readily admits, is about a paradox. We are a society developing away from discrimination and towards understanding privilege more than at any other time in history. We have more possibilities for people to debate and disturb new ideas than ever before. Yet, in our legitimate fight against prejudice and bigotry, we have also been swept along on a tide of linguistic narrowing, victimhood, and extreme sensitivity to mental trauma (defined, crucially, by the receiver).
We have a network of communication that allows us to discuss vital social and global issues instantaneously – and it is more often than not used to silence or harass. Opinions that are not fashionable can get you sacked. But while we can often agree on what isn’t acceptable – some opinions are ill-informed, illogical, or abusive – this is not a clear line. Narrowing the goalposts of what is acceptable means almost everyone at some time will speak or write out of turn. Should they apologise? Grovel? Resign? Does this affect their ability to do their job, to teach?
Free speech does not mean everyone’s opinion is equally important. But it does mean offence will happen as a by-product of uncomfortable ideas. Fox argues that we have bred a narcissistic generation completely unaccustomed to solving problems on their own and who have been brought up to think that their self-esteem and right to protection from mental trauma is more important than almost anything else. She cites examples of students weeping and demanding consequences as a result of hearing views they find offensive, and lays blame squarely at the previous generation’s door for their part in raising Generation Snowflake.
I began by reading this book like an errant teenager with a borrowed soft-porn novel. It seemed deliciously rebellious to consider that students worried about the Rhodes statue should simply “grow up, sod off and realise that airbrushing history is the not the way smart young people should react to complicated events of the past”.
But I applauded its sound logic, which calls out the mollycoddling of young people that has led to the near criminalisation of the offence of causing psychological harm. Something feels wrong when students are demanding “safe spaces” and shutting down debates because of the “threat” of words and views.
This a brave book, and Fox shows she has intellectual balls in spades by dealing with international terrorism as well as Twitter witch-hunts, the government’s anti-bullying campaign as well as feminist in-fighting. She calls for an end to “hounding”, astutely exploring the idea that we are all just endlessly turning the intellectual tables on each other by claiming victimhood and competing for attention by using what’s convenient and omitting what isn’t. This, she asserts, “weakens the case for arguments based on political principles, objective analysis and philosophical insights”.
Particularly brave is the criticism of teachers, parents and media who have emphasised the lifelong harm that bullying can do to children and their relentless focus on self-esteem, which will be unpopular to the point of sacrilege with some.
But the final chapter – a letter full of advice – is simple and touching, and a lovely contrast to the cynicism of the first two. In it, Fox says: “develop your own philosophy of freedom . . . one that disentangles radicalism and progressive fights for equality and justice.”
If you’re someone prepared to confront your own world view at every turn, you’ll enjoy this book. If not, you might find it difficult reading.